Historical Distance

If you’ve ever been turned off by the photography part of my podcast about photography, give this episode a listen. It’s about not fitting in, being ahead of one’s time, and misjudging history.

Listen below or or read on for the transcript.

“The world of thoughts and feelings fits inside an area of three by four centimeters just as well as it does in meters of painting.”
–Vitas Luckus

The further away we get from a specific time, the harder it becomes to understand that time. This effect is called historical distance; and the ‘distance’ describes not just being removed from a time or a location, but from the ideologies and world views that shaped it.

When I first read about this, I was fascinated. Is it really so difficult to understand another time, even if we have historical records to understand the context and photos to see the moments?

There’s something counterintuitive about that, I admit: In hindsight, things usually become easier to understand. That’s because we take what we know about history and assemble it into a picture of what happened. Or we look at the pictures of that time and make sense of it by what’s frozen in the frame.

Images—no matter if they’re mental or physical ones—are seductive like that. They create the impression that there’s no historical distance worth speaking of. That the past is like an illustrated story with just one possible conclusion.

Let’s begin with the ending, then. Let’s start by saying that Lithuanian photographer Vitas Luckus died after jumping out of the window of his 5th floor apartment in the winter of 1987. That his wife found him in the snow.

Seconds earlier, Luckus had committed murder: There was a visitor at his place, and they had argument about his photography. Luckus stabbed the guy with a kitchen knife, only to realize that the visitor was a KGB agent. He chose death over punishment.

Nobody quite knows what caused him to snap, but it’s safe to say that Vitas Luckus and his work had never quite fit in. Maybe there was frustration, maybe provocation. What we do know is that he had been a rebel all his life, even though he lived in a repressive Soviet state.

His rebellion wasn’t so much political, it was rather a rebellion against convention itself. The photographer wanted to see the world differently, rattle the bars of normal life. It set him up for conflict, but it’s also what made his photography so unusual, and so great.

You’ve probably never seen any of his pictures. Never heard of the photographer and his peers. And neither had I, until a few weeks ago. Photography is so dominated by iconic figures that some never reach fame, no matter how great they are or once were. And it certainly didn’t help the Lithuanian photographers’ cause that they were tucked away behind the iron curtain.

I discovered a world that’s no longer hidden but largely overlooked. In the small Baltic country, they carved out their very own visual language. Heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, it was a rigid black and white reportage aesthetic: Photographers captured everyday life in Lithuania with technically perfect shots that had a sober formality to them.

Romualdas Rakauskas

Antanas Miežanskas

Antanas Sutkus

The formality of this ‘Lithuanian School’ wasn’t just driven by aesthetics, though. There was a political component to it as well: Under strict control from Moscow, Lithuanian photographers—like those other states—were under pressure to show life in the Soviet Union in a good light.

That means this strict formality of the Lithuanian school I discovered was really a corset: It defined strict boundaries within which photographers could artistically express themselves.

Vitas Luckus wasn’t having it. Just like he challenged convention, he challenged the notion of what photography should do. For him, it wasn’t just about capturing what was there like a reporter and other photographers of his time did. He saw photography as a medium for intense creative expression, for visualizing his unconventional way of looking at the world.

That’s why his photos were positively weird, using strange angles and subjects. Some shots are chaotic. Many involve nudes. And some are made up of vintage photos that he cut apart and reassembled. He took the Lithuanian school and built on top of it, creating what the Russian writer Anri Vartanov called “lyrical reportage”. The photos use a certain quirkiness to point out that life isn’t all systemic and orderly, no matter what the government makes you believe.

Luckus once wrote that “The camera allows me to reflect my feelings.” And he had lots of those: According to the people who knew him, he was an intense human being. Driven by a mad desire to work, he sometimes didn’t sleep for days, spending nights in his darkroom developing photos. He was a passionate lover, according to his wife Tatjana and the letters he wrote to her. He spontaneously traveled much of the Soviet Union, kept a lion cub as a pet, live the wild life. Driven. By a desire to leave behind normalcy. And as a friend put it, “always overwhelmed by emotion”.

That also made him impulsive, a heavy drinker, immune to authority. His first brush with the KGB came when he took an illegal leave from his military service to see a photo exhibition in St. Petersburg. I get the impression that photography was his way of breaking out, and at the same time a way to exorcise his demons. And that’s why his pictures are so powerful: There’s feeling that shines through. Positive feelings like passion for living life to the fullest or joy about being in love. But also uncertainty, a feeling of not fitting in, not quite fulfilling expectations. The Russian writer Lev Anninsky has called it a “feeling of insurmountability”. It makes the photos bittersweet.

That duality echoes Vitas Luckus’ career. He was a founding member of the Lithuanian photographer’s association. His early work was selected for a show in Russia, where ‘Nine Lithuanian Photographers’ were shown to great fanfare in 1960. But it was also considered too risky. In later years, his work was never shown again. Sometimes because exhibitors had to be careful not to show such radical work. Sometimes because some of his individual pictures were refused for an exhibition, to which he reacted by pulling all the others.

It was all or nothing for him, and so Vitas Luckus’ became a revered outcast: His peers loved his work, but the public never got to see it. He had friends in the high echelons of Soviet photography, but those friends then refused to exhibit his work, even when he donated it to the museums they were running.

Vitas Luckus’ life ended with an argument about photography on that winter night in 1987. And while gruesome, it suddenly seems comprehensible: Here we had a visionary artist, weighted down by a system, who ultimately cracked under pressure.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. Vitas Luckus lived in a place and a time so different from our own that I don’t think we should just it file away as yet another rebel’s story.

Look, I wanted to understand the conditions. I even went to Lithuania and visited Luckus’ home town. I saw an exhibition of his work at the Kaunas photo gallery, and walked through the streets in the pouring rain. But the Lithuania I visited didn’t give me any clues. It is, of course, in the same place, but it runs on a completely different source code. There’s a historical distance that feels insurmountable.

And so for me, this story has two sides. It tells us something about a fascinating photographer and what might have shaped his work. And it tells us just as much about how we try to assess the lives of historical people, based on the pictures we form in our heads.

The past isn’t just a story. It’s the outcome of many tiny moments, decision, conditions, circumstances. It is what happens when a person is out there in the world, tries to make sense of it, and is touched by many other lives in the process.

So I’m going to leave you with something Vitas Luckus’ widow Tatjana said, many years later, when she referred back to the years of a wild rebellious life together.

“When we were young, I did not realize that we were living something, and now I realize it was history.”
–Tanya Luckiene-Aldag