Old portrait photography of Kaunas

KTU Library’s virtual exhibition

Short visit

Collection reveals a part of iconographic heritage of Kaunas city. Museums, libraries and collectors of the city have significant collections of urban, event and portrait photography. Library of Kaunas University collected a fund of about 3 000 iconography units. It was inherited by library of Kaunas University of Technology.
160 photographs were selected for collection and systemized chronologically, emphasizing the photographers’ workshops that were more notable. The main features of development of Kaunas commercial and fine-art photography were revealed in the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and the third and fourth decade of the 20th century. Collection reflects various aspects of interesting and live image of the city’s past, reviving authentic cultural and social environment of its citizens.
Collection was prepared based on archived and published sources.

Portrait photography in Kaunas in the second half of 19th – beginning of 20th century

19th century is a century of inventions and rapid technological progress. People’s attempts to record reality, to stop and preserve a moment were successfully implemented by invention of blueprint or photography, announced in Paris in 1839.

Travelling photographers used to visit Kaunas since 1854. Considerably early appearance of photographers in Kaunas was determined by transit roads and sufficient population, which could ensure minimum income of this craft. First stationary photo studios were opened in Kaunas in 1862 and 1863 by Maksas Diemanas (Dumanas) and Icikas Klivanskis. After uprising of 1863 tsar authorities inspected all institutions, which could contribute to distribution of illegal production (publishers, foundries of letters, lithography and photo studios). Activities of workshops of photographers were strictly regulated. In the 7th decade of the 19th century photographers, who wanted to open their photo studio, had to provide a deposit (200–500 silver roubles), three written guarantees by people, who were loyal to the authorities, and obtain a governor’s permission.

Until the 9th decade of the19th century a few photo studios became well-known in Kaunas – studios of Aleksandras Strausas, Vladislovas von der Leyus and Jaroslavas Bžozovskis. Photographer and artist from Vilnius A. Strausas (1834–1896) came to Kaunas in 1868. A. Strausas was a famous portraitist and a pioneer of fine-art and theatre photography in Lithuania. In 1882 40 photographers of 1500 craftsmen working in the empire at the time participated in Russian exhibition of industry and art in Moscow. Portrait photography outshadowed other genres. A. Strausas presented a few portraits at the exhibition and was awarded a bronze medal.

A. Strausas Company had a few different owners. Simonas Surevičius became its owner in 1873. In 1877 Piotras Simonas Piotrovičius bought the workshop, which at the time was located in Deueliai house at Nikolajaus prospect (now – Laisvės al.), from S. Surevičius. Both of them made contracts with A. Strausas, which allowed them to use the title of “Strausas Company” for a substantial fee. Photo studio of P. S. Piotrovičius thrived. During nine months of 1877 they carried out 1400 orders. Visite carte photographs (103 x 63), glued to standard size cardboard cards with flower design or other ornament and information about photographer and his workshop, were most popular. A dozen of such photographs cost 5 roubles, half a dozen – 3 roubles. More and more photographs were made in various formats (cabinet portrait (164 x 107) and victoria carte (122 x 83), etc.).

The most famous photographer in Kaunas of that period was Vladislavas Zatorskis (1862–1926). He started his activities in the city in 1882 at the photo studio of his father Emilijus Zatorskis. In 1891–1894 V. Zatorskis was the owner of two photo studios. To distinguish between them, photographs were marked by two notes – “across from city garden” (now – city municipality) or “across from girls’ gymnasium” (now – central post). V. Zatorskis was the first person to receive permission to take photographs of Kaunas city – military fortress.
V. Zatorskis, who started taking photographs of the city, its panoramas and neighbourhoods in the end of the 19th century, became the first photo-chronicler of the old Kaunas. V. Zatorskis was active in the photography field until 1913. In 1905 he was awarded a Grand Golden Medal for his studio works at Brussels Photography Exhibition.

All photo studios of that time were established in the flats. Usually photographs were taken in the day light (photographers started using artificial lighting only in the 20th century), therefore small pavilions with big windows and glass roof were often annexed to the flat. Photo studios were distinguished by modest interior. Workshop had one or a few backgrounds – landscape painted on canvas on the entire wall. Besides the background, various accessories were used: armchairs, tables, fences, columns. Wooden floor was often covered by carpet. In special cases, especially taking photographs of high rank officers, special decorations were created. There is a famous photograph, made at Kasparis and Bucheris photo studio around 1866; it is a photograph of Kaunas governor Nikolajus Muravjovas on the painted horse.

The number of photo studios was increasing, their technologies improved, production of produced portraits increased, therefore their prices reduced and more and more citizens and guests of Kaunas could have their photographs taken. The main customers of photo studios were priests, doctors, students, wealthy citizens. At the end of the 19th century – beginning of the 20th century there were from six to eight active photo studios in Kaunas. There was a rapid rotation of the owners of photo studios, but most popular workshops remained at the same places. In 1868 A. Strausas bought devices from the photographer Jonas Branderburgas, who was leaving Kaunas, and established his photo studio in the wooden pavilion in the yard of Ritenbergas house (now – Laisvės al. 57 / S. Daukanto 17). In 1912 photographer Adomas Kliučinskis moved into the same house. He rented a five room flat on the second floor and established a photography pavilion with glass roof in the penthouse. It was an active photo studio until 1940. Another photo studio, active for almost six decades – workshop of A. Ciolkevičius, opened in 1883 at Vitkind-Rabinovič house (now – Laisvės al. 82 / Maironio 17). Photo studio, which had many owners, remained there until 1940.

When researchers of photography history assess photographers of Kaunas of that period and their activities, they emphasize that majority of photography masters were simple craftsmen, who earned their living by this occupation, but they did not achieve the excellence of mastership. However, they were pioneers of this area in the city and their works are of high iconographic value. Particularly, because we have no accurate data on preserved works of the photographers of the discussed period, which are scattered in various collections. Publications of historians and art critics cannot replace multi-aspect visual acquaintance with old portrait photography. Organizers of this exhibition hope that this meeting helps to reveal more significant features of development of Kaunas photography and get a better understanding of colours of life during that period.

The third and fourth decades of the 20th century

After the First World War a few photographs worked in Kaunas: Adomas Kliučinskis, Boleslovas Savsenavičius and Simonas Bajeras. Each year the number of photographs in Kaunas increased, photo studios appeared not only in the downtown, but also in other parts of the city, in Šančiai, Vilijampolė, Žaliakalnis districts. Information sheet Visa Lietuva specifies that there were 16 active photo studios in Kaunas in 1922. One year later publication indicated 28 photographers: S. Bajeras, V. Domeika, I. Besarabija, A. Kliučinskis, L. Judsonas, J. Matušaitis, K. Mingaila, V. Murnykas, B. and M. Rubinai, P. Rutkauskas, B. Savsenavičius, P. Šeras, S., Ch. and H. Vinokurai and others. Quite a few photographers, who could not survive a severe competition, stopped their activities in a few years. The most productive studios: Ekonominės karių bendrovės fotostudija (1922-1940, Laisvės al. 48), photo studios Modern, Renaissance, Progress, Zinaida. Portraits were created by acknowledged master of photojournalism Mejeris Smečechauskas, S. Bajeras, A. Naruševičius and others. At the end of the 4th decade of the 20th century there were about 50 workshops in Kaunas and amateur photographers were competing with them. Photographers, who wanted a memorable advertisement, named their workshops by grand titles.

One of the most famous photo studios in Kaunas during the 3rd decade of the 20th century was owned by J. Tallat-Kelpšienė, who worked as State Theatre Photographer. In 1928 photographer’s workshop won a competition to make a portrait of the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona. Another famous Kaunas photographer was Zina Bliumentalienė. At the beginning of 1933 she participated in Berlin International Photography Competition. Five works of Z. Bliumentalienė received awards at that competition. Encouraged by international recognition, photographer opened an exhibition of her works at Kaunas Art Gallery on 26 February 1933, where she exhibited 130 photo portraits of famous people. Exhibition, which was visited by many people, was open until 17 March. Exhibition’s visitors noticed significant differences from the previously presented exhibition of the works by Petras Babickas.

“Zinaida is more distinguished for a photo-artistic technique, regulating composition and light-shadows of the paintings with the help of footlights according to her taste. Majority of the persons, portrayed by her, appear in natural poses, which are specially prepared for the object lens”, – wrote Naujoji Romuva. Photo portraits of Juozas Herbačiauskas, Mečislovas Bulaka, Neemija Arbitblatas, Juozas Vaičkus, Ignas Šlapelis, Vincas Čepinskis, Konstantinas Glinskis, Veronika Podėnaitė and other persons are considered most interesting and most successful works by Zinaida.

Karlas Baulas (1893 –1964) was the most creative photographer at Kaunas photo studios during inter-war period. He was born and grew up in Venspils. K. Baulas collected his theoretical and practical knowledge of photography in Moscow from the photographer Čižovas. K. Baulas moved to Kaunas around 1926 and established a workshop in Šančiai district. Later he moved to Laisvės avenue, worked at photo studio of “Ekonominė karių bendrovė” and his own photo studio. K. Baulas quickly became famous. He never advertised in any publication, but he never lacked clients. A stylish photographer was as important to the intelligentsia of that period as a tailor or a hairdresser.

K. Baulas perfected a genre of chamber photo portrait. He rejected the brightness, which had become a cliché and enriched a range of light and shadows. K. Baulas did not think that photographic means of expression were enough; he used to create a certain synthesis of two kinds of art – fine art and photography. Portraits of famous people by K. Baulas are distinguished by harmony of lighting, background and model characteristics. Often, if the model’s physical features were suitable, photographer exhibited a profile.

During the inter-war period photography in Kaunas was mostly developed by amateur photographers, the centre of fine-art photography moved to Kaunas from Vilnius. The following famous masters worked there: Petras Babickas, Balys Buračas, Vytautas Augustinas, Kazys Laucius, Steponas Kolupaila, Ignas Končius, Povilas Karpavičius and others. Development of photography in Kaunas was greatly influenced by the activities of organizations – Photography Section at Society of Craftsmen and Culture Techniques (1918) and Lithuanian Society of Amateur Photographers (1933). The first textbooks of photography appeared during that period: Fotografijos mėgėjas (Photographer Amateur) by Juozas Kaminskas (1925), Fotografuoti gali kiekvienas Everyone can be a Photographer) by K. Lausius (1933, 1938), Fotografijos vadovėlis (Photography Manual) by E. Fogelis (1938). During the discussed period exhibition photography in Kaunas matured and reached a global level. Photography exhibitions became integral part of cultural life. Amateur photographers surpassed professionals and were more active in these processes. It should be noted that professional photographers developed quite a few apprentices, teaching them most important principles of work and creative activities. They also left a large archive of photo portraits, which still remains inexhaustible source of iconography.


The exhibition was prepared by Dr Nijolė Lietuvninkaitė.

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