It was surely one of the most extraordinary historical discoveries of recent decades in the Baltics. In 2004, during repair work to a roof in the small northern Latvian town of Strenči, Mārcis Bendiks stumbled upon boxes and boxes of glass photographic plates, ready for development but hidden away in a loft. Examined more closely, they proved to be a treasure trove, the record of a photographic studio set up in Strenči in 1909 by Dāvis Spunde and continued for decades thereafter by the Krauklis family. The 13,000 photos Bendiks discovered give an extraordinarily comprehensive overview of almost every facet of life over several decades in a provincial town in Latvia, mostly during the period following the country’s 1918 declaration of independence and before its forced incorporation into the Soviet Union.
From parades, sports competitions and celebrations to scenes of work in factories and on the River Gauja, privately commissioned portraits and some apparently composed purely for artistic or entertainment purposes, the pictures are both evocative and full of life. Given that Strenči had a population of only around 1,500 during this period, it’s hard to imagine that many residents could have escaped the lenses of Spunde and the Krauklises.
A selection of the images was published in 2019 under the title Glass Strenči (“Stikla Strenčī” in Latvian), receiving acclaim and being nominated among the best photobooks of the year by the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards. Now “Before the Spruce Fell” (“Pirms nokrita egle“), a photographic exhibition in Strenči itself organised by the publishers of the book Orbīta, is expanding on the theme. Deep Baltic shares an extract from the afterword to Glass Strenči, in which Kirill Kobrin reflects on the particularity and universality of Strenči, and what these often intimate, sometimes strange pictures can tell us about life during this often-overlooked, but hugely emotionally important period in the states “between Strasbourg and Brest-Litovsk”.
The period in which this book takes place is about 40 years long, between the end of 1910s and the beginning of 1950s. In other words, it takes place between the last years of World War I and the first few years after the end of World War II. However, considering the importance of these two horrifying chronological blocks, I should say we are mostly interested in the events that took place between 1918 and 1939.
We are interested in ‘peace’ and not ‘war’, although peace was defined by the result of the first of these world wars and then practically destroyed by the second. But it was still peace; people were mostly dying of natural causes, they created things instead of destroying them, they built plans, they looked forward and were having fun being alive, each in their own way of course. To us now this period of time in Europe, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (excluding the USSR) seems fragile, strange, attractive, painful and damned. Naturally, this attitude was defined by the big myth of Weimar Germany, which was created by both its contemporaries (Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Alfred Döblin, Christopher Isherwood) and also by its descendants. The latter were mostly from the film industry — Bob Fosse, Liza Minnelli, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Since then, all the films showing life between the two world wars in the region between Strasbourg and Brest-Litovsk are always accompanied in our heads by the soundtrack that includes, without fail, the tracks Mack The Knife, Cabaret, and Surabaya Johnny. Meanwhile, life in that region was actually quite different altogether, and it has somehow slipped through the web of English and German speaking modernist cultures. If we are unable to read in Czech, Polish, Hungarian or Latvian, then we really cannot learn anything about that period of time, which here, in the new European states created by the result of the fall of empires and the World War, still remains wrapped in a nostalgic halo, usually determined in these parts by the phrase ‘The First Republic’. The toxically bright and doomed beauty of Weimar Germany largely overshadowed what was happening outside of Berlin and Germany. Now the time has come to bring back the forgotten reality to its deserved place in the historical period of this region between the two world wars, in order to understand that life here was rather different in comparison with the inhabitants of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz.
Let’s move on to the place. It took the First Latvian Republic about 20 years of independence to build a state with all its functions and institutions. In other words, a new life was formed which was rather different from life before 1914, and very different from what will have begun after 1940 (1945). There were a few important industrial hubs, first and foremost Riga. There was trade (and international sea ports); there was strong agriculture, a matter of pride in these lands. Economically, the country was starting to settle down on new foundations while trying not to part ways with what had been happening in the previous years. Like many European countries, the 20 years between the world wars was a period of the second industrialisation, which was developing not only intensively (new technologies, industrial gigantomania of large cities) but also extensively, in width. Contemporary (for that time) economy started appearing in places where their way of life was still mainly old or mixed. The 20th century was entering the 19th, and sometimes the 18th century. Industrialisation, as per usual, was moving along railways, either new or ones built before the war. In 1889 the Russian Empire made a railroad from Pskov to Riga, and on it, some 120km northeast from the capital of the Governorate of Livonia, they built the Stackeln station (now — Strenči). Residents of the district earned their living in logging and timber rafting; the presence of the railroad and peatlands around it predetermined the fate of this place. In 1895 it was just a settlement, but in 1928 it was in the middle of a historical period that is of interest to us and a city with the appropriate status. At the time, from the second half of 1920s to 1930s, there were a little over 1,500 inhabitants. It is interesting to note that now the population is lower. Strenči’s economy was made of several components: the forest and everything connected to it, construction, small trade, and of course, agriculture, which the inhabitants participated in, together with typically urban duties. A large and very modern psychiatric hospital was built here before World War I. Together with the church and its water tower (also the stokehole), the two buildings make for the most architecturally interesting places in Strenči. It is hard to find anything similar anywhere else. I came to Strenči in November of 2018 to see the town which until then I had only seen on tens of old photographs. Strenči turned out completely empty, as if it had died out. Near the bathhouse, which was built during the late-Stalin era, there was a cat immersed in desperate boredom. I only met actual people in that same psychiatric hospital, in its canteen to be exact, where my friends and I decided to grab a bite to eat. There were two canteen workers and one other customer. They were joyful and talkative, which dispelled some of the gloom of emptiness.
The hospital is definitely unique, and it embodies the European history of the past century quite well, both in its beauty and in its grotesque features. The hospital was conceived to be truly advanced. At the beginning of the 20th century the social movement of some of the countries on this continent as well as in North America started to change its relationship to patients in these institutions. They began not only to isolate these patients from the so-called ‘normal’ people (please show me an example of one of these ‘normal’ people), not only to treat them (whatever was understood by this term at the time), but also to see actual humans in these institutions, the same humans as outside of the hospital walls. The process was long, and even today it has not been completed everywhere, but it was during that time, on the brink of the 20th century, that this humanitarian revolution had begun. Everything in the Strenči hospital, together with the nearby park, its architecture, and the fact that the wings of the hospital were named after its first patients, shows the obvious: these parts were not so remotely provincial as they might seem. ‘Big history’ did not bypass this hospital during the World War II. The Nazis did not acknowledge the mentally ill as humans, and in hindsight, they didn’t acknowledge anybody as humans of course, except for themselves, and had to be persuaded otherwise by spilling their blood and using severe force against them. They ordered all the patients to be killed alongside the Jewish doctors. It was diligently executed by their deputies. The motives of the latter were very varied, from the hatred for the alien to the primitive fear for oneself. However it doesn’t make a difference, bastards are bastards. The plot line about the hospital bridges the gap between the location of our story and the characters of this book, since you can’t open such an institution in a village; you need infrastructure, people who would work there, and other similar features. You would most likely need a town, but according to the ideas of that time (probably correct ones), you would need a small, leisurely town with clean air and a large space for patients and their visiting relatives to walk around in, rather than a megapolis with noise, ruckus and smoke, but this town still needed to be alive. It seems likely that Strenči was such a place during the period between the two world wars. I am taking a chance on this conclusion which I composed by looking at many photographs that showed inhabitants of the town. The photos are incredible, and the people in them too. In some sense they force you to start thinking about that period in that region in a completely different way than we had originally thought under the influence of the great myth created by great artists from Brecht to Fassbinder. The toxically bright light of Weimar is fading and we can witness another kind of life on the these photos. These are not ‘cabarets’, they are ‘works and days’.
ARTISTS BEHIND THE CAMERA
Who are these 1,500 people that inhabited more than three hundred houses in Strenči, some wooden, some made out of stone and wood, and some out of brick? Metalworkers, pharmacists, builders, nurses, millers, teachers, firefighters, doctors, people without any particular occupation, and also old men, children, and probably many housewives. They worked in the forest, on the river Gauja, in backyards, on fields, on pastures, in the town itself; that was also where they enjoyed their leisure in various ways, from the ‘high culture’ activities to the not so sophisticated ones. We know all this not only due to our developed historical imagination where we somehow suppose what life was like relatively not so long ago (grandmas’ and grandpas’ lives of my peers, and I am 55, is still stored in the familial memory, even great-grandmas’ and great-grandpas’), but we also have common sense. Everything is correct but it is just general knowledge, and therefore not very interesting, not very vibrant, hopelessly discarded in the shadows of the brightly lit visual, noise-filled and verbal forms, the bright light of art. Art is stronger than life and arguing against that is futile. But Strenči got lucky because it did have art, which didn’t just ‘come’ to this town for a short period of time, it actually settled down and lived there for four decades. Art was created there. And this in particular is connected to the period we are interested in.
Among the 1,500 people inhabiting Strenči after World War I there were at least five who did something for this town, and for the whole country and region, no less than what Christopher Isherwood or Liza Minnelli did for Berlin. The first was called Dāvis Spunde. In 1909 he opened a photography studio in Strenči and began to produce visual images of everything and everyone that surrounded him. He worked tirelessly as it earned him good money, the views of Gauja, the surroundings in general, portraits of neighbours and visitors. It seems he made a bit of money as he bought a house and hired an assistant. Jānis Krauklis came as a student to Spunde’s studio the year World War I started, then he brought in his younger brother Konrāds. Here the plot line about visual images gets slightly overshadowed by verbal images. Jānis Krauklis wrote and published poetry under the pseudonym Jānis Ziemeļnieks and actually became a well-known poet, and an ultra romantic one as well. The romanticism was connected not just with the themes of his works, but also his own life. He was a miserable opium addict, from which he died at the age of 32. But that is another story, mostly unconnected to ours. In the mid-1930s Spunde sold his photography studio to Konrāds Krauklis and his sister Pauline, but continued to take photographs. Everyone was taking photos, including Konrāds’ wife Elza and even other people, whose names we don’t know. The studio continued to exist until 1985, but the world was different after World War II than after World War I, and the people were different, and the photography equipment changed as well. More than 12,000 photographs were brought to light in Strenči’s factory of visual images, and considering the fact that pre-digital photography really was created in dark rooms and negatives to see the light of day, the phrase ‘brought to light’ makes sense here. Obviously not all of the photographs made it to this day, but even just taking this number and dividing it by the number of years the studio was active, then it seems that 300 photographs were produced per year. If we count faulty and lost images, then on average a photo a day was created. If we take the number of inhabitants of Strenči into account, then arithmetically it looks like every single inhabitant of the town must have been photographed at least once, and that’s considering that many were photographed multiple times. In other words, it could be said that Strenči is one of the most visually documented populated localities in Europe in the period between the two world wars (I am not talking about documents on photos, but these were also done quite a bit by Spunde and Krauklises). And here we pose a question, which is actually quite easy to answer. Why were there so many images? Was it greed? Protestant ethic of capitalism? Is that all? I am sure that’s not it. Strenči’s photographers’ workflow was not only, or should I suggest, not so much an entrepreneurial endeavour; it came from a real artistic drive. They worked tirelessly because they loved their craft, that is to say, they didn’t just love to throw a black rug on their head, mess around in a box with promise that a bird was about to fly out of there; no, they really loved their town and its surroundings, the people they were surrounded by (different types of people, unrelated to their personal relationships or characteristics), the houses, the roads, the river, the tree trunks. In other words, Spunde and Krauklises loved how the world looked. But that was not all. They didn’t just passively enjoy and record the world in all its strange details, but also transformed it by the artist’s will. That was due to them being actual artists, creators of new visual images, and therefore there is no difference between them and, say, any modernist giant like Picasso. As we are now living in the beginning of the 21st century, when (thank God!) it is impolite to talk about the ‘aesthetics’ of artworks as something of interest. In reality it is important that someone thinks like an artist, and not what he creates by calling himself one. As the Russian poet Anna Akhamtova used to say, the important thing is the greatness of an idea. However it is time to return to the inhabitants of Strenči and the town itself. We need to return to the image which is constructed from hundreds of photographs of the local crypto-modernists. What kind of place is it? And what is going on there?
THAT OBSCURE GOLDEN AGE OF CAPITALISM
Actually, it’s what I started the essay with by speaking about a period in time. We see a locality, the inhabitants of which are in a state of a fragile balance between the old and the new life from a socio-economic standpoint. Industrialisation had already come, but agriculture has not taken a step back yet. New mechanisms help the old activities, there is a tractor puffing, there is a steam-powered thresher; but the new trends are spreading in an old-fashioned way, and at a construction site of a modern stone house workers are carrying bricks on their backs without cranes or even winches. On Spunde-Krauklis photographs Strenči is a place of an ideal combination of many important characteristics of that period, which historians are calling ‘modernity’. It is urbanisation but in combination with rural life. There is a production of goods together with a development of infrastructure; the roads are getting paved in Strenči, which for that time was unimaginable for a village or an urban-type settlement. There is a ‘service industry’, most importantly the hospital, and small-scale production. As a matter of fact, besides the hospital, a very important element of the service industry’s economy of the town was the photo studio. It was most likely to have been one of the prosperous undertakings in the area, which is obvious from many decades of its existence under various circumstances and regimes. That was the economy. Now let’s look at the society. On those photographs we see people of different property statuses, and some are very poor. They probably saved up for a long time for a chance to be captured, for the memory, first of all for their own, but on that later. Or perhaps the photographer allowed their memory to be captured for free for Christ’s sake. There are some richer people, and some actual bourgeoisie. Like in the rest of Europe in that period, the men didn’t have much of a social status, but rather a horizon of social and economic expectations which were determined by their headwear. An employee would usually wear a flat cap, an employer would wear a fedora hat. There are, of course, quite a few exceptions, but even parting with the rules is done by looking back at the rule’s existence in the first place. Children are also dressed variously depending on the family’s income; obviously, I am not even going to mention the ladies. Disregarding the materialistic divergence, we also see here the social and class split. On one of the group photos we can see members of the building cooperative (smeared with dirt, stained, just picked up from the construction site), the heads of the co-op (same sort of thing but more self-confident, satisfied, a little bit brash, sitting in the foreground), the contractor (clean, a little arrogant, chose to stay in the background, in a fedora hat as he is keeping the social distance), and finally the client. The latter is placed slightly to the right of the centre of the photograph, and naturally he is wearing a fedora. His piercing eyes are looking straight at the lens. He was probably the one who ordered the photograph.
The same can be seen on celebratory photos of timber rafting, where you can really tell who is the rafter and who is paying for the job. But the amazing thing is that there is no social gap here. It’s not only that these people are shown together (capitalists actually like to be depicted with their employees, as the latter represent their temporary property, and the bigger the property, the higher the social status), but they are engaging with each other, gesturing, and sometimes they eat and drink together too. It is a capitalist society but still a provincial one, not yet torn apart by class antagonism. Here it is important to have a horizontal belonging to the local community despite the hierarchical social structure, and this aspect is far from being a rural one, but rather an urban characteristic that comes from the Middle Ages with self-governing boroughs. In social history and urbanism it is called a ‘communal spirit’. In Strenči that spirit is still very strong, and that is the first thing that really stands out on Spunde-Krauklis photographs. There are local collective civilian rituals such as parades, gatherings for various reasons, the honouring of firefighters, incomprehensible collective booze fests in the forest in specially dug out ditches, which surely aren’t what you would call a light-hearted ‘picnic’. At the same time the Strenči communal spirit does not leave an impression of something archaic, a dense atavism of rural life. Firstly, it looks like there was never an actual village here at all. The whistle-stop, the modern hospital, the timber rafting and the peat processing nearby were all markers of modernity that formed the local life and the local community. Strenči is a small but modern town in the period between the two world wars. And the marvellous attribute of this quality is that one doesn’t feel alienation in these photographs, which is the main characteristic of capitalism, according to Marx and his followers. There is a division in the society, surplus value acquired by means of productions, hired labour, but the producers of goods are not alienated from the goods themselves, from their own labour, or from their own lives. It is a sort of paradise of humane capitalism. Strenči’s Belle Époque.
Translated by Katya Luca
Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian and editor. He is the author of 30 books in Russian and English and numerous publications in the Russian, British, Latvian, Lithuanian and German press. He lives in Riga.
The book Glass Strenči is available now, published by Orbīta Press. The exhibition “Before the Spruce Fell”, inspired by photos and themes from the book, can be seen in Strenči as part of the Mākslas Vasaras Strenčos festival until 3rd September.
All images credit – Vladimirs Svetlovs
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