by Daiga Jamonte, RIGA
Riga Photo Club is the oldest photographic club in Riga. After its foundation, it quickly distinguished itself as the leading and most prestigious photography society – the one with which all other clubs in Latvia competed.
At the start of the 1960s a number of photography clubs were set up, both in Riga and in other Latvian cities, bringing together amateurs who were interested in fine-art photography. This was the result of a succession of conditions which had formed at the end of the 1950s.
During the 1950s, a number of changes took place in the field at a global level. The prestige of photography – documentary photography, in particular – increased. Photography entered museums, and there was an increase in activity by amateur photographers, who grouped together to form organisations or salons.
In 1950, the founding congress of the FIAP (Fédération Internationalle de l’Art Photographique) was held in Belgium. The work of the FIAP had remarkable significance in establishing a regularly jury-assessed network of photographers (by the ‘60s, international photographic salons would be in operation on every continent), and encouraging photographers to participate in exhibitions, thereby creating an informal, international exchange of information. The federation organised international competitions for amateur photographers, and the results would decide who was awarded with FIAP titles.
Photography had a very pragmatic role in the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Arnis Balčus – a Latvian fine-art photographer who is interested in the history of photography, and is also the chief editor of the online magazine Fotokvartāls – characterised the period in the following terms: “under the Communist system, photography was allocated a utilitarian role: to serve as a means for propaganda and agitation, or for consumer services.”
In practice, this meant that photographers worked in the fields of journalism or applied photography, or in photo studios, and had defined, concrete tasks. But in the 1950s, the situation gradually started to change.
During the 1950s, society started to recover from the war; as a result, material well-being also increased, and people were able to dedicate more time to hobbies. Amateur collectives became active in various fields. This was also supported and encouraged by the authorities, because such activities were regarded as a meaningful way for proletarians to spend their free time. Interest in photography among amateurs also grew, encouraged by the fact that, in the 1950s, FED and Lubitel cameras were relatively inexpensive. “Wall newspapers” [displays] put up in businesses and institutions, which were illustrated with pictures, also encouraged photography. Small photography groups operated in many places – although these groups weren’t focused on art, but on scientific and technical aspects.
In 1950, Zvaigzne (Star) began publication. This was the first illustrated magazine to be published in post-war Latvia, and as time went on, it more and more frequently featured photographs that were more or less artistic. In 1957, Sovetskoye Foto (“Soviet Photo”, in Russian) restarted its work. This was a magazine dedicated to the photography of the Soviet Union, and it published material dealing with both technical and artistic questions. Also available on the market at the time were foreign photographic magazines – for example, the Czech magazines Revue Fotografie and Fotografie, the Swiss publication Camera, and Aperture from the US. Periodicals were cheap in the Soviet Union, and this contributed to their accessibility and popularity. The availability of foreign magazines was connected with the so-called “thaw” in the second half of the 1950s; under its influence, residents of the Soviet Union finally had the opportunity to see exhibitions of international photography.
That the photographers of the Soviet Union needed to have their own organisation was demonstrated in 1957. That year, a competition was publicised; the prize, entry to the all-union exhibition being organised in honour of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the USSR. An exhibition of this kind had not happened since 1937. To make a selection for the exhibition, exhibitions and competitions also took place at a republican level, leading to activity amongst photographers. The many problems which arose while the exhibition was being put together forced photographers – including those who were amateurs – to address the subject of organisation more seriously. It should be acknowledged that problems of this kind were characteristic of many different places in the Soviet Union.
While the republican exhibition was being organised, a meeting of professional and amateur photographers was called, to be held on 17th October, 1957. A total of 120 photographers took part. The lack of exhibition experience of the participants led to a situation where apart from general questions about photography – for example, regarding how photographers should organise themselves – one of the themes discussed was how to prepare photography for an exhibition on a purely technical level: size, framing, etc. Judging by periodicals from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, these kind of questions also had to be discussed all over the country.
During the meeting, it was decided that a photography club had to be founded. News about this decision appeared in the newspaper Rīgas Balss (Voice of Riga), but there was to be no follow-up – and there was no direct connection between this and the later creation of photography societies in Latvia, which began in the 1960s. Nonetheless, the idea had now been voiced.
The first photography club in Latvia was founded in February 1962 by a group of students who had been attending a journalism course at the People’s University in Riga, during which principles about photography had also been presented. When the course finished, they decided to create a club of their own in order to continue to find out about photography. As recalled by one of the founders of the society, Jānis Valters Ezeriņš, in the basement of the printers’ trade union club they pressed Vilnis Folkmanis – unofficially seen as the leader of the group – on the subject, telling him that they needed their own club.
And so it happened. The club’s founding documents were written. The Director of the Central Printing Club, Maija Lačkāja provided support and an obliging attitude, as well as a space in the club’s basement where they could organise classes.
Some years later, the first leader of Riga Photo Club, Vilnis Folkmanis, described it in the following way: “the road to the peak of mastery is not an easy one, but – as I often say – the longest road begins with a single step. The members of what is now Riga Photo Club took this first step in 1960, starting classes at the Central Printing Club at the Journalism Faculty of the People’s University. Here they took a series of lectures about photo reportage. During those two years a small, but united collective was created, which worked seriously on questions of fine-art photography. After completing the People’s University, the core members – namely, J. Ozoliņš, V. Ezeriņš, K. Graviņš, Z. Stružs, A. Vasiļonoks, and others – fifteen people, in all – founded the photo club and started weekly lessons. Before long, the club had more than 70 members. In May of that same year, the first exhibition took place.”
In October, another, more wide-ranging exhibition was held. In the years that followed, the club’s “creative report” exhibitions took place annually.
At the start, the club took anyone who was interested, but later on the process of admission became more complicated. Applicants had to submit photographs to the club’s board; these would be evaluated before a decision was made. If the board decided that the submitted photographs technically or artistically did not meet its requirements, then the applicant could still be accepted as a candidate for club membership. They could participate in classes just the same as club members, but they also had to participate in internal club competitions, where members’ work was collectively analysed and assessed.
The membership of the photo club was rather varied – members have always come from the widest range of positions. In 1965, the art historian Ansis Epners, describing the club, wrote: “Look, the place where so much reflection takes place! Ninety-two people – chemists, engineers, drivers, accountants, milling machine operators, type-setters, gardeners, doctors, teachers, architects, students, irrigation workers – all working intensively, creatively at Riga Amateur Photographers’ Club, attesting with their work the growth of our lives, giving an insight into future perspectives, forcing people to think.”
As time has gone on, Riga Photo Club’s name has changed several times, but within the club itself this was not of much consequence – until 1977, that was, when the club received the title of “People’s Collective”. This was an honorary title that was awarded to amateur collectives in a number of different fields for high levels of craftsmanship, and for active and consistent work. This title brought with it not only status, but also greater support. This also expedited the club’s move in 1979 to a new space at 21 Blaumaņa iela. Before that, the club had been based in a small space in the basement of the Central Printers’ Trade Union club, but now members would have their own space for working, a laboratory, and an exhibition hall, as well as a courtyard to hold expositions in the summer.
From the very start, the two main strands of the photo club’s activities were exhibition work and education, which for the group were tightly connected. Work for exhibitions allowed members to become familiar with the photography of other countries, both eastern and western; what’s more, the exhibitions organised by the photo club in Riga, which included international photography, significantly contributed to the understanding of international photography among Latvian society as a whole.
The most significant reason for the foundation of the photo club, and for its activity from then on, was education – and, more particularly, education in fine-art photography. It was not possible to obtain an education in this field at the start of the 1960s in Latvia, but the group of photographers interested in this subject had grown sufficiently large. For those in Soviet Latvia who were interested in fine-art photography, clubs took on many of the functions of educational institutions
But some of the photographers were already self-educated. As photographer Gunārs Binde relates, before joining the club, he had studied art and also subscribed to a number of international publications. The advantages to being a club member were the opportunity for freer, broader exchange of experiences, regular meetings with like-minded people, and the chance to attend lectures. In an interview at the Latvian Museum of Photography, Gunārs Binde said that “the club helped you grow, to become a creator of images, a creator of artistic work, instead of just documenting plain facts ”
The photography club used a number of different methods of education: exchange of experience, familiarising members with the work of foreign photographers, their analysis, lectures. The exchange of experience and conversations happened both inside the club, and when meeting with other photographers from Latvia and the Soviet Union – and in later years, from the West. Members paid visits to other clubs – by this point, a broad network of clubs had been created in the Soviet Union – and other photographers. They also welcomed guests; and club members participated in plenaries, both individually and collectively.
The analysis of fine-art photography – the subject on which the most importance was placed – developed members’ awareness of many different technical developments in the field of photographic art, as well as of artistic points of view and the application of the basic principles of visual art to photography. In order to deepen this understanding, many lecturers also took the floor at the club, offering their knowledge about these questions and sharing their personal experiences.
The club has always allocated an important role to perfecting technique, and to acquiring knowledge of a wide range of technical methods, thus widening the options for the creation of artistic images. The club members enthusiastically incorporated into their work techniques such as photomontage, solarisation, graphic arts and isohelia.
In 1979, on the initiative of Riga Photo Club, in order to give a wider audience the opportunity to learn about fine-art photography, a faculty of fine-art photography was created at the People’s University of the Kirovs Region, [as the central region of Riga was then called], offering a two-year course. The course presented principles of technique, composition and light; and photographic genres of different kinds – as well as covering questions of ethics and jurisdiction, and new developments in the world of photography. When they graduated from the faculty, students’ diploma work was displayed at an exhibition. In later years, the club offered courses at a number of different levels for those interested in photography.
With regards to exhibitions, the club’s work was focused in two directions: the first was on the annual group exhibitions, and those of individual club members’ work; the second was on exhibitions of the work of other photographers that the club organised in Riga. These included the work of guests to the club, as well as so-called all-union and international exhibitions, such as “Landscapes of the Homeland” and “Women’s Fine-Art Photography”. The photographic club also received patronage from the FIAP, meaning they could organise FIAP exhibitions. In 1986, the photographic club became the first in the Soviet Union to receive permission from the FIAP to award gold, silver and bronze medals. The independent Republic of Latvia has been a member state of the FIAP since 1991.
Exhibitions by Riga Photo Club and its members spanned the whole world; it was possible to view their work on every continent of the earth – including Antarctica, as took place in 1977.
The photographs were first of all exhibited at the Arctic and Antarctic Scientific Research Institute in Leningrad and after that taken by boat to the South Pole. Talking about this exhibition, I. Paņins, a rear-admiral and twice Hero of the Soviet Union, said: “The gift given by the artists of Riga Photo Club to the researchers was simply wonderful. Never before in the Antarctic had there been a single photographic exhibition.”
Over the years, Riga Photo Club members have successfully participated in FIAP exhibitions. In 1975 Ilmārs Apkalns, Gunārs Binde and Egons Spuris became the first people in Latvia to receive the AFIAP title (Artist of the FIAP). Members of Riga Photography Club to have received FIAP honorary titles are Ilmārs Apkalns, Aivars Āķis, Bruno Alsiņš, Leons Balodis, Zigurds Bilzonis, Gunārs Binde, Jānis Blumbergs, Valdis Brauns, Silvija Danelsone, Ēriks Drubiņš, Rolands Fogts, Eiženija Freimane, Jānis Gailītis, Jānis Gleizds, Edvīns Gulbis, Jānis Kreicbergs, Jānis Kļaviņš, Viesturs Links, Vilhelms Mihailovskis, Vilis Missa, Jāzeps Ozoliņš, Staņislavs Pelše, Eduards Pētersons, Juris Popovs, Imants Puriņš, Uldis Salna, Egons Spuris, Aivis Šmulders, Leonīds Tugaļevs, Juris Zēbergs, Antons Zlidnis. The first AFIAP title to be awarded in the Soviet Union was received by Vilhelms Mihailovskis, and the long-time leader Aivars Āķis received the full range of FIAP titles.
The club members were very successful in exhibitions, and they not infrequently received prizes of various classes for their participation in competitions. The club’s first international award was brought home by Gunārs Binde in 1965. He received a plaque in Vsetín in Czechoslovakia for his work entitled “Wall” – not the only award the image received. The first gold medal for the club was received by Binde at an exhibition in Argentina for his portrait of Eduards Smiļģis [a Latvian actor and theatre director].
Riga Photo Club and its members also have other noteworthy awards to their name. For example, Valdis Brauns’ success at the World Press Photo awards, where in 1978 he received the highest award, the Golden Eye, for his work “The Rain of Happiness”. In 1994, Jānis Kļaviņš received the main prize at Ballantine’s competition in London for “Before the Thunderstorm” (1978).
To list all their awards would make for a very long list, and in the archive of the photo club there is a beautiful collection of prizes that have been won. Periodically, these achievements were recognised with so-called honorary titles. In 1982, with the Latvian SSR’s Supreme Council decree of 24th March, the Riga People’s Photo Studio [as the Photo Club was called at that time] was awarded the honorary title of Highly Merited Collective. With this honorary title the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Latvian SSR recognised their excellent achievements and high craftsmanship. The previous year, the title of Highly Merited Art Worker of the LSSR was awarded to Gunārs Binde. This was the first time that a photographer in Latvia had received such an award. In later years, other photographers also received this recognition. For its part, the government of the Republic of Latvia has decorated Jānis Gleizds, who was awarded the Order of Three Stars in 1995. Since 2015, Eiženija Anna Freimane has been an Officer of the Cross of Recognition.
We can of course list awards and titles, but these reveal only part of the meaning that the phenomenon that was Riga Photo Club had in Latvian culture, or of its effect on fine-art photography throughout the Soviet Union. While receiving prizes from members’ participation in exhibitions and competitions, Riga Photo Club also developed photographers who didn’t often appear in exhibitions but who are still significant in the story of Latvian fine-art photography, for their work’s particularity, character, tonality, and for the way they inspired further development and gave confidence in photo art as a powerful and potent form of art. Over many years, Riga Photo Club’s exhibitions – both those of members’ own work and those they organised to display the work of others – were significant events in Latvian art. As well as the approximately 400 members who have participated during the existence of the club, in the second half of the 20th century Riga Photo Club gave all of Latvian society the opportunity to get to know photographic art – and to come to understand it better and better.
 Tīfentāle A., Fotogrāfija kā māksla Latvijā. 1960 – 1969. – p. 9
 Tīfentāle A., Fotogrāfija kā māksla Latvijā. 1960 – 1969. – p. 13
 Balčus A., “Dvēseļu inženieri ar fotoaparātiem. Fotogrāfija Latvijā 1940. un 1950. gados”// Fotokvartāls. – 2010/ 2
 Balčus A. Dvēseļu inženieri ar fotoaparātiem. Fotogrāfija Latvijā 1940. un 1950. gados// Fotokvartāls. – 2010/ 2
 At this time Latvia was not part of the Soviet Union, and so this exhibition did not affect Latvian photographers.
 LVA, 687. f. 2. apr. 160. l., p. 16.
 LVA, 687. f. 2. apr. 160. l., p. 10.
 For example, Еремин Ю. Как готовится к выставкам// Советское фото. – 1957/ 5.- p. 37–39.; Комовский А. Как мы офорляем свои фотовыставки// Советское фото. – 1958/ 4. – p. 29–32.
 “Rīgas Balss”- 21.10.1957.
 Folkmanis V., Rīgas fotoamatieru klubs/ 5. izstāde. Katalogs. 1965.
 Epners A., “Paraksti zem fotoattēliem”// Liesma. – 1965/1.
 Latvijas Padomju enciklopēdija. – 9th volume.
 Archive of the Latvian Museum of Photography.
 Skalbergs A., “Rīgas fotoklubam 15″// Zvaigzne. 1977/ 8.
Daiga Jamonte studied at the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Latvia. Since 2002 she has been a historian at the Latvian Museum of Photography.
Translated from Latvian by Will Mawhood
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