Some Russian Photographers

Much of the photography discussed in the course involves work by western Europeans.  I wanted to take a look at some Eastern European and Russian photography and luckily this is very easy to do online.

Evgeny Makarov (Russia 1967) makes monochrome pictures, most often presented in a square format.  His subjects are young people, mainly in an urban setting. He makes use of architectural features as backgrounds, placing his subjects within the frames generated by such elements.



Although many of his subjects are teenagers he also includes children in his work.  Some of the pictures depict them in somewhat disturbing circumstances; they are often shown in apparently squalid conditions, poorly clothed with expressions which suggest distress.  Perhaps there is a cultural influence at play here.  In the West these pictures may be viewed as exploitative but social codes are different for Makarov.  There is economic deprivation among many of the inhabitants of St Petersburg and the children are similarly affected.

The interior portraits – I consider them such, since they are posed and purposeful – are daylight pictures, the subjects placed to catch the natural window light.  The shadows are soft and where nakedness is apparent, this serves as a contrast to the harshness of the surroundings, suggesting vulnerability. The subjects return the camera’s gaze, inviting or at least acquiescing to the viewer’s study.

Comparisons with the work of Sally Mann, Rineke Dijkstra and Lara Pannack are easily accommodated.  All seem to convey a connection between the subject and photographer which goes beyond an simple snapshot.  There is an element of trust implied, some commonality between the parties;  the subjects appear to be comfortable in their relationship with the photographer.

Nikolai Bakharev (Russia 1946) began his career working in a ‘service centre’, – a facilty largely unfamiliar to Westerners – where all manner of technical repairs were carried out by skilled staff.  If you wanted your television fixed, that would be your first option.  Photography was on offer too and Bakharev recorded the life events of the local citizenry, their weddings, anniversaries and birthdays.

Until the early 1970’s official Soviet photography as practiced by state employed practitioners adopted a documentary realist approach.  After perestroika, there was a certain liberalisation which gave rise to more individualist portraits, those which dwelled on the subject rather than simply conforming to the state-approved method.

Untitled #35 from the series "Together," 1991-1993  Untitled #27 from the series "Together," 1991-1993Untitled #7 from the series "Relationship," 1985

But Bakharov went further than this, encouraging his subjects to give expression to their new-found ‘freedoms’ by involving nudity, challenging the social mores which had long dominated everyday life along with the censorship which had prevailed since the late 1920’s.  His subjects are mainly young people, the first to enjoy a thawing of government strictures.




Photographer’s Gallery 1st June 2018

TPG were showing the Deutsche Borse  on the upper two floors, with Under Cover – A Secret History of Cross Dressers in the Wolfsen Gallery.  Starting at the top..

What happened to the logo? They have tried to make the “T” and “L” letters form a frame of some kind, partially enclosing the “O”.  I’m not sure how that relates to photography, even if it’s intended to.  Is the “O” representing a lens?  Of course, every forward looking organisation must have a snappy, eye catching and above all instantly recognisable logo but I don’t think TPG pulled it off on this occasion.


Back to the show.

Mathieu Asselin’s project, titled “Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation” didn’t pull any punches when considering the worldwide activities of the eponymous biotech company and it made for disheartening reading.  I was aware of their controlling behaviour and the demands made on American arable farmers, but Asselin added depth to his work by homing in on the tiny quotidian details; a single grain of wheat, a densely worded contract (unreadable without the aid of powerful spectacles) and portraits of those on the receiving end of the firm’s business practices.  He photographed individuals who have suffered illness and disability, allegedly as a result of ingesting some of Monsanto’s better known products such as Agent Orange but also simply due to their proximity to illegal chemical dumps.  In the Monsanto factory town of West Anniston, Alabama, some residents have an astonishingly high level of PCBs in their system – again Asselin puts this down to the manufacturing by products associated with Monsanto’s output.


But what about the pictures themselves?  Several show Monsanto ‘survivors’ – people who have contracted or inherited illnesses through Monsanto activities.  They look directly to camera, expressionless (or studiously avoiding expression), inviting the viewer to witness their misfortune.



Others are more difficult to look at:


The general photographic approach is firmly in the documentary style; no surprise, Asselin himself places his work firmly in this genre.  The settings are deliberately natural, without artistic arrangement, save for the occasional backdrop.  The photographer has had to decide how much weight to place on the textual information – most of the information is conveyed in this way – and how much to give to the pictures.  He seems to have settled on a fifty-fifty split, which allows time for consideration of the photographs and reading the text.  In absorbing the work, the viewer may find themselves switching attention back and forth between the two – I certainly did.

As for the winner, well I confess I found it hard to accept this as photography in anything but the very broadest sense.

The black and white film by Luke Willis Thompson depicts Diamond Reynolds.  Her boyfreind  Philando Castile was shot and killed by a policeman and after the killing she took to Facebook in order to better communicate her feelings about the matter.

This exhibition is noisy; a full size cinema projector is employed to show the film at full height on the opposite wall and this one is a proper relic, Xenon lamphouse, cooling fans, gate claws clattering away foot after foot from the endless reel of 35mm film alongside.  I don’t know if this is to be considered a part of the piece itself; I can’t think of what the significance might be of including a 1980’s projector which was designed to operate in a soundproofed projection booth.  I could extemporise on all manner of metaphors, analogies and other rhetorical tropes but I just don’t think it hangs together convincingly.  I don’t know if the original was shot on 35mm film or if it was 16mm or video or even 8mm, then printed up to 35.  If that was the case then the projection was certainly a part of the installation.  That’s a lot of unanswered questions but I think they’ll probably stay that way, on this blog at least.

Under Cover – A Secret History of Cross Dressers was fascinating.  All the photographs were small which meant you had to get right up close to see the detail.  They were archive items from widely varying sources and similarly varied eras.  I was struck by the openness of the display by the subjects, how they appeared to be enthusiastic, almost defiant in their presentation.  Transvestism and homosexuality were often considered comorbid traits at the time so collaborating to make a permanent record could have been a brave endeavor.

The ‘crossings’ were equally prevalent in each gender.  Women dressing as men was thought to be a danger to societal stability and a perversion of womens’ true and natural position.  Men in the armed forces commonly dressed as women for performances of all kinds.  This practice prevailed even in the prisoner of war camps for captured servicemen.

I was interested to see that the women dressing as men were conspicuously stylish, the clothing made in the masculine manner but worn largely with feminine flair.