Freedom shots: Photographers from the Baltic States are enjoying a new-found artistic expression. Jane Richards finds traces of the Soviet occupation
Tuesday 18 January 1994
In the summer of 1991 after half a century of Soviet occupation, the Baltic States regained their independence. Work by 17 photographers from the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, including Gvido Kajons, is now on show in 'Borderlands' at York's Impressions Gallery. Completed between the mid-Eighties and early Nineties, these images have been compiled by Peeter Linnap, an Estonian photographer, writer, teacher and curator.
Viewing the images, it's impossible to divorce them from their political context. As Peeter Linnap explains in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue: 'If we acknowledge that photography has a certain analytical and critical capacity, we can say that the Soviet strategy was successful. None of the Baltic States provided either a system of photographic education or a recognisable field of critical theory.' Photographic expression was restricted to amateur clubs and photojournalism was rigorously monitored by the state apparatus; and most serious photographers were positively discouraged.
Some of the photographs refer to the Soviet occupation - Gvido Kajons depicts the icons of the withdrawing communist regime on posters and slogans - but for the majority it is a more subtle form of artistic response. Peeter Tooming has taken photographs, in 1987, of Estonian scenes shown in Carl Sarap's 1937 postcard photographs in an attempt to compare the old Estonia with the new; Lithuanian Vytautis Stanionis has also chosen to look back - reprinting negatives of twin portraits taken by his father from 1946-48 for the first Soviet passports, while Eve Linnap uses bleak documentary to depict contemporary block houses in Estonia.
Inta Ruka's romantic portraits of Latvians, meanwhile, show a remarkable similarity to German photographer August Sander's 'Man in 20th-Century Germany' - a series of critical portraits intended to draw attention to the social and cultural dimensions of life in Weimar Germany. In the series, 'My Country People' Ruka depicts 'some country-children' or a 'a certain rural woman'. Just like Sander's 'baker' and 'lawyer' they are nameless - but unlike Sander's subjects they are portrayed with compassion. They stand before the camera, lost and confused.
Impressions, 29 Castlegate, Castlewalk, York (0904 654724), to 6 March
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