The development of Estonian photography has been full of controversies: the 'natural' development of this continuously popular medium and artistic tool has taken place despite many hindering sociocultural factors. The most important factors may be the geographical position of Estonia (the fact that it is a border state), its relatively young culture in terms of the written word and the fact that historically it has had a predominately colonial status. Considering the fact that photography, as is true of modern art in general, was first and foremost born and developed in metropolitan areas, the 'belated' arrival of the newest trends in the aesthetics of photography in Estonia (and also most neighbouring countries) is not surprising.

As is typical of an agricultural country, Estonian art has for a long time been handicraft-centred — it has rejected photography and cinematography as 'industrial' art forms and has also focused too strongly on the role of craft in these areas. Because of alternating invasions by Russians and Germans, Estonian culture has had various influences, due to which the local cultural space has a fragmentary nature rather than a unified origin. As German and Soviet cultural officials understood the great potential of photographic art in shaping people’s opinions, the transformation of local national photography into a secondary art form was of vital importance to the state.

In speaking of photography, it should be noted that, in the case of Estonia in its earlier history, this area has been through most of the stages and developments common to Western Europe. In the years 1840–1890 photographic studios were as popular here as elsewhere; a great number of portraits and ethnographic photos were taken, as was typical of that period. At the turn of the century people started talking of so-called kunstfotografie: 'national photography' was born, handbooks were published, big international exhibitions were organised etc. The first modern photographer was Johannes Pääsuke (1892–1918), whose works reflect modern ways of seeing and some kind of montage culture.

However, the birth of modern photography in Estonia occurred a good deal later. In the first period of the Estonian Republic (1918–1940), photography was primarily symbolic and pictorial. In the post-war Stalinist Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (the 1940s and 1950s), photography and cinema belonged to the sphere of propaganda. A certain creative independence was reached only in the 1960s.

A group of photographers, STODOM (Peeter Tooming, Rein Maran, Andrei Dobrovolski, Kalju Suur, Tatjana Dobrovolskaja and Boris Mäemets), and also other groups (FF, A-4, BEG) brought into exhibitions and publications a photographic culture characterised by subjectivity, domination of expressive means specific to photography, and a focus on the form of pictures. The ideologist of STODOM, Peeter Tooming (1939–1997), stressed in his works and theoretical writing the possibilities of the subjectivisation of picture language offered by optics and photochemistry — the result of which was a curious bilbrandt-like world, which first and foremost presented modernist views of the independence of the picture-space in relation to everyday experiences. The use of infrared film, filters and special chemical techniques was also shocking in terms of viewers’ understanding of tonal relations.

Tooming, who constantly challenged the viewers’ conventional interpretation of photography, became the most innovative and provocative author in the modernist period of Estonian photography. Another STODOM artist, Kalju Suur (1928), achieved a more significant meaning in a completely different way. Working mainly as a 'society photographer', he shaped, in his jolly portrait-galleries, the corporal identity of the ESSR’s cultural elite. On the whole it can be said that, in the 1960s and 1970s, photography was somewhat liberated from the service of propaganda — along with an ideological view of the world there appeared a variety of subjective views. At the same time it cannot be said that photography and cinema had completely turned their rhetorical potential against the corrupt society.

In the 1980s dynamic modernism was replaced by a certain decadence, the key phrases of which may be 'discretion' in stylistics, stressed casualty, and finding visual equivalents to subconscious visions. An important shift, which shaped new attitudes in Estonian photography in the 1990s, was certainly the opportunity of advanced study abroad (Kaido Teesalu in Göteborg, Peeter Linnap in San Francisco, Peeter-Maria Laurits in New York, Toomas Volkmann in London etc.).

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