• Nice to meet you Petr and thanks for being part of our Focus On Russia’s contemporary photography scene. Let’s introduce your work: you’re depicting Russian landscape in your work, focusing on post-soviet cityscapes and landscapes. Your personal projects also question about the nature of photography itself. How your photography research started and how is it developing?
It is really nice to meet you, and thank you for the interesting questions.
My way through photography started when I bought myself an autofocus SLR and then on it was a rather typical journey. From taking pictures of the world around me, on to cracked walls and geometrical abstractions, towards street photography, then onwards to social documentary or photojournalism, and then to what I am doing now, which probably closes the loop. I was never too comfortable shooting personal projects on social issues, as I felt it was all about getting nice pictures in the end. Probably it was not exactly so, but I could not quite get rid of the feeling.
As you say, I have been concentrating on landscapes recently, but I guess it could be anything else. Landscapes are the most readily available subjects to test your relations with photography—you do not need production, communication, prior arrangements. Sometimes you do not even need to leave your neighbourhood or your own apartment. At the same time landscapes offer such a complicated structure to decipher and interpret, are such a resonant subject for the viewer, and with this are such a well developed genre in the classical art.
• In the last years there is a growing interest in post-soviet countries, several photographers are exploring social and cultural issues connected to the post-soviet era. We can see also a growing interest by young generations of photographers who creates a dialog with the past. How do you explain this trend?
The very term ‘post-Soviet’ itself implies that you come into certain relations with the ‘Soviet’. The Soviet era left behind a vast array of cultural artifacts, which still to a large extent lack artistic reflexion. While in the West the anthropological—and artistic—interest to the man-made environment and the vernacular started probably in the 1960s, the Eastern Block seemed to be rather postulating the principles for its development, than to be studying the results of such development. Now these layers of culture call for a study, there is a void to be filled.
For Eastern European artists, and especially artists from former Soviet Union, this can too be a form of coming to terms with the past. Unlike the German post-war ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, here there is no official answer as to what the past had for us, whether it should be denounced, or glorified. There is an ongoing debate on almost every significant historical event, so history remains a charged topic around here.
• In your works there is a constant reference to the relationship between photography and words. That is very interesting in a context in which photography is standing out for its power to describe. How do you see this relationship?
My university education was in languages, so that may be one of the reasons for this interest. Another factor may be my photojournalistic work, where image relies on text a lot, and where text influences the image and vice versa. Russian culture is also thought to be very text-centric, but whether this remains true for the younger generation raised on social networks and smartphones is an interesting question.
‘Keywords’, my first project to consciously employ text, was bringing together pictures from my photo projects, and keywords assigned by picture agency for the ease of consumption and distribution. At the point it was more of a reflection on how an image is turned into a commodity, how it gets to illustrate subjects totally unrelated to the context in which it was made, and how placed in a new context it functions differently. And it was fun thing to make too. Choosing the photographs, I found many where this image-to-word translation resulted in totally new meanings never intended or noticed by me, or even non-existent.
So one year into working on my next project ‘A model for a city’ I started writing captions to my images in a manner somewhat similar to agency-standard captions, but doing it in a still more descriptive way. In this case it was more to do with how we see an image, how we interpret it, how we construct our image of the world using pre-fabricated blocks of information, how the levels of the interpretation of a scene would depend on one’s background information and cultural context.
It was too about duplication and redundancy of information, about whether an image is necessary if we have a textual description, or whether we need a description where we already have an image. The unexpected result is that while leafing through the book some people would view the images and read the captions, some would disregard the captions, and some would somehow concentrate only on the captions.
Coming back to your question, I am not really sure about the descriptive power of photography. A photograph is rather a canvas onto which we can project our own meanings coming from real-life experiences, so if photography does describe something—it is ourselves.
• Architecture and urban development is often one of the main topic connected to Eastern countries. Photographers such as Alexander Gronsky and Max Sher are part of a current which explored urban transformation after the soviet era. What are, in your opinion, other peculiar aspects that can be traced while exploring Russia?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Russian landscape is how layered it is. The post-Soviet landscape results from the 100% regulated Soviet urban planning and the consecutive appropriation of the landscape by numerous individual wills in the post-Soviet years, which made the transformation non-linear and seemingly chaotic. The Soviet planning too, as regulated as it was, pretty often resulted in similarly haphazard results, with large scale redevelopments started and then abandoned as the ideology made a new turn.
Having said that, I really like Pierce Lewis’s comparison of the culture as a whole to an iceberg with many protruding tips, each appearing a different iceberg. I think landscapes are just one area where shared principles manifest themselves, so any aspect is good and worth exploring. Russia is very interesting and very underexplored.
• In your project “Election Silence” you use the images from the webcams fitted at Vladimir Putin's suggestion after December 2011 protests over alleged Russian parliamentary elections fraud to document Russian 2012 presidential election. What are your thoughts about the this contemporary hot topic about the appropriation of images as well as the use of technology in documentary photography?
I was not thinking much about the topic of appropriation when making the series. My first feeling when I opened the web site with webcam feeds from across 10 time zones was that of sheer amazement with the scale, and at the same time the accessibility of visual information. So at that point I was perhaps rather using the web camera as I would use real photographic camera and was addressing the same questions that I address in my work made with a photographic camera. I was too interested to see how the language of photography, with its clichés and expressive means could be applied to a tool like screen grab.
As with any hype, at the moment you can’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed with the amount of work produced, so you end up seeing any new work as a repetition of something already made. Even with a truly interesting project you cannot avoid comparing it to the dozen others. There are some projects that I really enjoy, like Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture” with its photographic references and the deadpan approach, or Anastasia Tsayder’s “Age of Mercy”, a collection of screen shots from a 1990-s Russian cop series, which establishes a dialogue with our recent past and strangely doubles as an electronic music album. Perhaps as anywhere else, the best are those which start with an idea, and then this kind of technology comes as the most suitable tool.
• In your work I can easily perceive the presence of humans, even if they seem to play a marginal role in your pictures. What is your relationship with people in your photographs?
Just like with locations and places that I photograph, I am interested to see people doing things that look like I may have seen them before. When there are no people in the frame I am interested in traces of people, and if I am photographing pure nature I am again perhaps more interested in reflecting on our reactions to nature, rather than nature itself. The man and the culture are among the most interesting subjects, and the ones we know best.
• You published two limited editions books. How do you see the photography book market today? Why did you publish limited edition and how this market is working in Russia?
It is needless to say that the market is booming. The first edition of Offprint in Paris in 2010 was a room-sized venue, last year it was Palais de Beaux Arts, and there were three other photo book fairs running parallel to it. Even though this means that you have to trawl really carefully to find your gems, the popularity of the format often stimulates very interesting and experimental work, even from established artists and publishing houses.
We have seen a few examples of Russian photo books receiving international acclaim recently, but it is hard to say if a photo book market really exists in Russia. I have not been watching the dynamics closely but I see more photography book events happening these days than I would even a year ago. So apparently something is developing, although I am not sure if it is already a market or still just an interest.
The first book I made, ‘Za garazhami’ (‘Behind car shelters’) is a limited edition in the true sense of the word. I made only one copy and decided to leave it at that. The book has no text apart from the title and I like the idea that the viewer can only interact with the book in my presence, as I am the owner of the only copy.
My second book ‘Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers’ is the exact opposite and has an unlimited print run. Printing on demand allows to produce as many books for roughly the same price per copy, so a limited print run here seems to be more of a convention. Also I wanted a book a bit like a paperback novel, where no one cares for editions and print runs, but is rather interested in the words and sentences. As limiting the print run stresses the book’s unique qualities, opting for an unlimited print run seemed a way to do the opposite. In a way the book becomes more of the idea, the concept of a book, which I can turn material any time I run out of copies.
• How is it being a documentary photographer in Russia today?
Russia remains a very under-photographed country which I see both as a blessing and a challenge. You can afford to work on much broader subjects than you would in Europe or the US, and still end up with something that has not been said before you. At the same time you sometimes feel overwhelmed with possibilities.
The relative remoteness and isolation also seem to result in projects, which employ a method tested elsewhere, and applied to the local context. This shows in many contemporary Russian projects, and in fact many of them are among the most interesting. I am not sure how they will work in a larger context, but perhaps there is no such thing as exact repetition, and any new subject brings its own meanings and yields different results, even if the method is the same.
• Can you mention some interesting photographers to follow in your country?
In addition to Alexander Gronsky and Max Sher, who you mentioned earlier, I would like to mention Anastasia Tsayder, Elena Chernyak, Liudmila Zinchenko, Sergei Novikov, Valeri Nistratov, Igor Starkov, Vadim Savraev.
• What are you working on now? Can you give us some previews on what is coming next?
In 2013 I started working on my current project about ruined churches in Russia. If my earlier work was exploring the aesthetics of the unsightly and was purposely unselective in the choice of the subject, ‘Ruins’ are an exploration of what is expected to be picturesque, and are very selective. What makes it similar to my earlier work is that it deals with things hidden in plain sight. There are thousands of ruined churches scattered throughout Russian landscape, and I was surprised no one had approached the subject artistically.
The subject is very loaded both visually and emotionally, and is very layered. Most ruins date back to the 19th century, the century of the Great Russian Culture—of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky—and the century of the lost imperial grandeur. In this they resonate perfectly with the symbolism of the classical ruin in the Western art. At the same time they are really tied to our twentieth century history, when the 1917 revolution shut down the churches, and the following urbanisation turned nearby villages into void spaces.
In a way the ruins come as remnants of Russia’s own antiquity, something not so distant in time, one hundred years back, but somehow unrelated to the country of today and its people. Coincidentally I started working on the project around the same time when Russia set off on its current quest for lost roots and identity. As I said, history remains a charged topic around here, so we do not seem to know who we want to associate with: those who built these churches, or those who destroyed them. Neither, or both.
Another thing that I was working on in 2015 falls somewhere in between commissioned and personal work. It is a collaboration with two Chilean researchers on Russian astrometrical mission in Chile active throughout the 1960s and up to the Pinochet coup forcing Soviet astronomers leave overnight in 1973. The main focus of the work were the three near identical telescope domes built by St Petersburg astronomers in Santiago, and then in the Russian Caucasus thirty years after. The resulting project is a mixture of editorial and personal documentary, with the use of archive material, many story lines and side narratives, connecting St Petersburg, Chile and the Caucasus. The first part of the project will be shown in the gallery of Princeton University School of Architecture opening February 17h.