Art

Backstage of a fading era | Andrejs Strokins

Initially working in the realm of photo journalism, Andrejs Strokins came to the attention of the public through his documentary photography project People in the Dunes. It immortalises the reality of Bolderāja and Daugavgrīva, which once upon a time were shipping, military and industrial territories of vital importance to the capital, as forgotten outskirts of the city.
Reading time 16 minutes

People in the Dunes highlighted the quality that Andrejs is now so renowned for – the ability to approach photographic subjects and moments in their lives so that their real, aching and absurd nature is captured genuinely and with a tinge of irony, transforming the everyday into the unusual. For several years now Andrejs has been collecting vernacular photographs, albums and seemingly superfluous visual materials from 20th century Latvia. In 2017, the text group Orbīta published its first photo book Palladium, showcasing a photographic archive discovered by chance consisting of photos taken by an unknown photographer from the famous Soviet-era cinema. And last year Andrejs presented his project A Boy Who Set a House on Fire, based on material from the Latvian Fire Fighting Museum that is worthy of a detective novel, at the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA).

By Ieva Laube. Photo Kristīne Madjare

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In the photographs that you publish on Instagram under the hashtag #everydayerror, I have always been captivated by the manner in which you capture awkward and ironic moments from daily life. Documentary non-subjectivity is offset by a feeling of warmth towards the subject of the photograph. Why does capturing these peculiar everyday situations matter to you?

Each of my projects is inspired by rules I’ve made myself. In this case, it’s a mobile phone camera, which I always position vertically, with a pre-set filter that I use every time. I’m looking for peculiarities in daily life. Framing something ordinary, it suddenly becomes something strange, sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad. This series of photographs began as Everyday Error, but it’s now become part of my project Cosmic Sadness, which I’d like to publish in book format next year.This year, I took part in the “Plat(t)form” international portfolio viewing at the Winterthur Photo Museum with this collection.

Did your interest in vernacular photography start with Everyday Error?

No, it started before that. Around 2011, I started scratching the surface and taking photos for the Everyday Error project. This was around the time that Instagram appeared with filters reminiscent of the feeling of analog photography – you have a poor image, you cut it into a square, apply a filter and it immediately becomes something more. Nostalgia for analog technology and aesthetic magic seemed interesting to me, and I started using it deliberately. I play with nostalgic feelings and depiction of reality – how absurd moments can be “drawn out” of seemingly ordinary everyday situations. How did you start working with photo archives?

When I started working on my first documentary project People in the Dunes in Bolderāja, I met Volodja Jakušonoks, who’s an active member of the Bolderāja development group. He’s an activist and passionate hoarder with a huge collection of all kinds of works of art, including photography. He collected photographs taken in the Bolderāja and Daugavgrīva neighbourhood, as well as photo albums, and as part of my project, I asked him to show me what he’d got, with the idea that maybe I could use some of the stuff in it. As I gradually browsed through the images, it struck me that there was something really interesting here. However, the question arose as to where I should look for it all, because, of course, although I’d already seen various projects with archive materials, I was convinced that I’d never find anything like this in Latvia. At any market in Berlin there are boxes full of photos; it’s the same story in London. It’s a culture of recycled images. There was nothing like that here, at least on the surface. However, gradually, including through Volodja, I got some contacts and started visiting antique stores and stamp buffs’ conventions. By the way, Volodja also provided the Palladium Cinema photo archive. He found it lying about on the floor of an abandoned apartment in Riga. He knew that I was interested in archives, so one day he brought it to me and said, “Maybe you’d be interested in taking a look at this.” Two years went by before I scanned and digitalised it all and started working on it. At first, it was wasn’t clear what it was. Only gradually did we realise that it was the Palladium.

Did you find out which era the photos were taken in?

Yes, we discovered the era with the help of architect Zigmārs Jauja. I put together a small exhibition about the Palladium for the RIGA IFF film festival, and Zigmārs is interested in cinemas as such, and he’d already done some groundwork. Unfortunately, we were unable to discover the identity of the photographer, but we did identify the periods in which the cinema was razed. It burned down five times and we have the dates when it was restored. Thus, a timeline was formed.The photographs were taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What is it that appeals to you about all this? About photographs of personal lives discovered in archives?

On the one hand, history has never interested me, but I like to look at it all from another angle. We have official history, which is accompanied by official images, but I enjoy looking at the era from another perspective, through amateur photographs. As regards the Palladium series, photography was not the photographer’s main line of work. It is possible that he was a projectionist, but not an official photographer. From the history of the 1950s and 1960s, we mostly have nice propaganda photos, icons of Socialism, censored photographs, but his images reveal something of the “backstage” ! You see real people, how they celebrate events and being together. It is completely different. It would be nice if more people worked on researching archives, otherwise it all ends up being forgotten. I am mostly interested in recent history, the Soviet era. Maybe a bigger problem is the fact that we’re trying to forget about this painful period as quickly as possible and trying to renounce everything to do with it. I think it’s important to remember, to preserve testimonies. Unfortunately, my interest in this started quite late. The majority of archives and albums have been thrown out and are lost forever. Only fragments remain.

What’s your view of the personal aspect, working with photographs you find, using them in your works, books and exhibitions?

These photos are usually found outside their context. I don’t know anything about how and why these images were taken, about what people wanted to immortalise. This gives a lot of room for interpretation. You can only imagine how a person felt, what was going through his mind, why he took a photograph. The moment of imagination matters to me. And then I slightly change the context; in reality, not that excessively. The Palladium material was not dreamed up in any way. Those images and their sequence are quite specific, but the context is still linked to history. Then you have collages for which I use old photographs, postcards, magazines and useless visual information.

How do you select images for your series of works – what are the quality criteria you set that the photos have to pass?

There must be a moment of surprise. What fascinates me about amateur photography is that whereas a professional photographer is wholly predictable in what and how he will take a picture, an amateur with no art contexts or background can suddenly come up with a “pearl”. Suddenly, it clicks for him and completely differently to how it would be for a professional.To some extent, I try to replicate this in my Cosmic Sadness project, that is, its ostensible carelessness, chance and amateur nature.

Of all the materials or archives you’ve discovered, what do you consider to be your most valuable discovery personally?

Definitely Palladium… but a second set of material that’s very interesting is the series that I presented in the exhibition You’ve Got 1243 Unread Messages. The Last Generation Before the Internet. Their Lives at the Latvian National Museum of Art. This is an archive of slides in which we see a man and a woman with a Moskvitch. There’s a Moskvitch in every photo! This is roughly the 1960s. They travel around Latvia weaving wicker, so therefore they spend quite a lot of time in the midst of nature. The fact that there’s a Moskvitch in every photo is amusing. Even if you can’t see it in full, then some part of it is present – it’s like a status symbol. You see the Latvian landscape and nature back then which is also a surprise factor. It’s an endearing archive. I’m not sure, but I heard that they’re a husband and wife; the husband was apparently Russian, while the wife was Latvian, or vice versa. It was a kind of Russian and Latvian Soviet-era friendship and love affair.

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Album with photographs redrawn | Stefānija Grigoļunoviča | 1940–1950 (Stefānija is the grandmother of photographer Eva Saukāne)

It’s wonderful that in these projects, by selecting the most valuable historical materials and adapting them to a new context, you are creating something contemporarily sustainable. It’s a kind of artistic sustainability.

Yes! In this regard, one of the most interesting discoveries was the Fire Fighting Museum’s archive, which I discovered completely by accident. This collection is surprising. I’m amazed that it could have survived because there is no practical use for this archive. It preserves documentation of fires in Latvia during from the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. From this perspective it’s quite interesting to look at Soviet Latvia. I exhibited this project in book format at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. In fact, it all happened at the last moment because I’d known about the biennial for quite some time; I had had several meetings with the curator Katerina Gregos and had several ideas for works; I created a lot of things, but Katerina wasn’t really convinced, and neither was I. Literally at the very last moment – there were only two months to go – I discovered this archive and it chimed with the theme of the biennial. As soon as I saw this archive, I knew that I could create it for RIBOCA.

The photographs you selected were very artistic; it’s unbelievable that they are merely technical documentation of the consequence of fires.

Yes, I made this selection because the main function of these photographs was simply to document the events themselves. Because the archive is huge, and the timescale was so extensive I found a lot of impressive photos there. Among them, a lot of historically important fires are documented, which also appear in my book.

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In terms of photography as a contemporary medium and art, we can, of course, create digital exhibitions and publish books, but do you feel that the lack of a contemporary art museum has affected you professionally?

Of course it would be great if my works were in the museum! I’ve always lived two lives – one is my artworks and activities, while the other is commercial photography. A museum is definitely needed. Not so much for me, but for society as a whole, in order to nurture understanding of what’s contemporary and what art is all about. We have testimonies to the 19th and 20th centuries; they’re sort of canons of art but the things that are happening in art right now are really being documented, and in all probability the biggest problem is a sizable section of works are not being preserved and entrusted to the museum. Naturally, there’s a separate collection of contemporary art, but since we don’t have a museum, it is not being constantly augmented and it is possible that a lot will be forgotten or end up in private collections and will not be available to the general public.

Photographers are greatly helped by the ISSP. However, a contemporary art museum, where contemporary photography is on display, would expand the discussion onto a completely different, national, level.

The ISSP is a private organisation with limited premises and resources. If a contemporary art institution existed at national level, it would have a different added value. What the ISSP is doing is great, but in no way can they compete with the National Museum of Art. They have a completely different priority – to educate young photographers and to a lesser extent, viewers. However, it should be said that understanding of photography as an art in Latvia is quite, well I wouldn’t say limited, but... With painting, it’s clear to everyone that it’s art, and everybody acknowledges this, and collectors collect, but with photography… particularly so now, when it is such an accessible medium and everyone communicates with images. Photography is used everywhere, but its attribute of added value has been diminished. Globally, there are many more photography collections. Of course, the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Photography Museum collect works, but photography collections are very small.

We can only speculate, but it’s possible that if we had a museum dedicated to art from the second half of the 20th century and the present day, we’d look at documentary photography and photo archives in a different light.

If photography was represented in such a museum, then, yes! In truth, time moves on and archives are disappearing, and as a private individual I cannot preserve it all, not financially, I cannot buy everything that appeals to me and which seems important and worth saving. If such a museum existed with the directive that we collect this type of materials, this would of course be very valuable. If the Photography Museum can accept works, but is not really in a position to pay for them, and if we’re talking about the Soviet era in Latvia, then I know that the museum has missed out on a lot of stuff, because it is not part of its canon. Very few amateur photographers are represented in the museum’s collection. On the one hand, this is logical because, for example, it would be a strange choice to buy amateur works with daubing and scribbles for a collection of paintings. However, in photography, technical knowledge is not as important as what you capture. In the 1990s, photo albums offered by several private individuals were not accepted, because of the museum’s focus on professional photographers. This position is gradually changing now, but such historical documentation is becoming increasingly hard to find, and there are individual private collectors who buy such material. A very important role is also played by the custodian of the museum’s collection, the curator of the collection, because what enters history and what doesn’t is dependent on their understanding and taste. Therefore, I collect family photo albums and dembeli albums.

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What are dembeli albums?

This is a strange phenomenon from the Soviet era. People served in the army and while they were there they tried to create photo albums about their experiences over a two-year period, because after two years in the army you became a dembeli. You left the army and showed your album to the folks back home. They were, in fact, prohibited, because people took photos of forbidden objects, took the piss, dressed in defiance of the rules, and if these albums were discovered, they were destroyed and their creators were punished. This is very interesting; it is like a separate segment in photography. The template was an ordinary Soviet photo album with sheets of tracing paper. Photos were glued onto cardboard paces and various characters and heroes were drawn on the sheets of tracing paper and collages were glued together. Sometimes, it was kitschy, other times – very funny. And very colourful.

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Is there a work of art or a body of works by a single personality from the second half of the 20th century through to the present day that you would highlight as being one of Latvia’s most important assets?

In terms of historical assets, I really like photographer Vilis Rīdzenieks’ album. It is a unique archive! I am amazed that it’s only just been published, because as a document of the era it is very powerful. Among artists, I really like Andris Breže and Kristaps Ģelzis. However, as a testimony to the age, I would choose a dembeli scrapbook album, because it served as an asset in itself. It’s got it all – the masculine, romantic, letters to girlfriends and adventurous fun. You’d keep it as a record of your life to show to your parents and friends. These days, people no longer compile albums, except perhaps forweddings. There’s a feeling that Instagram and the Internet will be eternal, but this is a very fragile medium. Everything we can consume in a virtual environment is intangible, and as soon as a server crashes, technology changes, everything you’ve saved disappears. We put everything onto the Internet, satisfying our need to communicate with people through images, but there’s a question mark as to how much of this will survive.

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