Vilnius

Photography icon: Antanas Sutkus

28 Feb 2020
The perfect photograph could possibly be described as one that not only looks good but that also uncovers a hidden and engaging story if you scratch away at its surface. A fine example of this increasingly rare breed is Antanas Sutkus’ image of a uniformed Soviet official and what appears to be a rebellious young man sitting one behind the other on an empty bus. What’s going on? Taken by Sutkus in 1972 (see p.3), the young man in question is in actual fact a helicopter pilot who’s just about to fly the photographer over the Lithuanian landscape for a book that he was working on at the time. The uniformed Soviet official it turns out was along for the ride to make sure that the pilot and his passenger didn’t literally get carried away with themselves and escape Lithuanian airspace to freedom in the West. Scratch away at the surface of this photograph and be thankful that after reading these words you can get on a plane and travel pretty much anywhere you like.
©Antanas Sutkus. J.P. Sartre in Lithuania. Nida, 1965

It’s no exaggeration to say that Antanas Sutkus, who turned 80 on May 27, 2019, is a giant among contemporary Lithuanian photographers. His work features among the permanent collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the statue of Jean-Paul Sartre that stands outside the National Library in Paris is based on a Sutkus photograph and his huge and deeply personal long-term project to photograph everyday life in Lithuania during the Soviet occupation stands among one of the most important visual archives of the 20th century. Sutkus was also the first artist to openly confront the Holocaust in Soviet-era Lithuania, starting a project to photograph its Lithuanian survivors at an unsanctioned Holocaust commemoration event at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas in 1988 when doing so was still a potentially dangerous thing to do, a project that grew over time and that eventually became the highly recommended book In Memoriam. 

If you like great photography and uncomfortable history, discovering Antanas Sutkus may well be one of the best things to happen during your visit to Lithuania. Leave the amber jewellery for somebody else to buy at the market stall and go and visit a bookshop instead. More information at www.antanassutkus.com.

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