The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography, Part 2

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography was a remarkable and unique development in the history of Soviet photography. Lithuania was the only republic that organized a union for photographers outside of the Union of Journalists, and was formed in 1969. Despite popular support amongst professional and amateur photographers in other republics, efforts at unionization never materialized.

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Romualdas Rakauskas, from the series Tenderness, 1962 – 1971

The charter of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography (FMD) is remarkably comprehensive, and reveals the level of professionalism and bureaucratic detail present in other union charters. Similarly, it directly addressed the major topics and problems that had been discussed in the journal Sovetskoe foto for over a decade, as to why unionization was an absolute necessity for professional and amateur photographers.

“The tasks of the Soviet of Photography of the Lithuanian SSR: a) to unite in a single organization of photographers all genres [of photography], both professionals and amateurs; educate their members…on the basis of Marxist aesthetics [and] to develop their artistic taste and abilities”[1]

The Society “directs the entirety of photo art in the Republic, renders creative, methodological and material assistance to its members.”

The Society “creates its own production sector…organizes a photographic library, creative and production studios and photo laboratories provided with all necessary equipment.”

“Members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have reached creative maturity and recognition, as well as persons who do not create photo works, but actively support and promote photo art – theorists, critics, historians, and persons who actively promote photo art. Candidate members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have not yet reached the artistic level of actual members. The society promotes their creative growth, and sends their work to All-Union and international exhibitions.”

Full membership included a number of perks, including funding to attend exhibitions, lectures and meetings organized by the FMD both in the Soviet Union and abroad.

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Antanas Sutkus, Young Doctor, 1970

What is so extraordinary about the FMD is that it controlled all levels of photographic production in the LSSR. It controlled the publication of its own books, albums, pamphlets and exhibitions. It completely controlled the circulation and censorship of its own images. In other republics, this was ostensibly the responsibility of a variety of state agencies, Glavlit (The General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press), for example, was responsible for approving images circulated in the press and their publication (though my research has revealed that state censors generally left photographers to their own devices anyway). In unionizing, Lithuanian photographers were technically a part of the republican government, BUT, as opposed to other republics, it was the only organization in which photographers themselves completely controlled exhibitions and published images and content about photography, rather than outside bureaucratic organs. In this respect, the FMD wielded enormous and almost autonomous power over the circulation of the images of its members. This was of course tempered by outside institutions, and if images were to be selected for publication or exhibition outside of Lithuania, they needed to conform to the standards of the organizers; the Ministry of Culture of the Lithuanian SSR or the Republican Council of Trade Unions could liquidate the Society at any time. Nevertheless, that the FMD was able to independently evaluate the social utility and aesthetic value of its members’ images is remarkable and a development that was largely supported by photographers and amateurs across the Soviet Union.

Despite discussing a photographer’s responsibility to uphold Marxist aesthetics, the term Socialist Realism is oddly absent from the document. While the drafting members of the charter mention aesthetic and creative education multiple times throughout the document, the absence of references to Socialist Realism is puzzling because its omission implies that photographers of the Society had no responsibility to conform to the only acceptable representational style in the Soviet Union. This is perhaps a stretch, but, given that professional and amateur photographers across the Soviet Union had spent the better part of the last decade forcefully declaring that photography was a Socialist Realist art form, to the deaf ears of the Ministry of Culture, that Socialist Realism is not included in the charter perhaps indicates that for Lithuanian photographers, this moniker was no longer necessary to prove the value of the medium once they achieved their goal of unionization.

[1] The Charter of the Lithuanian Society for Art Photography was published in Sovetskoe foto’s October issue in 1971, pp.30-1.

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