Photography in Latvia, 1970–2000

Photography in Latvia, 1970–2000,” in The History of European Photography 1900–2000 (Bratislava: Central European House of Photography, forthcoming in 2017).

Zenta Dzividzinska (1944-2011). Self-portrait. 1968. Gelatin silver print (printed and exhibited in 1999, 90 x 130 cm).

Zenta Dzividzinska (1944-2011). Self-portrait. 1968. Gelatin silver print (printed and exhibited in 1999, 90 x 130 cm).

Excerpt about photography in Latvia in the 1990s:

Exhibitions became important also locally when art galleries as well as some alternative spaces started to organize photographers’ solo exhibitions. Before, elite camera clubs were the hubs of creativity, innovation, and artistic impulses—such as Riga Camera Club in the 1960s and Ogre Camera Club in the 1970s up to mid-1980s. In the 1990s, it was the contemporary art curator who promotes certain photographers and oversees the development of their careers. It started with Western curators, such as Vid Ingelevic, Philippe Legros or Barbara Straka, and at the same time the first local curators emerged who were interested in photography, most visibly Helēna Demakova and Inga Šteimane.

One of the most significant outcomes of these new developments was almost a symbolic event that concluded the decade and the century: Ruka’s photographs from the series My Country People were showcased in the pavilion of Latvia in the Venice art biennial in 1999. This exhibition, curated by Demakova, also featured work by two other artists, Anita Zabiļevska and Ojārs Pētersons, but the inclusion of works by Inta Ruka was a crucial turning point for history of Latvian photography. For the first time in Latvia, photography was elevated to the level of high art on such a scale. In addition, it was work by a woman photographer, itself a sign of great changes in the male-dominated field of Latvian photography.

Success of Ruka inspired other women photographers, especially ones whose earlier achievements had been overlooked or neglected before. Several photographers revisited their archives and published or exhibited photos from the 1960s and 1970s that gained a new meaning in the context of the 1990s. Again, important initiative came from the West, in this case from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union that since the owners’ donation in 1991 is housed in the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Key figure was Latvian-American art historian Mark Allen Svede who traveled to Riga on a regular basis to research as well as purchase works for this collection. At the heart of the Dodge collection lies the idea about “nonconformist”—unofficial, alternative, underground—art scene that was found beneath the visible, official art establishment of the Soviet times.  Svede’s visits urged many artists and photographers to revisit their own archives, as something that they had deemed worthless, suddenly was desired by a collector in the US. Svede’s rigorous research and numerous publications contributed to the emergence of a whole new trend in local art history, when the curators and art historians engaged in a quest for “alternative” and “unofficial” art and attempted to make visible the oppressed art of the Soviet time.

For example, the unpretentiously named exhibition Black and White in art gallery Čiris in Riga (1999) was the first solo show of an artist and photographer Zenta Dzividzinska (1944–2011) since the 1960s. In the late 1960s she was one of the very few women photographers affiliated with the Riga Camera Club, then the most elite circle for creative photography in Latvia. Especially significant among her early work was the series Riga Pantomime (c. 19641965). But between 1969 and 1993 Dzividzinska had completely removed herself from the art scene and focused on her work as a graphic designer.

Encouraged by Inga Šteimane as well as by Svede’s visit, Dzividzinska exhibited a selection of photographs taken between 1965 and 1969 as new, dramatically enlarged prints (average size of prints in this exhibition was c.120x90 cm). This manner of presentation appeared shocking to many because it challenged the idea about “old” photographs that were supposed to be viewed as small vintage prints, delicate and behind a glass, not blown up to the sizes associated with the Düsseldorf school photographers. The subjects appeared no less shocking—typically, they were snapshots of heavy, often seminude women and small children going about their summertime everyday routine in country home settings. This approach was an antithesis to the aestheticized, idealized or eroticized images of women that the predominant cohort of male photographers have been constructing so far. Women in different degrees of undress in these images were not presented as sources of visual pleasure for a male spectator, as expected, but rather as self-contained individuals engaged in their activities and chores, not concerned about pleasing anybody with their looks. Before the late 1990s, it would be unthinkable for such images to appear in public in Latvia. Black and White was followed by another solo exhibition I don’t Remember a Thing (2005), accompanied by an eponymous publication (2007), where Dzividzinska mixed previously unpublished photos from the 1960s with her latest documentary work.

Another discovery was made in the vast archives of photographer Māra Brašmane (b. 1944). In the 1960s and 1970s, before and parallel to her career as a professional museum photographer and portraitist, Brašmane took photographs of Riga and its inhabitants, especially a circle of friends and acquaintances—artists, poets, and other creative types that comprised the alternative culture scene of Riga. Her views of Riga are intimate and casual, unlike the Riga of postcards or official newspaper photographs. Most of this work was not exhibited in the time of its making. According to Svede, “Māra Brašmane believed she was working in the genteel tradition of urban photographers like Brassaï when she created the work Cabbages in the mid–1960s. A well-stocked shop window, picturesquely unkempt but precisely framed, and understated sense of the surrounding context: this is a benign depiction of city life – comfortable, peaceful, abundant, and so on.  But Cabbages was barred from exhibition because the censor suspected that, within the image, the presence of a hat that had fallen behind the produce indicated that Brašmane was making a subliminal linkage between heads of cabbage and “cabbageheads”, or simpletons. That a nonpatriotic viewer might extrapolate a political message from all this was wholly insupportable.”[1]

Partly a private diary, partly a collection of images to be shared with the closest friends, Brašmane’s archive in the 2000s became the key visual resource about the 1960s and 1970s. Her early work from the 1960s and 1970s—documentary photographs that were made for a circle of friends and acquaintances—appeared in the art context in 2001 when her photographs were noticed by curator Inese Baranovska. Brašmane’s photographs from the 1960s also appeared as part of the stage design of The Sound of Silence. A concert of Simon & Garfunkel 1968 in Riga that never took place (2007), a play directed by the award-winning Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis at the New Riga Theatre (co-production with Berliner Festspiele, Germany).

 

[1] Svede, Mark Allen, “On the Verge of Snapping. Latvian Nonconformist Artists and Photography,” in Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2004), p. 247.