“Following the Invisible Hand: The Role of Photo Clubs, Magazines, Exhibitions, and Curators in Latvian Photography, 1960–2000” is a commissioned research article for a volume of articles about the twentieth-century art in Latvia, Ten Episodes, edited by Elita Ansone, to be published by Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga, Latvia, in 2019.
Download and read the author’s pre-press version pdf (as of late 2018). Come back for updates about the book - I’ll post the final version when it will be published.
We are used to art history that revolves around the “great masters” and their amazing achievements. Although at times useful, such a style of writing history tends to overemphasize the role of individuals and underemphasize the role of institutions, peer networks, and support mechanisms that make the achievements of those individuals possible. From a sociological perspective, such institutions organize and structure every field of creativity according to the general rules of an “art world,” which, as defined by culture sociologist Howard S. Becker, means “the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for.”[i] Such “art worlds” form around all kinds of creative practices, and each of them has its own geographical scope and lifespan. This essay aims to identify some of the most influential institutions and establish their role in shaping the local “art world” of photography in Latvia over the second part of the twentieth century.
The Latvian National Museum of Art joined this “art world” of photography only recently when it started to add photographs to its collection. The foundation of the museum’s photography collection was laid by a gift of photographer Inta Ruka (b. 1958) in 2009–2010—a large collection of prints by Egons Spuris (1931–1990). At the time of writing this essay, almost ten years later, the museum has already formed a notable collection. It does not yet include the works that were the most visible in Latvian photography during the Soviet era, especially the 1960s and 1970s. It focuses on the work of photographers whose names became well-known mostly in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s—after the restoration of Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union. By preferring these works, the museum reflects and solidifies one idea about the type of photography that is worthy of the status of an art work, currently shared by most art professionals in Latvia. Most images that represent Latvian photographic art of the 1960s and 1960s, however, do not fit this idea because they were made in completely different socioeconomic circumstances and cultural context. Among the reasons that hinder an adequate evaluation of these circumstances and contexts is general confusion about the local history of photography during the Soviet era and especially about the radically different institutional frameworks within which this art form evolved over the course of these decades. This essay will outline that influence hoping to clarify a few misconceptions and to inspire some interest in recognizing the historical specificity of artistic legacy which is currently left outside the museum’s collection.
[i] Becker H. S. Art Worlds. – Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. – p. x.