Regulating Photography Clubs and The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography

The regulation of amateur photographic images in the Soviet Union was a perpetual concern for photography critics. The issue of amateur expertise was a central source of apprehension: small clubs were usually geographically distant from major cities, which meant that access to the necessary supplies were less frequent (it was not cameras that were in short supply, but rather paper and chemicals). Though, that which was available was not always desirable and played a role in stylistic and creative choices. For instance, Aleksandras Macijauskas admitted that the “unusual angles, diagonal perspective, and the grotesque-looking faces” of his subjects were because used an extra wide-angle lens.[1]  There were no other lenses available for him to purchase. More problematic for critics at the time, however, was that small groups lacked guidance, both technically and aesthetically. On their own, small clubs would be harmless, if misguided: but often small clubs would provide illustrations for the local press, pamphlets and factory wall newspapers. It was the dissemination of these unregulated (or poorly regulated) images that plagued critics and the editors at Sovetskoe foto.

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Aleksandras Macijauskas, In the Market, 1972

This was less of a problem for larger clubs, but club leadership remained a concern. In most clubs, a board elected by the members of the group adopted a charter that defined the shape of club life and outlined the “rights” of the participants (rules for club exhibitions, rules for the future election of board members, etc.). Clubs held periodic meetings, usually once weekly or twice monthly, in which members discussed images and participated in practical exercises. These meetings culminated in an annual or bi-annual exhibitions. Many clubs defined their exhibitions as a sort of “propaganda photography,” which provided an “aesthetic education” for an uneducated audience.[2] If a club was mismanaged, or allowed for “slipshod snapshots” to be included in club exhibitions, this incorrect propaganda would spread to other club members, the audience of the exhibition, etc. Similarly, in gathering like-minded individuals, large clubs had the potential to breed deviation from standard aesthetic conventions set by Sovetskoe foto and official photography publications. These fears were justifiable. For example: The art collective Vremia (Time) was founded by Kharkiv photo club members Jury Rupin and Evgeny Pavlov in 1971 and included Boris Mikhailov, Oleg Malevany, Gennady Tubalev, Aleksandr Suprun, Aleksandr Sitnichenko and Anatoly Makienko. Gunārs Binde and Jānis Gleizds, members of the Riga photo club produced experimental images that, at the time, would have been considered pornographic. Their descent, if you will, into experimental, unofficial and Sots art, was a direct result of their participation in amateur clubs.  Thus, the lack of official regulatory structures across the whole of the Soviet Union allowed for that which was most undesirable: the circulation of either deliberately or unintentionally anti-Soviet photographs.

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Boris Mikhailov, from the series Superimpositions, 1960-1970
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Preparing for the exhibition Amber Lands in Šiauliai. Aleksandras Macijauskas, 1971

In Lithuania, the only republic to organize a photography union outside of the Journalists’ Union, the LSSR Society of Art Photography, or FMD, was founded by professional photojournalists and amateur photographers in October 1969. This regulatory organization developed as a response to the unique political situation in Soviet Lithuania, in part due to Antanas Sniečkus’ cautious promotion of national culture. Yet, this organization in and of itself was quite different from what many critics desired because it removed photography from its own independent categorization (by 1969 the general consensus amongst photography theorists was that photography occupied its own classification outside both art and photojournalism) and instead placed it under the ostensible control of bureaucratic institutions that “viewed art photography as merely a genre of photojournalism.”[3] And yet, on the surface, this model proved remarkably effective at resolving the complications voiced by critics. The FMD “was the only institution in Soviet Lithuania that specialized in the production and distribution of photography, as well as photographic education” and its “activity encompassed the creative work of professional and amateur photographers.”[4] Professional members of the Society received benefits much like members of other artistic unions, including a stipend that allowed them to independently fund their work without commissions or contracts. Each photograph that “was to be made public” was first reviewed by the Art Council of the FMD before any further evaluation was considered by censors, journal editors, and so forth.[5]

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Announcement of the Lithuanian SSR Exhibition of Amateur Photographers, 1977

 

[1] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art photography (1969-1989): An Image Production Network,” Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press, 2011, 111.

[2] . V. Stigneev, Fototvorchestvo Rossii: Istoriia, razviti i sovremennoe sostoianie fotoliubitel’stva, Moskva: “Planeta,” 40.

[3] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art photography (1969-1989), 117.

[4] Ibid, 97.

[5] Ibid, 101.

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