A Distant, Overlooked Life

Vitas Luckus was too revolutionary a photographer to be accepted. But his is no ordinary rebel’s story.

Historical Distance

The further away we get from a specific time, the harder it becomes to understand that time. Distance from the ideologies and world views that shaped that time is as much an issue as distance from the time and location itself. When I first read about this concept, I was fascinated. Is it really so difficult to understand another time? We have historical records to understand the context and photos to see the moments, no?

Often, we take what we know about history and assemble it into a picture. We are prone to look at photos and make sense of a time only with what’s frozen in the frame. Images are seductive like that. They can lure us into thinking that there’s no historical distance worth noting; 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 was born in 1943 and grew up 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. 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. It certainly doesn’t help Lithuanian photographers’ cause that they were obscured by the iron curtain most of their working lives.

The former Eastern Bloc is no longer hidden but still overlooked. In a small Baltic country, Lithuanians carved out their own visual language. Heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, they produced rigid, black and white reportage. Photographers captured everyday life in Lithuania with technically perfect shots that had a sober formality to them (see three photos by Rakauskas, Miežanskas and Sutkus below).

But the formality of this ‘Lithuanian School’ wasn’t just driven by aesthetics, it had a political component 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 capturing his unconventional view of the world.

That’s why his photos were so different. The use 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 has called “lyrical reportage”. The photos use their quirkiness to suggest that life isn’t all systemic and orderly, no matter what the authorities might say.

Luckus himself once wrote “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, lived the wild life. Driven by a desire to leave normalcy behind. 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 illegal leave from his military service to see a photo exhibition in St. Petersburg.