Contemporary Photography in Russia

A Brief Essay on Contemporary Photography in Russia
Copyright  © Andrew Hale 2006

A photographer stands, concentrating, preparing to shoot.  His posture is intent; one would expect to see a fashion model or film star posing before him. Instead, he is focusing on a cracked brick wall and an ordinary doorway. This photograph of Boris Savelev at work was taken by Elena Darikovich in Moscow in 1984.  What is it that Mr. Savelev finds so interesting about the wall and why does Ms. Darikovich think it so necessary to document the moment?  To understand this you need to understand the history of creative photography in Russia.   

The history of 20th century Russian and Soviet photography is complex.  For most for the last century the professional practice of photography was at the service of the state. For a brief period during the 1920s, Russian photography and the visual arts were part of the international modernist movement. By the early thirties they largely conformed to a style of "social realism" that glorified the values of communism. The Soviet present was difficult and uncertain.  Photographs of tractor-hugging farmers in the fields and smiling workers in factories were idealized portraits of a communist future. They were meant to inspire the people to sacrifice for a great society to come. 

Today, some of these photographs impress us as works of art. Still more are only amusing as kitsch. However interesting the work may be from afar (in both time and space) it is important to remember that this was work made by artists with very little autonomy. The government didn't expressly tell artists how to take a photograph, but by the 1930s it was well understood what was required.  The consequences for stepping out of line were much stronger than a bad review; imprisonment or disappearance and death was the likely outcome.

State control of art in Russia goes back to the 18th century and Peter the Great.  But during the early Soviet period the government realized that photography and film represented a powerful form of objective Truth that was essential for the state to control.  Doctored photographs and fake, posed "documentary"  photographs were the order of the day. Photographs of people who fell out of favor with the state were suppressed, inked over or destroyed. Artists and their subjects became "non-persons". In Russia, photography was charged with a significance that it had nowhere else.

Western exhibitions of early Soviet photography give the impression of great creativity in spite of state control.  The photographs shown in the West generally represent only a tiny fraction of the photographer's actual work. I have gone through piles of banal photos in the archives of two well-known Soviet photographers, looking at endless cliché shots of workers and party congresses. The period of WWII is an exception. During the war, photographers were allowed to document the here and now. While much of this work was not published at the time, it testifies today to the courage and skills of the photographers of the period.

After WWII things went back to 'normal' until the Khrushchev years.  During the 1960s amateur camera clubs spread. There was a certain amount of art-photography by both
professionals and hobbyists but most of it was pretty tame stuff; nudes (which could have gotten you a prison term a generation earlier), landscapes and character studies.

In the 1970s things got more interesting.  Within the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania there was a new acceptance of photography as an art form.  Baltic photography, in turns nationalistic and consciously-artistic, was encouraged by the state, which gave spaces for exhibition  and financial support for art photography.  This situation was very exciting for photographers working in Russia at the time. Artists were inspired simply by being able to show work that represented a truly personal vision. In general, however, in Russia, individual art photographers remained fairly aloof from the government and group activity.

The 1970s are often considered a time of political and social stagnation in the Soviet Union.  For photography, it was an important time.  Most of the photographers shown here refer to themselves as "the seventies", a group that came together artistically at that time.  During the 1970s and 80s there were few chances to exhibit personal work.  Most artistic exchanges took place during meetings of informal photography clubs where the "amateur" photographers could display their work. (The term amateur within Russian photography refers to a photographer working without state support. It is not a judgment on his skills).  Photography was a passion, not a profession. Most of the photographers shown here have degrees in technical rather than fine art fields.  They worked for various state enterprises doing engineering work or translation.  Some of them also worked professionally as commercial photographers, but kept their own creative work separate. It was hard for them to imagine being supported by their art.

I came to Russia for the first time armed with knowledge received from books on Soviet photography and a background in modern art. Two things were absolutely clear to me.  First, that the coolly formal style of these "seventies" photographers was closely related to painting.  Second, that after a lapse of nearly 50 years, they were continuing in the tradition of Rodchenko, Ignatovich, El Lizzitsky et alii. 

My first idea was incomprehensible to the photographers I spoke to.  Most were well aware of trends in painting but felt that painting and photography were quite separate disciplines. My second idea, that they were inspired by the Russian avant garde of the 20s, was downright offensive.  Ask any of the photographers shown on this site for their influences and you will hear a long list of names. Atget, Robert Frank, Friedlander, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Brassai. When you get down to it, these names belong photographers whose work they like, whether or not they have been "influenced" by them. In my experience, there was never a single Russian name among them. Rodchenko's name seemed to cause the greatest displeasure. Other artists of his set were dismissed as simply "not interesting". They would agree with Alexander Lapin, who said that Rodchenko was "using his form for Stalin's content" and "totally embraced and followed Stalinism".  Most of the photographers shown on this site see their work as a break from the past.

I think it can be said that earlier styles were influential in another way. In so strongly rejecting what came before, these photographers were compelled to create something new. This generation of photographers broke from state support and control in order to pursue a personal style. The style of the "seventies" group shown here can be defined by a series of negations: it is not utopian, it isn't documentary, it is not overtly political or directly symbolic. It isn't very concerned with 'the human condition' or nature. Their work is more of a deadpan visual poetry based on the acceptance of the urban environment. In combining the gritty cityscapes of Russia with a cool formalism they have managed to make photographs which are both funny (in a sly way) and serious (without the ponderous quality of so much European work).  When Savelev shoots a wall he is shooting a wall.  Not because it is beautiful or ugly but because it is interesting. (This word, more charged in Russian than in English, is their highest praise for a photograph).  And Darikovich?  I would guess that she was reacting to the moment with a typical mixture of detachment and amusement, a blend characteristic not only her portraits of Savelev, but of much of her other work as well.

Savelev, Darikovich, Gitman and Slyusarev’s work is not subject driven. Most of the time we are not expected to sympathize with the people who appear in their photographs. They use the environment around them as a springboard into a rough urban poetry. All these photographers have been willing to experiment, and have created series of photographs which are characteristic of these different experimental paths. Although they are all “straight” photographers, capturing images rather than posing them, and although they are concerned first and foremost with formal values, each has created a distinct and instantly recognizable body of work.

Facades of buildings, walls, window, streets, doors and fences are some of the favorite images of this group. The people in these images are usually not doing anything in particular or are engaged in some personal activity. Often, photographs are not shot directly, but taken as blurred reflections in glass. Their insistent flatness - the old integrity of the picture plane - brings the work closer to modernist painting than photography.

Mukhin is a different case. Mukhin is of a younger generation, and he is to some extent a conceptualist. His work plays on very specific – if not often overtly presented  - ideas. His series of Soviet benches in varying stages of decrepitude and his photographs of Soviet monuments are mysterious, and rich in symbolic value. Much of Mukhin’s work is about symbolic objects stripped of their power, not destroyed, but decaying, fading away. It is the anti-climatic end of the Soviet state. His work looks both backwards in time and forward in perspective – he is completely distanced from both the emotive content of his subjects and from their decay. Mukhin is detached, incisive, brilliant.

This is a challenging group of artists whose work rewards attention. Like alchemists, they are able to create poetic images from the most banal objects. They play with light and form as successfully as any abstract painter. They have transformed  Moscow from a grim modern city to a place full of abstract beauty.  Sometimes I say, “Look! There is a Gitman, there is a Savelev.”  Who could ask for anything more?
Andrew Hale

About the photographs on this page
#1. Elena Darikovich, Boris With Leica, (detail) Moscow, 1984

#2 Elena Darikovich, Broken Glass, Leningrad, 1982. One of the few of the wonderful prints of this artist that would fit on our scanner. Her most exciting photographs are of nothing, like this, and are printed large and beautifully.

#3 Elena Darikovich, Smokee (Boris Savelev) Moscow, 1987. Another portrait of her photographer-husband. Here, the shadows are as intense as his face, and given equal weight and power.

#4. Boris Savelev, Bottles, Moscow, 1997. This group of more or less identical bottles trying to march in formation with an audience of bottles watching from the sidelines makes me think of the endless shots of Soviet parades with identically dressed workers marching off to build Socialism. This could almost be a parody of Rodchenko's  La Colonne Dynamo from 1935.  The fact that these are empty bottles waiting to be filled just makes it better.

#5. Boris Savelev, Sokolniki Kremlin, Moscow, 1981. The bottom 80% of this photograph resembles a very dynamic abstract painting.  The feeling of endless space is blocked by the view of the back of a temporary wall with the Kremlin behind it. 

#6. Boris Savelev, Construction, Moscow, 1987. Minus the woman and the car, this is again close to an abstract painting.  This photograph reminded me immediately of Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings though I doubt Savelev has ever seen one. Savelev is a great colorist - his color prints are better known in the west than his black and white work. 

#7 Sergei Gitman, Moscow, 1989. From a series of doors/entrances. Gitman has documented Moscow's architecture in fragments, investing broken pavement and shadow with elegance.

#8 Sergei Gitman, Bed. There is a visual pun here between the bed and the painting of the wave, but that is not what is important.

 #9 Sergei Gitman. Another photo in a country house. The random poetry of a modern life.

#10. Sergei Burasovsky, Magadan, Vadim Kozin. Kozin was a famous singer and favorite of Stalin. Nonetheless, he was imprisoned and taken to Magadan where he lived until his death at almost 91.

#11. Sergei Burasovsky, Reindeer-herder Ivan Karavagi, Chaunsky region, Chukota, 1986. "The old and the new in the tundra of Chukota".

#12. Aleksander Slyusarev, Graffiti, 1991.

#13. Aleksander Slyusarev, Wall, 1990. Slyusarev's work is often fun. Although this piece contains no overtly humorous element like the graffiti above, there is something quite light-hearted about the bouncing shadow on this door.

Select bibliography:

Secret City, Photographs from the USSR, Boris Savelev, introduction by Ian
Jeffrey, Thames and Hudson, 1988

Another Russia, Through the eyes of the new Soviet photographers, from the collection of Daniela Mrazkova and Vladimir Remes, introduction by Ian Jeffrey, Facts On File Publications, 1986

Changing Reality, Recent Soviet Photography, Leah Bendavid-Val, Starwood Publishing, 1991

Art of Contemporary Photography, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, catalog of the exhibition, Moscow, Central House of Artists, 1994

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A Brief Essay on Contemporary Photography in Russia
Copyright  © Andrew Hale 2006
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