The missing images of Russia’s past and present: 5 Russian photographers to know now

5 photographers and video artists explore contemporary Russia alongside the rediscovered works of a pre-revolution master. 

London’s Calvert 22 Gallery introduces an engaging dialogue between Russia’s past and present by juxtaposing the works of young Russian artists against the Tsar-commissioned photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, 'Peasant girls, Russian Empire', 1909. Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, Washington D.C.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, ‘Peasant girls, Russian Empire’, 1909. Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, Washington D.C.

In the early twentieth century, Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, commissioned aristocrat Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) to photograph his vast empire in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. An early pioneer of colour photography, Prokudin-Gorsky used coloured filters to enable black-and-white images to be seen in colour.

Almost gaudy with intense hues, Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs capture the beginnings of industrialisation and Russian colonisation at its height. These images were recently rediscovered and are being shown in the United Kingdom for the first time.

Showcased alongside Prokudin-Gorsky’s defining images are the works of five contemporary artists who document the aftermath of the empire’s collapse. Curated by Kate Bush as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture programme, “Close and Far: Russian Photographers Now” runs at Calvert 22 Gallery from 18 June to 17 August 2014.

Olya Ivanova, 'Anna Alexeevna, Kich-Gorodok', 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Olya Ivanova, ‘Anna Alexeevna, Kich-Gorodok’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Olya Ivanova 

Echoing Gorsky’s portraits, Olya Ivanova (b. 1981, Moscow) photographed villagers in the small northern village of Kich Gorodok. Like an ethnographer undertaking field research, she made the village, its inhabitants and their rituals the subject of intense study. Her portraits are shot in the style of turn-of-the-century village photography: subjects wear their best garments, pose stiffly and, following tradition, do not smile.

A documentary photographer, Ivanova’s incisive and intimate portraiture is often found in magazines as well as museums and private collections. Regardless of environment, subject and palette, Ivanova’s portraits evoke a tender sense of belonging and ‘placedness’, capturing the invisible relational space between subject and setting, individual and context.

Here, Ivanova’s photographs invoke nostalgia for the pre-industrial past. As the exhibition’s press release puts it:

[T]he vast majority of the population has migrated to towns and cities. Traditional country life is dying, but is still indelibly associated […] with the essence of being Russian.

Max Sher, 'Stary Oskol, August 24, 2014, Russian Palimpsest', 2010 - ongoing. Image courtesy the artist.

Max Sher, ‘Stary Oskol, August 24, 2014, Russian Palimpsest’, 2010 – ongoing. Image courtesy the artist.

Max Sher

Unlike Ivanova who studies villages, Max Sher (b. 1975, St. Petersburg) portrays the evolving cities of Russia. Sher started out as a photojournalist before venturing into visual arts. Started in 2010, his ongoing project “Russian Palimpsest” records urban landscapes in a dispassionate and methodical way, documenting everyday landscapes, from regional airports to petrol stations.

As a result, Sher captured the gradual eradication of Soviet-designed Russia as it was eclipsed by post-Soviet architecture. Through his lens, characterless banks, bland malls and bare streets stand still and silent, indifferent to the shifting sands of time. As The Guardian reports:

Max Sher’s Russian Palimpsest is an ambitious attempt to create a photographic catalogue of the vast country and to introduce a new visual language by which to understand Russia.

Alexander Gronsky, 'Dzerzhinskiy II, Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral', 2008-2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Gronsky, ‘Dzerzhinskiy II, Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral’, 2008-2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Gronsky

If Ivanova works with the Russian village and Sher the Russian city, Alexander Gronsky (b. 1980, Tallin, Estonia) explores the indistinct, indeterminate space in-between: the city’s edge. In a series entitled “Suburbs of Moscow, Russia, Pastoral” (2008-2012) Gronsky performs a formalistic, detached yet rigorous study of unruly ‘edgelands’, unfinished buildings and excavated hills and valleys.

Using measured compositions and carefully selected colour tones, Gronsky shrewdly brings out man’s uneasy encounter with nature within these liminal spaces. There are picnickers finding leisure next to toxic wastelands, sunbathers lying next to construction sites, and city dwellers strolling past abandoned reservoirs and sand dumps. As the London Evening Standard reviews, “[the] locals off work play[ing] near polluted riverbanks and edges of forests and picnickers suggest Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in toxic settings.”

Gronsky told The Newyorker that “Pastoral” is neither a social critique nor a commentary on Russian politics. Instead, he said:

It’s about my personal perception of the Russian landscape, especially the outskirts and borderline areas. I enjoy spending time there – I feel that I fit there, probably because I don’t really feel that I fit anywhere else.

Taus Makhacheva, 'Gamsutl' (still from HD video projection), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Taus Makhacheva, ‘Gamsutl’ (still from HD video projection), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Taus Makhacheva

Taus Makhachkeva (b. 1983, Moscow) is an artist with Russian citizenship, a Western education and Dagestani (northern Caucasian) ethnic roots. An up-and-coming artist with a handful of accolades to her name, Makhachkeva’s work attempts to question the unstable boundaries between same and other, acceptance and rejection, and to disentangle the historical, cultural and personal layers of events and spaces.

In Gamsutl (2012), Makhachkeva conducts a personal and provocative exploration of a slice of Caucasian history. In the film, an anonymous protagonist performs a series of frozen movements against the spectacular backdrop of a crumbling and abandoned Caucasian settlement. The poses are gestures of combat appropriated from nineteenth century battle paintings celebrating Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus. As the exhibition press release says:

In evoking the past through a vocabulary of gesture, this lone figure merges into the historical memory of Gamsutl, at the same time as his body embraces its ruined bricks.

Dimitri Venkov, 'Mad Mimes' (still from video), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Dimitri Venkov, ‘Mad Mimes’ (still from video), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Dimitri Venkov

Dimitri Venkov (b. 1980, Novosibirsk) is a graduate of the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia and holds an MA in Film Studies from the University of Oregon. He produces video and multimedia works that are cinematic in form but conceptual in content, and in 2012 he received the Kandinsky Prize for Best Young Artist for his ‘mockumentary’ film Mad Mimes (2012).

The film is a spoof anthropological documentary featuring a fictional community near the Moscow Ring Road on the outskirts of the city. The group survives by collecting roadside trash and the detritus that gets thrown out of passing cars. As a result of their social isolation and dependency on the Ring Road, the community develops bizarre rites and rituals based on those of Melanesian cargo cults and other new religious movements.

Despite the humour, Venkov’s message is serious. The artist examines conspiracy theories and Cold War paranoia and explores historical deception, myth-making and manipulation practices in his films. Venkov says, quoted by the Calvert Journal:

I think my films are as funny as, for example, a history dissertation.

An unseen, uncensored Russia

Mad Mimes, as with all the other works in this thought-provoking exhibition, is a clever allegory for life that is still turbulent in post-Soviet times. As evidenced by the stimulating and evocative works, creativity and political vision thrives in the still chaotic and highly secretive shadows of contemporary Russia. As Dazed reports, in spite of international and social struggles, young artists persist in “documenting an unseen, uncensored Russia, reflecting the state of the people’s Russia today.” Curator Kate Bush explains:

I wanted to make an exhibition which contrasted the end of one empire in Russia – the Russia of the Romanov Tsars – with the end of another empire. Today’s young photographers and artists are the first generation to develop fully after the collapse of the Soviet empire. I think each of the photographers in the show are dealing with pressing questions of identity and are very conscious of working in a very new Russian cultural and political landscape. A new Russia is emerging, and this new generation are enjoying an unprecedented freedom in terms of what and how they are able to photograph […]

Michele Chan


Related Topics: Russian artists, photography, video art, art and the community

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Russian contemporary art