Youth and exploration through the lens

  • 2011-08-17
  • Interview by Matt Garrick, translated by Neringa Greiciute

Antanas Sutkus, arguably Lithuania’s leading living photographer, holds quintessential images of his countrymen within his body of work. Having received over 100 international awards, engaged in around 120 one-man exhibitions abroad, and published 20 photography editions, the art of Sutkus has captivated generations. His photograph of Vladimir Lenin’s statue being wrenched from its foundations, in Vilnius in 1991, depicted the moment the Soviet era crumbled. His shots of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, meandering along the stark sands of Nida, became the defining images of Sartre’s theory of existentialism. His close-up portraits of village children living under the thumb of communism captured his own people’s plight: complex narratives, conveyed by his concentrated eye and camera. And his fan-base spreads worldwide. One of his photos was purchased last year by singer Sir Elton John. Today, at age 72, Sutkus relishes retirement from taking photos. Sitting back in his garden, which overlooks a vista of communist era cinderblock buildings, he reflected over a life of artistry, laughter, and the Lithuanian legacy. Luckily, The Baltic Times was there to capture it.

Can you pick a favorite of your own pictures, and explain to us how it best describes Lithuania?
It’s hard. It won’t be one, but usually the best picture, the favorite one, is the one I haven’t taken yet. Usually each period has its own picture. It seems to select itself: the picture which best reflects the exhibition I am making. For example, the photograph of the Marathon [taken in Vilnius, 1959: one of which was recently purchased by Elton John], The Pioneer [1962], the ones of Sartre [in 1965]. These are some of the most popular ones, the most chosen. I think my photograph from 1991 best represents Lithuania: the shot where they took away the Lenin sculpture. It is representative of the era, the new independence.

How well do you remember that day? And do you recall the mood at the time?
I remember it very well. I was waiting, and didn’t know what would happen. It was on August 23. Well, we were all waiting for the results of the Soviet putsch [trying to return Lithuania to the USSR]. Nobody knew how it would turn out. If the putsch was successful, it would have been terrible because all the tanks would have come, and they would have arrested all the people. But out of the security department, the smoke was rising and all the papers were being burnt. And so, this gave a sign that the putsch would probably fail. The people, the crowds, were holding each other back from going and attacking the security building. And then the results were announced that the putsch had lost. And so, the crane came and took away the sculpture, straight away.

And you were there with your camera, ready for it.
I was there, with my big camera, just waiting around, taking some portrait pictures. I had a contract with a French company at the time, but I was always just taking pictures for myself. And then this picture came out. It was really famous. It went to many foreign countries. Banks were decorated with it. It was even used for a jeans advertisement in Scandinavia. Because, after Lenin was gone, and after the Soviets left, we were allowed to start wearing jeans. 

In what period of your life do you believe you made the best pictures?
The best pictures I think I took were between the ages of 25 and 30. For example, a series I made in a small village, named Dzukija, which was taken over just five days. It’s only one street, and I made 12 pictures.

How did you end up in this small village, this lone street?
I went there, to this village, to take pictures of some folk singers. But when I got there, there was a very aggressive dog. He was barking a lot, and the women, the other people with me, couldn’t get out of the car. But I went and began barking at it. And it scared him away [laughs]. He didn’t show up again for the whole day. And this made such a huge impression on the village people that they took me as one of their own. They said, “We saw people who can speak foreign languages, but never one who was understood so well by a dog.” And I kind of made friends with these villagers.

One thing which is striking about your photos is how natural your subjects are. How did you make such a connection with them?
Probably the most important thing about photography is to find a connection with people. If you don’t find this special feeling together, you won’t be able to make good pictures, good portraits. You have to talk. You have to be with these people, to feel them. And that’s what happened with these village people.

A major historical figure you have spent time with was French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. How did this come about?
You might call it an accident that I was invited to take pictures of Sartre. But not completely an accident… I had already read all the books written by him. When I was a child, I was sick with tuberculosis, and the only task I had was to read books. And I read many authors, and one of them was Sartre. He was one of the best. And so, I was quite prepared for our encounter. My friend gave me an invitation. And at the time I also worked on a magazine, called Literatura ir Menas [Literature and Art]. But it didn’t really matter what you worked for in those days. It was all your interests, and people you knew that really influenced your life. And with Sartre, we talked together, a lot, and discussed things. The translator there was Simone de Beauvoir, one of his great loves. And she was also a KGB agent for the USSR.

Much of your work is in black and white. Was there a photographer who most inspired your styles?
It wasn’t really a photographer who inspired me, or photography, because in those times we didn’t have any access or the possibility to see photo pictures. But it was literature and the theater, films, paintings, sculptures. These inspired me the most. I would go and see performances in theaters, or buy some records abroad and listen to them. This was in the Soviet times.

Is there anything you miss from Soviet times?
Yes. But love and youth cannot be Soviet. Or capitalist, for that matter. What you really miss is being young in these times, and exploring things. I even think that the regime nowadays, which is dictated by economics, is framing us even more so than back then. And when I say I miss those times, the past period, I don’t mean I miss the structure, the Soviet regime. Just the life that we used to live, being young.

A great photo of yours from this period features two old ladies carrying a Christmas tree past the Vilnius library steps, in the middle of a snowy winter. Is there a story behind this?
In these times it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas. But still, many people were doing it in secret. Actually, you could only buy real Christmas trees after Christmas, just before New Year. Because New Year’s was the celebration day. But still, people were doing it. They would cover their windows with curtains and have their Christmas Eve and Christmas. But this picture was taken totally by accident. Most of my pictures were taken like that. I would just carry the camera with me, always. My dream was to have glasses which could give you the possibility that when you wink, it takes a picture. Then I wouldn’t have needed to carry around my camera. And I heard that the security departments, the secret police, they had this thing, but I haven’t seen it yet.

What do you think about the digitalization of photography?
Well, for press photography, it’s a big invention. Like computers, the Internet, everything. It is really a positive thing for press photography, because it has allowed them to transfer their pictures fast from the hot spots, which is very handy. Secondly, just for people to communicate, by pictures, it has allowed many to have digital cameras, and take photos all around. And so, they can blog about it or write using photographs in their diaries. Thirdly, for art… I doubt if it is a positive evolution.
Once I won first place in a contest, and was awarded a Canon camera. It made ten shots with one click. And as I began using it, I noticed, I started regressing in my portrait making, because I would just press once or twice and have over twenty pictures. But none of them were good, or worth it, because with my older camera I would set everything in the correct mode, and concentrate and wait for the moment, and then click. I would make three, five pictures, and one of them would certainly be good.

You once said, “The act of taking a photo is like sand digging when you are searching for gold […]. Sometimes you find a grain of gold in the first shovel, sometimes in the last. Sometimes all your efforts are in vain.” Do you still see it like this?
I am now preparing for exhibitions in Ecuador, and later in Brazil. I find myself searching through all my archives for pictures I have already made, and I will be showing pictures which were never published. So nowadays, I search through my archives instead, to find those pieces of gold, because I have retired from taking photos.

One of your most famous pictures is called Marathon (1959), a hauntingly romantic black and white image of a woman leaning from her balcony to watch a race down University Street in Vilnius. In 2010, one was bought by pop legend Elton John. How did this come about?
Well, first about the photo. I was living in a student house in those times, and the girl who was in the picture was my great passion. I was still young, twenty years old, and in good physical shape. And so, I was balancing over the balcony, as my friends held on to me with a belt, so I could lean in over the street. I couldn’t really balance for a long time so I could only take three photos, before my friends dragged me back in. As for Elton John: I had an exhibition in Paris, and there was an article about it published in a very serious photography magazine called Eyemazing. I was the first Lithuanian photographer to be represented in this magazine. And Elton John just happened to read it, and he saw this article. And he contacted the gallery in Paris which was representing my works. And so, that’s how he got it. When I found out he had bought it, I laughed. I was in the hospital that day, and in the evening I turned on my mobile phone, and I had seventeen missed calls. All from different journalists! Just at the moment when everybody found out that Elton John bought my picture, there was a sudden burst of interest. I was laughing about it - it showed how in our society, the big names are still so important. But it was a pleasant feeling, because I really like his songs, and I am glad that he likes my work also. It felt like an exchange. When the Victoria Albert Museum, in London, bought a collection of my works, nobody really paid it attention. It was not in the newspapers, nothing. But then when Elton John bought just one picture, it was a huge thing, and everyone paid attention. It showed that we have to improve on the ways photographers are managed.

In retirement, do you miss shooting photography?
I don’t miss it. I have a full room of negatives which I still have to deal with. I don’t miss whiskey, wine or cigarettes either. And we were smoking, the artists at the time, around three packs per day. But now I’ve quit. Also, I can’t miss photography too much, because I still live in it. Every minute. Though, I don’t know anymore about work life… life is very beautiful, but I don’t know if I want to sit here, in this garden, or to go and work in my studio.