Photo Series "Riga. Proletarian Districts. Late 19th, Early 20th Centuries", 1970s–1980s, by Art Photographer Egons Spuris (1931–1990)
This series of black-and-white photographs by Egons Spuris is the most outstanding contribution to Latvian photography art, hinting at the great variety of styles in modernist photography, while depicting, in an imaginative and at the same time truthful manner, the rough Soviet-time life in Rīga’s working class districts. Spuris’ photography has had a crucial impact on the development of Latvian and Baltic art photography.
The series consists of several hundred prints and over 7500 negatives. There is a whole variety of motifs and themes featured in the photographs: the old firewalls of the old residential buildings, different shapes of roofs and chimneys, gateways, empty courtyards, wooden buildings, the play of light in different seasons, etc. The art historian Vilnis Vējš (1967) finds it significant that it is the gateway that is often the subject matter: unlike the façade, it does not serve ideology. Spuris’ photographs allow us to look into the backyards, where the real life is taking place.
The art historian Laima Slava (1947) believes that the intention of the photographer was not so much to document the life in these districts but to catch the feeling of living there. The human figure does not take the central role but is rather a part of the composition. Spuris had a special knack of seeing something surreal or lyrical in the deceptively simple and to catch it with his camera. He found the aesthetic where others would not bother to look.
When the occupation of Latvia began, the inhabitants of the working-class districts were the only ones who did not have to change their living quarters while the lavish apartments in the centre of Rīga and the newly built blocs were taken up by thousands upon thousands of Russian-speaking people from other parts of the Soviet Union, turning Rīga into a city very different from what it had previously been. The working class remained where it was, even though the rules governing their lives had changed. By using the word Proletarian in the title of his series, Spuris may have looked for a way of formally satisfying the ideological requirements of the system while exhibiting works that were hardly flattering to the regime.
Spuris was intimately familiar with his subject matter, since he grew up and lived most of his life in the quarter bordered by Bruņinieku, Čaka and Avotu streets.
To create a particular atmosphere, the photographer used a wide arsenal of methods innovative for his time: wide-angle and fisheye lenses, solarization and a variety of photomontage. His composition, on the other hand, was laconic and pure, without any clutter. With their sharp contrasts and crisp lines, his works often approach abstraction.
The Soviet regime initially accepted photography only as a part of journalism and did not associate it with art. In Latvia, however, the Rīga Photography Club, established in 1962, played a crucial role, serving as a platform for the development of different aesthetic ideas. As it was a club for amateurs, the Soviet ideologists did not exert as much control over it as they did over professional associations.
Egons Spuris, who was a radio engineer by education, also joined the Rīga club, but, as early as 1975, he switched to the legendary club in Ogre, becoming its leader and staying with it until his death in 1990. A pioneer of Latvian documentary art photography, Spuris influenced such world renowned Latvian photographic artists as Andrejs Grants (1955) and Inta Ruka (1958). He also took an active part in exhibitions, both in Latvia and abroad, showing at 350 exhibitions in 48 countries. Spuris was the first Soviet photographer to be awarded a gold medal by the Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique (FIAP) in 1971. In 1975, he was awarded the honorary title of FIAP Art Photographer (AFIAP).
Spuris’ photography was once again showcased at the 2012 exhibition “Vieta, izcila skatienam” (A Place, Outstanding for View) at the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMM). The series of photographs included in the Canon was shown at the Latvian Permanent Representation at the European Union in Brussels.
The series is a part of the collection of LNMM and also held privately by photographer Inta Ruka.
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