“Sutkus’ art has given a face to the people of Lithuania and their lives; he is the chronicler of their times.”
(excerpt from the introduction)
Steidl presents an extensive survey of Antanas Sutkus’ absorbing depictions of his native Lithuania, captured during the Soviet occupation.
A leading figure within the movement referred to as ‘The Lithuanian School of Photography’, Sutkus was born in 1939 in Kluoniškiai, a small, rural village in the heart of the country. Raised by strict Christian grandparents he adopted photography as a teenager, purchasing his first camera with money he made from digging peat.
It was the early 1950s, the formative years of the Soviet occupation, and he embarked on his photographic journey against the backdrop of a nation rapidly morphing under Moscow’s ever-tightening grip.
Like his fellow members of the Lithuanian School of Photography, Sutkus’ practice was rooted in a deep empathy that mirrored and was influenced by the humanist photographers who emerged in Western Europe following the First World War.
Yet, conversely, their own individual sensibilities notwithstanding, he and his compatriots shared an outlook and approach distinct from their western contemporaries, one shaped by the complex, cultural and socio-political context of their surroundings.
As to not alarm Moscow’s censors their visual language was, by necessity, often an Aesopian one. Subtle metaphors and symbolism were commonplace, yet in spite of this, much of Sutkus’ work remained unpublished. Much like his western humanist forebears, Sutkus invariably portrayed the quotidian. He sought to capture the reality of life in his homeland, in direct opposition to the quixotism of Socialist Realism.
Though thematically fairly consistent, Planet Lithuania demonstrates the full extent of his artistry, revealing a penetrative yet sensitive gaze to rival that of his significantly more celebrated contemporaries.
Dynamic black and white renderings, expertly composed, and imbued with movement and atmosphere that, on occasion, verge on the abstract. Portraits, forthright and absorbing, at times, melancholic, and candid moments of everyday life: children playing insouciantly; workers of all kinds, and young couples wrapped in each other’s arms, a subject he captures with a profound tenderness reminiscent of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic iterations.
Immortalized in delicate monochromatic hues, his images display a dexterous understanding of light and form, and a reflexivity that unites almost all great photography of this kind. His profound affection for his compatriots is palpable throughout, his images convey a deep benevolence, warmth, and respect.
Poetic yet vernacular, his perceptive eye transcribes the essence of a nation as it subsumed further and further into the Soviet hegemony; one so cut off from the western gaze, that, to those living outside of the ‘Iron Curtain’ it would have seemed like almost an entirely different world, yet one where the fundamental tenets of the human condition (those innate characteristics that unify us all) endure.
All images © Antanas Sutkus
Planet Lithuania is available now via Steidl