Antanas Sutkus has received over 100 international awards for his photography. His fans include Sir Elton, who brought one of his works last year.
The 72-year-old, who is now retired, spoke with the Baltic Times about his illustrious career and famous collector. A portion of the interview is below.
Can you pick a favorite of your own pictures, and explain to us how it best describes Lithuania?
Its hard. It wont be one, but usually the best picture, the favourite one, is the one I havent taken yet. Usually each period has its own picture. It seems to select itself: the picture which best reflects the exhibition I am making. For example, the photograph of the Marathon [taken in Vilnius, 1959: one of which was recently purchased by Elton], The Pioneer , the ones of Sartre [in 1965]. These are some of the most popular ones, the most chosen. I think my photograph from 1991 best represents Lithuania: the shot where they took away the Lenin sculpture. It is representative of the era, the new independence.
In what period of your life do you believe you made the best pictures?
The best pictures I think I took were between the ages of 25 and 30. For example, a series I made in a small village, named Dzukija, which was taken over just five days. Its only one street, and I made 12 pictures.
One thing which is striking about your photos is how natural your subjects are. How did you make such a connection with them?
Probably the most important thing about photography is to find a connection with people. If you dont find this special feeling together, you wont be able to make good pictures, good portraits. You have to talk. You have to be with these people, to feel them. And thats what happened with these village people
Much of your work is in black and white. Was there a photographer who most inspired your styles?
It wasnt really a photographer who inspired me, or photography, because in those times we didnt have any access or the possibility to see photo pictures. But it was literature and the theater, films, paintings, sculptures. These inspired me the most. I would go and see performances in theaters, or buy some records abroad and listen to them. This was in the Soviet times.
What do you think about the digitalisation of photography?
Well, for press photography, its a big invention. Like computers, the Internet, everything. It is really a positive thing for press photography, because it has allowed them to transfer their pictures fast from the hot spots, which is very handy. Secondly, just for people to communicate, by pictures, it has allowed many to have digital cameras, and take photos all around. And so, they can blog about it or write using photographs in their diaries. Thirdly, for art I doubt if it is a positive evolution.
Once I won first place in a contest, and was awarded a Canon camera. It made ten shots with one click. And as I began using it, I noticed, I started regressing in my portrait making, because I would just press once or twice and have over twenty pictures. But none of them were good, or worth it, because with my older camera I would set everything in the correct mode, and concentrate and wait for the moment, and then click. I would make three, five pictures, and one of them would certainly be good.
One of your most famous pictures is called Marathon (1959), a hauntingly romantic black and white image of a woman leaning from her balcony to watch a race down University Street in Vilnius. In 2010, one was bought by pop legend Elton John. How did this come about?
Well, first about the photo. I was living in a student house in those times, and the girl who was in the picture was my great passion. I was still young, twenty years old, and in good physical shape. And so, I was balancing over the balcony, as my friends held on to me with a belt, so I could lean in over the street. I couldnt really balance for a long time so I could only take three photos, before my friends dragged me back in. As for Elton John: I had an exhibition in Paris, and there was an article about it published in a very serious photography magazine called Eyemazing. I was the first Lithuanian photographer to be represented in this magazine. And Elton John just happened to read it, and he saw this article. And he contacted the gallery in Paris which was representing my works. And so, thats how he got it. When I found out he had bought it, I laughed. I was in the hospital that day, and in the evening I turned on my mobile phone, and I had seventeen missed calls. All from different journalists! Just at the moment when everybody found out that Elton John bought my picture, there was a sudden burst of interest. I was laughing about it - it showed how in our society, the big names are still so important. But it was a pleasant feeling, because I really like his songs, and I am glad that he likes my work also. It felt like an exchange. When the Victoria Albert Museum, in London, bought a collection of my works, nobody really paid it attention. It was not in the newspapers, nothing. But then when Elton John bought just one picture, it was a huge thing, and everyone paid attention. It showed that we have to improve on the ways photographers are managed.
In retirement, do you miss shooting photography?
I dont miss it. I have a full room of negatives which I still have to deal with. I dont miss whiskey, wine or cigarettes either. And we were smoking, the artists at the time, around three packs per day. But now Ive quit. Also, I cant miss photography too much, because I still live in it. Every minute. Though, I dont know anymore about work life life is very beautiful, but I dont know if I want to sit here, in this garden, or to go and work in my studio.