In 1998, the Rotterman Salt Storehouse gallery of the Estonian Art Museum organised an extensive exhibition entitled Forgotten Estonia, which also tackled the history of photography.

We had quite a number of reasons for bringing old photographs, taken in the first decades of the century, out of all sorts of historical museums. We were especially interested in the changing meaning of photographs in the ideologically-flexible environment of the museum.

This same museum-oriented artistic context immediately placed demands on a project aiming to present photos as art. The project team was at once faced with the problems of whether old, faded, postcard-size photos could have any impact in the new environment, and of what to do with the large collection of glass negatives where not a single print had survived. We found the only option was to produce substantial enlargements with the help of contemporary technology.

The result was astonishing. Our exhibition became a game of simulacra, clashing with the already confusing notion of identity in photography. It would be pointless to deny the new quality that emerged in the course of that manipulation process. We risked tampering with the credibility of the old photos, tarnished their authenticity. But is the issue of copy vs. original relevant to photography in the first place? Christie’s auction house, where the prices of original photos are determined, serves as one sure proof that the problem exists.

The informative purpose of our photos clearly gained from the enlargement process. The new copies revealed the information coded in the old glass negatives; numerous tiny details became visible, intensifying the pictures’ informational field. The magical power of these images to evoke various phenomena and transcend the real visible world came to surpass that of original prints. 

The final result turned out to be something of a shock. Our exhibition became, in effect, a remembrance of times past. So much so, that discussions about the aesthetic aims of the photographers were completely neglected.
The history of photography is a mine of information which can offer, like nothing else, an adequate overview of the gap in a people’s memory. In the words of Ian Jeffrey, who has compiled histories of photography, the whole world’s photo archives provide us with abundant raw material which forms the basis for innumerable images of the past. These in turn ought to become bitter reminders of today’s imperfect world, touching lessons about idyllic times lost forever. History lives on in old photographs in the shadow of the idyll, and this was a strange experience. Imagine a pretty girl sitting on a farmhouse kitchen’s earthen floor – today at the limits of living memory – and imagine her bare, dirty feet, recorded by the photographer with the ambition of a short story writer.

This material, long kept from the light of day, reproduced and given a new appearance, provided a sharp contrast with ideas that the present generation has of things past.

Our exhibition bore unwitting testimony to a phenomenon among Estonians which can be described as ‘photo amnesia’. We do not remember our photographers. We lack a systematically-researched history of photography, neatly arranged in albums. The same problem faces most regions of the former Soviet Union. We belonged to that reality which controlled or ignored photography, to the extent that its history as good as ceased.

As a documentary medium, the photograph always records too precisely. It recalls more than might be deemed necessary.

The turn-of-the-century Estonian photo clearly demonstrates the intersection of photography with political, ideological and cultural-philosophical trends. Photography was introduced into Estonia in the 19th century by the Germans and Russians. The most significant target groups of the new media were the manorial landlords and Germans in the cities. The entire era produced chronicles in a traditional manner that satisfied the clients. These fall into the genres of interior views and group portraits. Such abundant collections of furniture often speak volumes, especially when human figures are included. This particular era may perhaps be summarised by the photograph of an imposing elderly matron and her lady companion sitting under a huge portrait of the Tsar; or a view of a hothouse in which a general is pottering around. The borders of that world stretch only to parks and gazebos: in the entire archive of the Estonian Nobility at the National Museum, we found only one photo whose author had taken one step beyond and portrayed country people, at work in the field.

In the early 20th century, Estonians managed to seize the new media, made it their own and firmly asserted themselves in it. When the flag went up on Estonia’s first automobile race at the Raadi manor house in 1913, Lipphardt, the lord of the manor, asked the most famous Estonian photographer Johannes Pääsuke to record the important event with his camera. 

It is unsurprising that Estonians should have brought their own national perspective to photography. While photos could contribute greatly to the upsurge of national consciousness, how might national aims be reconciled with this international language?

Early Estonian photography, very much focused on all things national, was by no means an eager follower of the art’s more avant-garde ideology. Various trends of 19th-century ethnographical and romantic photography were combined with specific aims in mind, and only those traditions were selected which were thought to fit the spirit of the Northern countries. Much later, there would still be no other ideology in Estonian photography that could compete with this pro-national attitude. Such self-centredness may be difficult to understand today, neglecting as it does the role and preferences of the one who shapes photographic evaluations: the patron, the paying customer.

The birth and development of ethnographic photography was due largely to the Estonian National Museum. Besides the popular campaigns of collecting ancient relics, the Museum also sought to make use of more modern means, imparting a more scientific flavour. In 1912, a competition was organised of photos depicting original Estonian rural life. This could be considered the birth of documentary photography in Estonia.

In 1913, the winner of this competition, Johannes Pääsuke, was sent on his first assignment, a tour of North Estonia. In 1914 he was commissioned to document the old buildings and slums of Tartu. Having thus obtained a collection of 700 glass negatives, the Museum considered its aim fulfilled. That was the last attempt at financed photographic documentation. Publishers in the new Republic of Estonia were unfortunately unable to give proper support to this particular art. The press began to attract photographers in the 1930s, but demand was still for cosy, positively-angled products. Even the imposing albums of the 1930s, abounding in photographs, kept photojournalism on a moderate, equable level and rejected images of life’s more unpleasant or bizarre aspects. Was the photographer of the time trying, perhaps, somehow to make up for having to keep his social distance? It seems he could hardly avoid the northern ‘nature and folk’ school of thought, even if everyone had the chance to prize individualism within the permitted boundaries.

Despite the resistance of the material, our exhibition tried to follow the narratives of location, way of life and social class, to find the mechanisms of social observation in photography; but it continued to revolve around the aura of individual masters and their work. All discussions became hung up on a few persons who reigned supreme in their time, leaving only enough spare limelight for a few occasional, brilliant, if transient truths. Here I would define the two poles around which revolve the explorations and desires of the numerous community involved in early Estonian photography: Pääsuke and Jaan Riet.

The decision by Estonia’s National Museum to document a patriarchal peasant society, caught between the wheels of the industrial era, made Johannes Pääsuke the representative of the ethnographic trend in photography. His own preferences might, in fact, have lain elsewhere: he was, after all, the producer of Estonia’s first feature film. In Pääsuke’s hands, documentation of the ancient way of life understandably took on idealistic colouring, which simply summed up the turbulence in society. There is not the slightest cause to talk about heroism here, but the portraits of his models, especially those of old men, their tranquil state of mind and the firm look in their eyes, nonetheless rise beyond the misery of the life shown in the photographs. This might be one reason for the continuing popularity of the photographer among contemporary viewers, who find something in these faces which is denied them by the present environment – permanence, peace of mind, preserving their sense of self. The photos lead us into the world of archetypes, tirelessly creating an image of an individual who is greater and nobler than his surroundings. So that we need no longer bother with the myths of heroes.

Glass negatives required long exposure time, and the shooting had to be carefully prepared. Although Pääsuke’s shots are all staged, the photographer attempts to rise above the artificiality of the situation and create an image of a real-life scene. His interiors are steeped in the magic of light and shadow; the camera has often been pointed directly into the source of light or a window. A room, gradually vanishing into the twilight, then builds itself around the dazzling light. In a few architectural pictures, the photographer’s expressive treatment of light is particularly far-reaching. The strong emphasis on light and shadow, for example, in the Gothic church ruins in the Tartu University Library produces an extraordinary force and sense of magic. In his best works, Pääsuke is entirely bewitching. We might trace a structure of his preferences in romantic art, interwoven with the influences of symbolism, although he imitates no single examplar directly. At times it seems that various ideas find a far more forceful and clear expression in Pääsuke’s photos than in Estonian art of the same period.

Jaan Riet’s photo-documentaries of 1910, 1920 and 1930 were born without any outside financial support, but his hope to realise his pictures in the press established him in close contact with the contemporary world. Riet was a photographer well-known to the press, though not its favourite. He earned his living mainly by studio work. He became a chronicler of changing times, a slow process of modernisation whose facets he presented through the prism of Viljandi, his small native town. Riet’s viewpoint, centred on Viljandi and other small towns, surpassed the dimension of a mere locality and is now a valuable databank of Estonia between the wars.

Riet took pictures of interiors, people walking in the streets, industrial enterprises, eccentric inventors and their inventions; admired the wealth of products on country-shop shelves; and, of course, the citizens of small towns. Having acquired the profession of photographer in Frankfurt in the last years of the 19th century, Riet can be described as a representative of descriptive photography who had no trouble finding fascinating events for his pictures, or who was able to create an event by an observation of detail. A picture dating from the early 1920s, showing women of the Abja cotton factory, is one of the most remarkable in the whole history of Estonian photography. With unexpected sharpness, it penetrates deep into the social conditions of the period. Pääsuke’s pre-World War I reportages from life’s lower strata stood alone in representing the topic of the oppressed Estonians. Riet’s factory women have been tackled in an entirely new context of social contradictions, where the almost inhuman working conditions of a primitive factory intermingle with the subject of inequality and abuse of women.

Riet was, at the same time, a wonderful interpreter and portrayer of the small-town idyll, able to show vividly the charm of such a life. Our exhibition did not, however, overlook the figure of the marginal, unknown photographer, whose whim or rich fantasy compelled him to immortalise weird things that can be fully appreciated only in contemporary photography. From northern, Lutheran, Estonia, for example, there exist fetishist photos of a child’s made-up corpse; the photographic archives of our prisons contain pictures of criminals of all possible varieties, their features typical of criminals the world over.

In 1940, the year when Estonia was integrated into the Soviet Union, all topics and archives relating to Estonian history became closed for a very long time. Predictably, this leads us to the amnesia debate. The exhibition’s working group makes no secret of the hope that Forgotten Estonia might result in the publication of an album of the history of Estonian photography. In fact, we think this is no less than society’s duty. If a classic photo belongs to no single individual, who then is to represent photography?