Gytis Skudžinskas: “Lithuanian photography is still not up to par with the world’s tendencies. And this is neither good nor bad.”
A photo book that is not just a method of presenting visual material but is the art piece in itself is a topic that could be discussed forever. The mixing of genres, the use of new forms and formats, experiments with printing, paper and presenting – all of these allocate ample space for creativity. And so, when it would seem that we have already seen just about everything, the “Album” has appeared. This book has attracted the attention of the jury and participants of the Rencontres d’Arles festival with its tender approach to archive work, its depth, and the freshness of the author’s view. The author of the unusual book with an engraved “A” on the cover is a young Lithuanian photographer and curator named Gytis Skudžinskas. His resume includes not only getting shortlisted for the Rencontres d’Arles and Athens Photo festivals for publishing his “Album” but also more than ten personal exhibitions in Klaipeda, Vilnius, Kaunas, and Berlin.
– First and foremost, congratulations on publishing the “Album” and its success in Arles! It is hard to judge a photo book that I have never held in my hands, but even looking at its pictures online showed me that it’s an interesting intellectual and artistic object. Please, tell us how you got the idea to work with photographs that were found accidentally and instead of paying attention to the image, noting what’s written on the backside?
– Thank you! I fully agree that photo books like the “Album” must be touched and flipped. Understanding them requires truly “live” contact. This understanding will also depend on a set of factors, many of which go beyond the image. In such books, the binding, the choice of paper, and using various unique elements are also important. We aren’t talking about books of mass consumption, after all, but of our own unique works. I always dreamed of a publishing business, where books would be the continuations of artistic projects – artistic objects in their own right.
I got into the world of photography from an area that is unusual for most photographers. I began working with sound, with installation and performances, as I was always intrigued with how an observer “reads off” the information inputted into the work of art. During the first stages of my work with photography, I understood that it is a medium and must transmit information. In my earlier works, I analyzed the excess of photography and information. So “Album” got born kind of by itself as a series of photo prints that were found without traces of authorship, conditions or reason for existence. The only clues were the writings on the back – the true victory of text over image. We could practically call these reverse sides as “photographic pictograms” – even if they are not located on the “face” of the photo, their role in the photo is undoubtable.
“Album” presents collages of photographs. However, there is also the first part of the project, which I consider to be the most important – the part where the viewers observe the collages in museum boxes, therefore putting in front of them a question of values. With this installation, the documentation of which is also presented in the “Album”, I want to return the photographs their status, their initial function that was lost.
– How did the Lithuanian public and the participants of the Rencontres d’Arles react to the “Album” photo book?
– The “Album” project started getting attention before the book was published. In 2013, the work was not finished yet, but it already received its first award: “Best Creation of the Year.” After our nomination in Arles, we started noticing significant interest from the photographic community. We received emails almost every day, asking where and how the book can be purchased. Some collectors bought more than several copies.
– Why do you think that the jury paid such attention to the “Album”?
– I think they were fascinated with how the form smoothly corresponds to the content and how attentive we were towards the smallest details. Especially considering that “Album” is a book that is not in mass print. The thing is, the publication of photo books is usually possible because of mass printing: during a short period of time, we can print a quality copy of any album at a low cost. Then we would receive a large set of identical “stamped” books. But will they attract readers? Unlikely. Today, people prefer an authentic art piece to a regular book – even it costs a little bit higher.
From the technical side, the “Album” combines three types of paper: “munken cream”, “conqueror” and “elle terre” with the traditional Japanese binding with noted broaching, laser cutting and stamped marking. Inside the book, we placed archive pigmented and original gelatin silver prints. All photographs are numbered and signed.
– The “Album” book is a good example of the popular tendency to transform the book into the work of art. What do you think this modern tendency says about the state of modern photography? And where does it lead us – both photographers and the “consumers” of photo books?
– I can say that this tendency is noticeable not only in photography but in the area of contemporary art overall. Most of the current art projects can be described as complicated and multi-levelled: from the stage of conception to the final realization, from descriptions and the objects themselves to presenting them in the form of a book or any other product.
The reasons for this growing tendency can be seen in the possible dissatisfaction of photographers over “paper” series. Many would like to provide their projects with an extended existence, give them the opportunity to live their own lives. Meanwhile, the viewer cares less and less about how he views the photographs: on the big screen of virtual galleries or by holding the photo album in his hands. That is why it seems that this tendency is formed from both sides. By the viewer and by the artist, who also tries to avoid the easiest way.
I think that in the future when the format of “printing as required” will become cheaper, photo books would be divided into three categories. The first is the mass product of known publishing houses, such as TASCHEN; the second one is the usual author books meant for the local public, such as the visitors of the gallery that do not have the money to buy works of art. Finally, the third category is the special author releases that we can view as their actual artworks, just published to a wider audience. Such photo books will certainly attain popularity among photographers and art gourmet consumers.
– I know that in addition to conceptual photography, you also curate various projects in the area of visual art in Lithuania. How would you characterize the actual visual language of the Lithuanian photography? What subject matters do the young Lithuanian photographers work with today?
– The situation in Lithuania is not as straightforward. The minds of the people still remember the methods and the concepts of the mass media of the 1960s–1970s. There is a large amount of selftaught photographers who are still treading in the footsteps of Antanas Sutkus, Romualdas Rakauskas, and Aleksandras Macijauskas – in denial of the fact that times have changed. Another group of photographers includes mostly the graduates of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, who reject straight photography and are naturally integrating into the modern world of art. It is possible that the academy is the only place where they can get a specialization in art. You can also find talented authors among the students of the small number of public and private colleges that teach photography, though their programs are mostly of more practical character.
We can also indicate one more group – artists that live outside of Lithuania. It is often that they received their education in another country, preferring to continue the photographic traditions of such authors as, for example, Wolfgang Tillmans or Ryan McGinley. In order to avoid looking exceptionally skeptical, I must admit that Lithuania has truly capable photographers – Andrew Miksys, Mindaugas Azusilis, Vilma Samulionyte and some others – but in the photographic scene they are considered to be marginal.
– What else can explain such a reaction to their art?
– The works of these photographers cannot be called either radical or provocative. However, in our community that is mostly formed by classical tradition, people find it hard to fully understand them. For example, many truly do not understand the topological collections of Vilma Samulionyte. They do not understand why she photographs these similar objects around which nothing happens. In the modern world, however, topological photography has been classical for a long time now.
In the case of Miksys, debates happened even in the mass media, where the following question was openly asked: Why does he take picture of discotheques around Vilnius – does he want to show Lithuania in a negative light? For me, however, there is no radicalism or provocation in all this. But in Lithuania, these authors are taken in from a distance, as if to separate from them.
Moreover, there are a few interesting projects that were created not by photographers, but by contemporary artists who chose photography as their medium of expression. Actually, even I feel strange hearing “conceptual photographer” in relation to myself… I consider myself to be an artist that is working with the photographic material. Moreover, I feel that dividing everything into different genres (photography, painting, sculpture, etc.) lost its relevance long ago…
Sadly, I must admit that Lithuanian photography still does not correspond to the global tendencies. This is neither good nor bad. Everyone finds their own way and works in the conditions that they find satisfactory for themselves.
– Where do you see the reasons for this discrepancy? The Soviet legacy? Fear of new and uncomfortable things? A lack of education?..
– Of course, I am far from the thought that we must do everything like it’s done “internationally”. We can just take a look at such European authors as Joan Fontcuberta, Joachim Schmid, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin or at the authors working in the United States – Marlo Pascual, Marco Breuer and so forth. They are all so different, but at the same time, there is so much space for unique work. And you do not have to look for artists too far away. Take a look at the Shilo Group! In Lithuania, we do not have such reports. As I said, people with a professional background do not see any sense in working with just photography and bravely venture into other areas. The older generation and their adherents still believe in the ideals of “pure” photography; they aren’t interested in playing by the new rules.
– So, which authors that you have curated would you select as the new interesting figures in Lithuanian photography?
– Well, definitely the most interesting and perhaps the largest project that I worked on from 2006 to 2012 was the Photography Biennale and the parallel-running art program “Erosion”. In its framework, Lithuania was first presented with the school of Finnish photography “TAIK”. The audience saw that photography can be a sculpture, a performance or take on other non-traditional forms.
Over the years of my work in the Lithuanian Photographers Association, I was the curator of the “Shifts” exhibition, which showcased photographs made by artists. Preparatory materials for the final canvas that are independent and completed works in themselves. In the exhibition called “Miniature?”, we meditated upon the miniature, not as a genre, but as a form of thinking. When curating the showcases of other authors, I attained true pleasure from working with Remigijus Treigys, Vytautas Stanionis, and many others.
Gytis Skudžinskas (b. 1975) works and lives in Vilnius, Lithuania. From 1999–2003 he studied at Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts in the Klaipeda Department of Visual Design. In 2005 he received an MA of Visual Arts. Since 1999, Gytis has actively participated in group shows and since 2001 he has been supervising different visual art projects in Lithuania. Since 2013 he has worked as a curator with the Lithuanian Photographers Association.