By Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis for Kaunas Full of Culture magazine
Looking back at Kaunas of the 2010s, future Kaunasians will have a pretty extensive view: the photo cameras in everyone’s pockets make sure that most locations and moments of the city are captured from many different angles, personal angles too. However, the further we go into the past, the more this diversity becomes narrower in terms of the authors of the photos and the very spots being captured. The Soviet years are unique in this exploration of the past: for the bigger part of this period, public photography was a controlled medium that had to paint a more beautiful reality. When we have to illustrate these years today, we face an instant problem – many things that were important to us yet not important for the ideology simply weren’t captured.
When the political situation got warmer, this situation changed a bit and the younger photo artists could exploit the oratorical talents they’ve developed themselves to establish a Lithuanian “school” of photography, while many photojournalists used their professional privileges to take pictures of things that would otherwise never end up in the press or in any representative publications. However, some of the clearest reflections of the past reach us from places where censorship wasn’t a problem – not just personal photo albums but also photo documents of various institutions.
One of the most productive documentary photographers of Soviet Kaunas was Stanislovas Lukošius (1906-1997), whose photos were professionally connected to the activities of the construction institute in the city. By taking pictures of structures being built, he successfully recorded the collision of two cities: the old temporary capital and the newly-built socialist, industrial Kaunas.
It was a very interesting period until the larger micro-neighbourhoods made the city look like most places in USSR. Before that, Kaunas was still the crib of the country’s architects – the team who built the city consisted mostly of professionals from the younger Interwar generation. That’s why a more perceptive eye can notice the subtle changes in urban life: blocks of individual houses photographed by S. Lukošius, some administrational structures and even a few apartment buildings of social realism had hints of continuing Interwar traditions. His photos from the 1950s showed the city breathing in the influences of a free republic, but massive urban transformations were just around the corner, and those first steps were also captured by S. Lukošius. The first houses made from large plates, hulls of enormous factories – all this spoke of a beginning of a new era, especially in the outskirts of Aukštieji Šančiai or the fields of Petrašiūnai.
We can feel the architectural atmosphere of the historic part of Kaunas before the regeneration by looking at old town photos that depicted small yards with vernacular buildings. S. Lukošius’ architectural documentaries – along with R. Požerskis’ images of social routine – allow us to witness at a completely different neighbourhood which is unrecognisable to a modern Kaunasian. The photographer shows us buildings and streets that would otherwise never had been shot before all the demolitions, for instance, before the larger wings of the complex were built, the block of the Lituanica factory was being photographed extremely rarely.
Most photos by S. Lukošius are interesting not only for their rareness but also for their contrasts, showing empty plots of land in locations which contemporary Kaunasians recognise as having a building they visit every day, or a clear grass field where several thousand people live today. Some of the places are quite exceptional, for example, the monumental pavilion of Vytautas the Great, standing in the former exhibition square. We can also find a photo of the cathedral’s churchyard fence being torn down – this was pretty controversial even by those standards.
One of the crucial elements of S. Lukošius’ legacy is a huge collection of pictures of Interwar architecture taken in the middle of the 1950s – this was probably ordered by the Institute of Architecture and Construction, implemented by the photographer and his colleagues. Some of the smaller buildings were never photographed before, and in this case they were captured while still being relatively new, before the reconstructions. S. Lukošius is definitely among the prominent documentary photographers who are important to research in order to achieve the modern aims of Kaunas related to the Interwar architecture. A few other photo artists were capturing the architecture of Kaunas for similar reasons, however Lukošius had a unique aesthetic style and his works were crisp in a technical sense; he he was able to use many angles to reveal relevant urban situations from a geographical standpoint.
Today, thousands of his photos are a big part of the visual narrative of our city’s architectural and urban processes, at the same time they are the tools to show how Kaunas looked to people’s parents or grandparents. It was different, but it’s still Kaunas.