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Vitas Luckus

Vitas Luckus was born on May 29, 1943 in Kaunas, Lithuania. At the age of eighteen, after graduating with a degree in drawing and painting, his parents gave him an AGFA camera, which initiated his fascination in photography. In the following years he developed a great interest in art photography and became a member of the Kaunas Photo Club, to which he was elected president a few years later.

According to Luckus, the conventional use of light and visual arrangement of a photograph would leave out essential elements that could retrieve the vitality and different levels of reality. He advocated a style in which there was no hierarchy of meaning: every element in the photographic composition was of equal importance. Only then was it possible to capture the “truth” and represent the essence of a scene, of life itself.

For his series, and last work, Attitude towards Old Photography, Luckus made montages from a large collection of photographic images other than his own. In the book he created of these works, text and titles were deliberately excluded to maintain the unity of his constructed realism. In his diary he wrote:

In the beginning I tried to classify my work according to social phenomena and photo graphical style, emphasizing the topic of life and death. This made me feel like a Lithuanian artist carving statues of God or the saints. When I put everything on the table, however, I felt like a god myself. In front of me I had an Asian and a Red Indian, a Negro, a white, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Christian, the Czarist army, the Polish army, the Kaiser, the war, funerals and weddings. I shuffled thousands of images into a heap an found they were an orderly heap of life, because everything here was life and because all of us, whether a boxer, a Czar, a beggar or a half-naked woman were disclosed here. Archive photography seemed to me to reflect a bottomless well, waiting for someone to look into it and understand it.

Luckus was known to drink excessively and experienced ongoing confrontation with the authorities. This battle was set off by his refusal to adhere to the conventional standards of beauty, regulations that were firmly guarded by the Lithuanian government. In 1987, during a visit from several men to his home, Luckus got into an argument with one of the men, who was later identified as a KGB agent. The fight became violent and Luckus stabbed and killed the man. Only moments after the incident, Tanya Luckiene, his wife, found Luckus: he had jumped to his death from their balcony.

Together with Aleksandras Macijauskas, Vitas Luckus is considered to be a reformer of the traditional romantic realism within Lithuanian photography.

Source: Vitas Luckus: The Hard Way. Photographer, Lithuania, 1943–1987. Zurich: Edition Stemmle, 1994 Claartje van Dijk


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Rescuing a Photo Prince From Obscurity


Tanya Aldag slips into a closet-size room in her home in suburban Maryland. The door clicks shut. Here, surrounded by thousands of black and white prints, she goes tumbling back to Soviet-era Lithuania.

“It’s like you’re going deep into the water,” she said. “It can be hard to go there.”

Ms. Aldag, 64, is the widow of Vitas Luckus, once a prince — perhaps even a king — of the Soviet photography scene. From the 1960s to the mid-1980s, he traveled throughout the Soviet bloc, capturing peasants, performers, partiers and policemen, as well as a generation of grippingly attractive young artists. He scurried across sloping rooftops, camera swinging from his neck. He worked obsessively, with little care for what others thought. The secret police were a constant presence in his life, burgling his home and beating him in bathrooms and cafes.

Ms. Aldag was both his muse and his creative partner, alternately his subject and his co-producer. When Mr. Luckus died in 1987 at age 43, after committing murder and then killing himself, his work faded to near-obscurity. Ms. Aldag, tortured by his abrupt death, eventually escaped to the United States with her young daughter and remarried.

But recent events — including a spring exhibit at the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, the fall release of a documentary about Mr. Luckus’ life, and the coming publication of two books — will allow the public, finally, to see his work.

“It’s time to talk,” said Ms. Aldag, who now runs a home for the elderly at her ranch-style house. “When we were young, I did not realize that we were living something, and now I realize it was history.”

Mr. Luckus was born in 1943 in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In 1944, the Soviets took control and outlawed religious, cultural and political opposition organizations.

Ms. Aldag met him at a hospital where she was training to be a nurse. She was 18, he was 24. Their first home together consisted of a single-person cot in the photography lab where Mr. Luckus found a job. “We were skinny, thank God,” Ms. Aldag said. “We would put these cartons a little bit under the mattress, and bedspreads. And when we want to turn, we say, ‘O.K., turn.’ ”

DESCRIPTIONVitas Luckus “Self portrait with Tanya.”

The two made money by creating advertisements that shopkeepers hung above half-empty store shelves. Ms. Aldag still has the prints: colorful photographs of smiling men and women holding bundles of bread and fish.

“We just lived,” Ms. Aldag said. “We did. We lived. We were happy.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Luckus grew into a lightning-rod figure in the region’s art scene, a man whose brutal honesty, seemingly boundless creativity and aggressive empathy had the power to both divide and inspire the bohemian community in which he lived. Socially, he was “brilliant at certain moments, impossible at others,” the journalist Herman Hoeneveld wrote in “The Hard Way,” a 1994 book of Mr. Luckus’s work. “He had a unique inspiring and stimulating effect on others, and would work for days on end with a minimum of sleep and alcohol.”

Mr. Luckus called himself “dvarniazka,” Russian for mutt. He filled his frames with information and emotion. He often captured his subjects at jarringly close range, snapping the shutter at the moment they burst into laughter or raised their arms in ecstasy. “He photographed both for God and for the devil, and worked as if possessed,” Mr. Hoeneveld wrote.

Mr. Luckus was never involved in politics, Ms. Aldag said, but his work was sometimes censored — overtly by Communist officials or, more covertly, by well-connected colleagues who ignored it. Government informants and police officers often followed him, and on March 16, 1987, a man Ms. Aldag believes was a K.G.B. officer visited the couple’s apartment on Jaksto Street in Vilnius. Mr. Luckus became angered by the man’s questions, according to an account in “The Hard Way.”

He stabbed and killed the man, then flung himself off the balcony. Ms. Aldag found him in the snow.

Ms. Aldag continued to take pictures for several years, but she never felt safe in Lithuania. In 1991, she moved to the United States, carrying her adopted daughter Katrina, a suitcase of Mr. Luckus’s photographs and diaries, and $50.

“One stone is missing in this Lithuanian culture,” said Ms. Aldag, referring to the voluminous photographic archive in her home. “There is still a lot to share.”

DESCRIPTIONVitas Luckus Juozas, 1975.

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