Soon to be gone

Tadas Kazakevičius seems to restore the original purpose of photography—to preserve for future generations what is changing rapidly and what may soon to be gone. In the series Soon to be Gone, the photographer seeks to record the declining and volatile Lithuanian countryside and, in his own words, to create “archival value”. Guided by this goal, Kazakevičius spent five years visiting Lithuania’s different regions on his slow and trusty moped, photographing the things that he encountered with a medium-format film camera. However, he did not look at his subject through the eyes of an ethnographer, but rather through the eyes of a humanist photographer. Travelling without a plan, his main goal was to observe the meaningful details of everyday life and the interactions and intimate connections between the people whose lives he captured.

Although the images presented in this exhibition were created between 2014 and 2018 and tell the familiar stories that play out in the Lithuanian countryside, Kazakevičius looked at this world from the perspective of the future, when the lives and landscapes that he encountered will inevitably change. The photographs capture a presence, although what we see emotionally in them is something altogether more a priori. According to the American writer Susan Sontag, each photograph is an ‘object of melancholy’, because it allows you to clearly feel the irreversible departure of life, captured in it, to the past. However, Kazakevičius reinforces a sense of loss with creative solutions: by choosing the objects for his photographs, noticing their associative connections and emphasising their symbolic meaning. Uninhabited houses and their interiors lined with old photographs, an abandoned car and a ship rusting on land—these are relics of the past which have preserved traces of human existence, reminiscent of the hustle and bustle of their past lives, and which today are filled with emptiness and embraced by stagnation representing what is already gone. Within this metaphorical rural emptiness, the images evoke intuitions of inevitable change and decline.

Perhaps the nostalgia felt in photographs, which leads to a romanticising look at the Lithuanian countryside, was also formed by the fact that Kazakevičius started photographing the rural regions of his native country after returning from the United Kingdom, where he’d spent the previous five years. Kazakevičius admits that the subject of rural decline became important to him only after leaving his native country for an extended period of time. After returning to Lithuania and starting to take photographs of the Lithuanian countryside, he ‘fell in love with homeland all over again’.

The subject of the countryside and the ambition to record its traditions in Lithuanian photography date back to the beginning of 20th century. Indeed, a poetic look at villagers during the 1960s was to become one of the main inspirations behind what became known as the ‘Lithuanian School of Photography’. More than a century ago, the first Lithuanian rural photographers were inspired by the same desire to preserve for the future what seemed soon to be gone. For example, the painter Adomas Varnas took photographs of crosses made by Lithuanian folk masters, a subject that was also lovingly observed by the historian Balys Buračas, who carefully captured the folk art and other rural traditions of the time. Following in Varnas’ and Buračas’ footsteps, ethnographic tradition was raised to the level of creative photography by the creators of the aforementioned ‘Lithuanian School’, who combined a focus on the Lithuanian countryside with the international direction of humanistic photography. In the works of Antanas Sutkus, Algimantas Kunčius, Romualdas Rakauskas and Romualdas Požerskis, Lithuanian villagers embodied universal human values. Aleksandras Macijauskas stood out from these photographers with his ‘rougher’ images of countryside life, although he also had a desire to record the Lithuanian countryside, because during the Soviet period life in the Lithuanian countryside changed rapidly, and seemed to be losing its national identity.

The miscellaneous signs of change and decline in the countryside remain important within contemporary Lithuanian photography. However, most contemporary photographers have abandoned the romanticising approach. Instead they look at change through a sharp and critical documentary gaze (Vytautas V. Stanionis’ Lithuania. Images of Farewell), observe it from a sociological perspective (Mindaugas Kavaliauskas’ Portrait of Kražiai) or highlight grotesque scenes of degradation (Rimaldas Vikšraitis’ Grimaces of a Tired Village and Wistful Dreams of Steading). Of course, humanistic tradition is still alive in Lithuanian photography. For example, Arūnas Baltėnas captured Lithuanian villagers in his series In the Silence of the House.

So how is the work of Tadas Kazakevičius unique in this long history of Lithuanian countryside photography? One answer is provided by the photographer himself. Although he admits that he sympathises with the humanistic world-view of the Lithuanian School of Photography, as a source of creative inspiration he mentions American photography during the Great Depression, especially the Farm Security Administration work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. ‘Honesty, compassion, and a natural regard for individual dignity’ wrote Roy Stryker, the Head of the Farm Security Administration. These were the qualities that connected the photographers that he brought together, and that gave their photography a special charm. These features aptly describe Kazakevičius’ photographs. The people that he captures pose with confidence, tell the photographer about their daily work and, at first glance, their insignificant lives that on closer inspection turn out to be anything but lacking in significance. Villagers welcome the photographer into their homes, where interior details testify to a preserved memory of the past and to people who are no longer there. They proudly allow their photographs to be taken as they work in the fields, their native landscapes stretching out in the background. In Kazakevičius’ photographs, the past and the present, man and nature seem inseparably and meaningfully connected. The photographer looks at the villagers that he photographs not only with respect, but also with a sense of personal connection and empathy. According to Kazakevičius, his photographic trip around Lithuania was also a journey back to his roots. When taking the photographs, he not only revived his childhood memories, but eventually realised that his journey began in the land where his father is from, and ended in the place where his mother was born. Perhaps this is the reason why the photographer managed not to remain only as an outside observer. He became a trustworthy companion for the villagers he met, and, conversely, they became equal partners in the photographer’s creative work. Neither the artist’s subjective vision of the world nor the artistry of his work are the most important things here.

Thus Kazakevičius adds a new component to the accumulative narrative of rural Lithuanian photography. It seems that he effortlessly documents life in the Lithuanian countryside, allowing its poetry and meaning to reveal itself. Kazakevičius doesn’t dramatise rural life, and never surrenders to open lyricism like many before him have done. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never capitulates to the role of the ironic or critical observer. The photographer isn’t looking for extraordinariness in everyday life, and he never tries to show what each of us might not notice in it. Instead, he states that everyday life is in itself extraordinary, and every moment of life is valuable. His work lacks the tensions arising from a need to look for meaning beyond the visibility of life and in the photography that captures it. Kazakevičius’ work convinces us that the most important thing is to fully experience even the ordinary moments of everyday life, and it shows change as a natural cycle of life which determines not only the repeated losses and longings of each generation, but also a sense of the eternal circle of life.

Tomas Pabedinskas