FOTOKUNST AUS LETTLAND
from 02.07.1997 to 02.08.1997
Aigars Jansons, Gunars Binde, Andris Ozols, Arno Antums-Jansons, Stanislavs Graholskis, Vilnis Auzins, Aivis Smulders, Ina Sture, Martins Krumins, Janis Zigurs, Egons Spuris, Inta Ruka, Modris Rubenis, Arnis Balcus, Aivars Liepins, Astrida Meirane, Dainis Karkluvalks, Guntars Bajars
Latvian Photography (1830-1996)
Soon after the official introduction of photography in Paris in 1839 it was also introduced in Latvia. The year 1850 is considered the beginning of photography in Latvia, since the earliest daguerrotype in our possession dates to 1850.
The history of photography in Latvia may be divided into five periods: the 2nd half of the 19th century/ the first two decades of the 20th century until independence from Czarist Russia in 1919/ the period of Latvia's independence from 1919 until World War II/ the 50 years of Soviet occupation/ the time from achieving independence in 1991 to the present.
The Latvians, who speak a language related to Sanskrit, are proud of their ethnic heritage and cultural traditions which go back several millenia. During innumerable occupations - German, Polish, Danish, Swedish and - most destructive - Russian, a core of Latvian ethnic uniqueness survived and expressed itself in whatever way possible. One of these possibilities has been photography.
Period 1 is represented by daguerrotypes, ambrotypes and ferrotypes in the possession of the museum. They were made by travelling photographers, most of them of German nationality, some of whom established permanent studios in Riga. These photographs are excellent records and credible sources of information on the lifestyle of the middle class at the time. As anywhere else in the world, the possession of photographs was a matter of prestige and a luxury which the middle class could afford. An analysis of these pictures shows that the choice of subject matter, the composition, the technical possibilities and the marketing aspect was comparable to that of other European countries.
Period 2: The turn of the century marked the beginning of the genuinely "Latvian" photography when numerous Latvian photographers founded their own companies. About twenty photographers of the time left us a large number of pictures: a heritage which documents both local history and the progress of the medium of photography. One important personality is the photographer Martins Buclers, who already at the beginning of the century looked at photography in a wider cultural context. He underpinned his theories by their practical application, gathered around him people with a shared interest in photography and laid the foundation for the first Latvian photography association. He translated technical literature from numerous European languages into Latvian and published the first Lavian photographic journal STARI ("Rays") in 1906.
Period 3: The photographers during the period of Latvian independence until World War II deserve credit for the major documentary contribution to the preservation of Latvian culture. Photography became accessible to a large number of people, thus encouraging talented and individualistic personalities to pursue photography as an art. Avant-garde ideas (Constructivism, Surrealism) that were popular in the neighbouring countries did not fascinate the Latvian photographers, apart from a few who had lived abroad for some time (such as Carl Bauls). The development of photography as an art medium and the successful beginning of a photographic industry in Latvia were interrupted by World War II (thus e.g. the popular "Minox" camera was produced in the state-owned factory VEF in Riga since 1937).
Period 4 : We use the term "Socialist photography" for the period after the historic changes of 1940 and the loss of Latvian independence. Latvian photography during 50 years of Soviet occupation cannot be described in a few sentences. The photography of the 50s and 60s is unique with regard to the abundance and absurdity of its staging. The early years are represented by Janis Gleizds, Leonid Tugalev, Vilhelm Mihailovsky and Egon Spuris, each of them with his own individualistic style. Western aesthetic concepts penetrated the iron curtain only slowly and it was not until 1960 that Latvian photographers became aware of them. The Soviet regime, which always distrusted photography as a medium of self-realization that was difficult to control, originally prohibited all private photography. Later an attempt was made to control it through photography clubs. However, the result was the exact opposite: it stimulated the spirit of resistance and the talent of creative personalities. They used the seemingly innocuous symbols of "reality" defined by the government in order to communicate hidden messages, thus becoming actors in a THEATRE OF THE ARTS. The prescription of a formal canon caused the artists to trade motivation for necessity. Many remarkable works would not have been created without this challenge. In the mid-70s a group of young people working for the Ethnographic Open Air Museum in Riga used their permitted research to visit restricted areas of Latvia with the aim of documenting the "true achievements of Socialism". The photographs by Modris Rubenis, Vitauts Mihalovski, Vilnis Auzins, Ugis Niedre and others illustrate this new movement.
Latvian photographers who at first only challenged other clubs in the Soviet Union and usually won, gradually achieved the reputation of being the best photographers in the Soviet Union. The loosening of controls began in earnest when a loophole was discovered in the Iron Curtain in terms of an international organization named FIAP (Federation Internationale d'Art Photographique). Due to their by then prominent status in the Soviet Union, Latvian photographers were sent to international amateur exhibitions as representatives of the high cultural level of the Soviet Union.
The winning of prestigious awards such as the "Silver Bowl" of the French president Francois Mitterand blinded Moscow's eyes even more so that Moscow did not see the ethnic footprints which Latvian photographers left behind. Later, when the international recognition of Latvia's independence was at stake this was a critical issue. Actually it was a unique challenge for photography.
The 1980s brought along a wide variety of young photographers as well as the introduction of new styles and techniques. Of particular significance was the ethical attitude of the popular Latvian photographer Egon Spuris, who worked in a simplified style that had not been seen in Latvia before. This style was taken up and developed further by Andrejs Grants, Gvido Kajons and Inta Ruka.
At the end of the 80s Andrejs Grants, Valts Aivars Liepins, Raitis Purins, Uldis Briedis, Inta Ruka, Martins Zelmenis and many other Latvian photographers participated in international exhibitions. Together with Lithuanian and Estonian photographers they created the concept of "Baltic photography" in contrast to "Soviet photography". Talented photographers from other countries were likewise active in Latvia; we might mention especially Vilhelm Mihailovsky and Leonid Tugalev.
Period 5: And what about today? Any thematic restrictions have been lifted. Old challenges have evaporated and photographic material has become more easily accessible. Ideals are being questioned. Instead of political dangers there are now business groups. Serious new initiatives form only very slowly. There is now a general tendency to replace the kitsch sponsored by the Soviet Union with "modern" Western advertising kitsch. Photography thrives particularly in the form of photojournalism, but art photography is also very strongly represented. Just as in the West, photography as art does not offer a sufficient economic basis for one's livelihood, although more than twenty brilliant professional photographers create pictures of a high artistic standard that compete with paintings and works of graphic art.
There has recently been a tendency in photographic art to combine photograohs with graphic art and painting to a "media mix". Artists who represent this movement and have exhibited such works in the past two or three years are Ina Sture, Janis Zigurs, Martins Krumins, Artis Saulits-Koknevics, Uldis Balga, Ivars Avotins and Aldis Dublans. After the restoration of Latvia's independence new perspectives opened up for photographers. The Latvian Museum of Photography and the Association of Professional Latvian Photographers were founded. A large number of photographers participate in exhibitions and international projects, including activities sponsored by the Latvian National Commission of UNESCO.
Vilnis Auzins, Director of the Latvian Museum of Photography