THE ESSENTIAL MISSION OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER – TO SEE / A conversation with Vytenis Jankūnas by Julija Fomina

Excerpts from the interview originally published in, 2015.12.09

Julija Fomina: It seems that photography in the subway – where, one might say, you do not have to prepare or be disposed to work, where there are no doubts about the space – is quite a productive and creative strategy for you.

Vytenis Jankūnas: Yes, exactly. I take a lot of photographs, but then often put them aside. I have this other problem where it is easy for me to begin work, especially towards what I have imagined, but then the final stage is very difficult for me. It is hard for me to finish, putting a period on it. I often fail to finish my works: I do not sign off; I do not cut something out, and so on. I like the ‘middle’ stage – the creative process – very much, and I get through it more easily. But when it comes to finishing, that gets harder and harder.

JF: How did you begin the series of works that you’re showing in Stuck in the Train; how did it start, what gave you the impulse?

VJ: Hmm, it is hard to remember. I used to take photographs with a film camera, but I needed a wider image. I just decided that I had to photograph everything more, and to sew the pictures together later. Currently, I work in advertising in America. I have to use a lot of Photoshop, retouching photos, squaring things up – I almost do it without thinking; it seems to be programmed into my subconscious. So much so, that I have to do something with what I’ve photographed, to create something unseen and original.
When you take pictures with a camera, you’re like a horse with blinkers – you don’t see the whole scene. When you look without a camera lens, your image is much wider. The eye can turn and take in much more space. I wanted to get this impression out of my photographs. Then, I began to think about how to convey the flow of time and movement without showing someone moving. In photographs, people are completely static, but when you look at them, it seems like they have moved, as though time has passed.
It is also important that the people and objects, which I photograph, are well known to me. When I arrive at a new place, I never jump into photography. I need to domesticate my surroundings. On the train, everything is familiar to me; nothing surprises me, I just observe the personalities. That image that I see is what I want to convey in my photographs. It seems to me that this aspect of my method is why the images strike people as being so sincere and real.

JF: You have told me that one reason for giving up painting and starting to take photographs was because it was much simpler. Perhaps not technologically, but it was more straightforward in terms of disseminating the work.

VJ: Painting is a struggle. I have not done it in a long time since the time when I received a grant. I painted works on a large scale, which now sit in the hallway of my house, leaning against the walls. Where to put it all, where to preserve it from harm? After all, I do not have enough of the studio space. Besides that, when I create, I want to reach my goal all the more quickly. Photography is a fitting medium for that. For example, if you are sculpting from stone, a lot of time passes before you are finally able to really achieve something. Some people, like Mindaugas Navakas, enjoy that. I, on the other hand, do not at all. With photography, it is much simpler. When you want to be in a show, you just send some digital files and they print them off locally. You do not have to worry about logistics, insurance, safe-keeping, and so on. If something were to happen to the photographs, they could easily be re-printed. So, I’ve found a creative medium that satisfies me whilst also feeling intimate. For now, I am satisfied with it. Perhaps I will return to painting later. I don’t know.

JF: During the 1970s and 80s in Lithuania, there was a boom in art groups establishing themselves which came to an end rather quickly. You were involved with some of these groups. Can you tell us a little about this creative period?

VJ: Well, I was a member of the groups ‘1’ and the ‘New Communications School’. Firstly, they were all good company. Group ‘1’ had no manifesto in contrast to ‘Angis’ [Viper], for example. The very name of the group, ‘1’, revealed there to be no ideology; it was more just a bunch of friends. The ‘New Communications School’, whose leader was Ernestas Parulskis, had a different story. The name itself emphasised the fact that we were offering something new. It was in some sense better at that time to be part of a group than to be a member of the Artist’s Union. I would call my work with Audrius Puipa and Gintautas Trimakas – when we created ‘living pictures’ – as more by a group of like-minded artists. We didn’t have a name, but the nucleus of the group was, of course, Puipa. We worked together and had a great time! The creative process, especially preparation for it, was very important. We came up with the idea of copying famous paintings. In one of them, for example, we could pretend to be a dying Marat from The Death of Marat. It was great fun creating those pictures, getting into the roles, and then swapping places. I would call what we did ‘happenings’. We planned the process down to the very last detail, assembling together and making the living picture, before celebrating together. The point was not to recreate the picture’s persona exactly, but that we, including us and our friends, became this persona, giving us the greatest sense of euphoria.

JF: Are you interested in producing or composing photographs in a studio yourself?

VJ: Not really. I do not have the time or facilities. Also, I am not all that professional – I would not know how to regulate the lighting, for example. When I take pictures on the train, I improvise. I do not need to plan in advance. With a staged photograph, one has to consider everything beforehand. I prefer to photograph various scenes, before thinking about what I could do with them later. This process allows for the unexpected: something else finds its way into the picture and this detail becomes important, even though you never planned it, and it would be impossible to have planned in advance.