The Graphic Lightness of Being
Carol McCusker PhD
Beautifully envisioned and lovingly printed, the gelatin silver prints of Jonas Kulikauskas create an intimacy equivalent to a good novel by Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger. With a strong feeling for the texture of daily life, his images initially confound before they reveal the hidden details in shadows or the depth of field in his compressed spaces. Like the abstraction assigned to maps, Kulikauskas’s photographs chart a course of connection through the intricate maze of hard surfaces and soft human forms unseen in the rush of city life: the curves between and around a woman’s legs, or a dapper older man gracefully descending a canyon-like staircase. The photographer captures an urban world so familiar to us that the physical details become a revelation simply because he fulfills one of photography’s promises: to lunging giddily toward a parade; a man leaning into the hill he climbs, the shadows of the fire daily existence. Kulikauskas’s eye never lets up. There are boys legs and arms akimbo
recognition of the ‘graphic lightness of being’ that contradicts gravity’s pull on our reveal what we no longer see or notice. When we do, there is a satisfying escapes above bearing down on him; the feet and legs of six musicians whose bodies are finished through their shadows on the ground, complete with trombones. All of these are parts to a whole, strange and strangers (as the title states) because we rarely see a full figure or face. Yet we know these people through Kulikauskas’s suggestion. Their images are like half-finished sentences that we complete for and with the photographer, himself a stranger, whose language, upon completing the book, we come to understand.
Kulikauskas began his art career as a graphic artist, and still practices etching, a process that informs his photography. He carves his photographic compositions with light, texture, and calligraphic elements, combined with the thrill of the chance. Like the nineteenth century albumen print, wet darkroom, gelatin silver printing is, for most photographers, a thing of the past, only occasionally seen in the practice of photographers under the age of forty. Yet its rich surface depth cannot be denied nor duplicated.
Kulikauskas’s images evoke Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, and Leon Levinstein, who, in the 1950s and 60s, transformed the documentary photograph into an internalized and allusive narrative. Like Frank (who is Swiss), Kulikauskas (who is Lithuanian-American yet regularly returns to his ancestral home), brings a revitalizing, outsider’s eye to the most common of subjects. Some may charge that his imagery, redolent of fifties masters, executed in gelatin silver, is too retro. But, as with all forms of mid-century modernism, Kulikauskas’s angular, restrained ‘cool’ carries a tradition that is still fascinating as it is familiar for what it reveals about today. Like those before him, his photographs combine a sympathetic view and sharp street vernacular with fractured, less-is-more narratives (no mean feat). They remain ideal for expressing the agitated, irrepressible culture of 2010 as they did half a century ago.