THE DESIRE TO BE SEEN
Russian Photography and the Moscow Photobiennale
Foreign terms are in vogue in Russia these days. You hear and read them everywhere: marketing, business-lunch, résumé, spa. . . . Once a foreign experience is learned, its untranslatable name is quick to enter the Russian everyday vocabulary. Photobiennale is one such Western term—and experience—recently borrowed by Russia. The Moscow Photobiennale, instituted in 1996, has in its six years of existence become one of the most eagerly awaited and influential events in Russian cultural life.
Conceived and executed at a grand scale—in the festival’s very first year, there were no fewer than ninety-eight shows—the Photobiennale took Russian audiences by surprise, and it has since expanded. April 2002 marks the fourth festival, and it is expected to top its own records, with well over a hundred exhibitions. Media coverage and advertising have been massive, and every other spring Moscow’s streets are festooned with posters and banners announcing Photobiennale exhibitions. According to the city’s mayor, Yuri Luzkov, the festival has now established itself as a “welcome tradition” in the Russian capital. It is, at any rate, an event that cannot be missed.
Russia is at last discovering that its photographic heritage extends far beyond Constructivism, which for much of the world long represented the end-all of Russian photography. During the Soviet regime, the medium was of course seen more as an ideological tool than as an art form. But it is interesting to note that preRevolutionary Russia had twice as many photographic studios as England and France combined. Thousands upon thousands of photographs—both documentary and artistic—are now being recovered from archives around the vast country, to be framed and exhibited in the capital’s museums during the Photobiennale.
The importance of photography at this point in Russia is almost unsurprising. History has been rewritten a number of times here over the past hundred years: in this period of yet another dramatic shift, it is only logical for Russians to turn to photography to tell them “the truth” about their country over the twentieth century. Yet the scope of this new interest would be unlikely—indeed, unthinkable—without the efforts of one person: the festival’s director, Olga Sviblova.
“Madame Fotographia” as Sviblova has been dubbed in the Russian daily Argumentu i Faktu, is married to a Frenchman and divides her time between Russia and Paris. It was she who guessed in 1996 that the concept of France’s Mois de la Photographie (the prototype for the Moscow festival) would transport successfully to Russian soil. When she proposed the ambitious event in Moscow, however, many people suspected that she was insane. To settle that question, Sviblova promptly went to a hospital and had her head officially examined. She emerged with detailed x-rays of her brain—proclaimed by the doctors to be completely normal—and proceeded without further delay with the project. (Sviblova’s x-rays were, in fact, featured in one of the shows at the 1996 Photobiennale.)
Watching Sviblova in action makes it clear why Moscow is currently in a photo frenzy. Before the press conference for the Photobiennale 2000, the spacious hall of the Moscow Sheraton Palace was crowded with government officials, corporate sponsors’ representatives, foreign guests, top Russian journalists, and TV cameras. Sviblova arrived five minutes after the scheduled start of the conference—agile, elegant, extinguishing a cigarette on the go, yelling into her cell phone, gesturing to her staff, sending hellos and heart-melting smiles as she walked into the room, a huge bouquet of flowers under one arm, piles of papers in the other. Nothing would, or could, start without her. She confidently seized the microphone, and—fluently switching from English to Russian to French—in no time she captivated everyone. The next day, nearly every newspaper had her picture somewhere in a prominent place, and not for the first time: Sviblova often appears in the Moscow press, voicing her opinion on topics ranging from the state of Russian photography to the appropriate wardrobe of today’s businesswoman to the merits of certain brands of cigars.
Along with her energy, charm, and audacity, Sviblova’s secret of success lies in her exceptional understanding of today’s transitional Russia, and her ability to combine the old working methods with the new. In 1994 she founded the Moscovsky Dom Fotographii (Moscow House of Photography)—the parent organization of the Photobiennale—the first Russian museum of photography and officially a government nonprofit organization. This status, and Sviblova’s excellent rapport with Moscow’s Mayor Luzkov, ensure that her museum is always among the first in line to receive official support.
But unlike other state museums, the Moscow House of Photography does not yet have an impressive exhibition venue of its own. (Only last spring, a gallery adjacent to the museum’s offices was opened to house small exhibitions.) Instead, the institution has made use of some of the most prestigious museums in Russia’s capital, along with private galleries, upscale restaurants, and just about any other decent locale, to mount the colossal Photobiennales. The decision not to found a traditional museum was entirely strategic: in a city filled with world-class cultural institutions, one more might easily get lost in the crowd. Instead, with each Photobiennale, Muscovites talk more and more about the valuable contribution of the Moscow House of Photography to promoting the new art form. “We are a very young museum. But we are a very active museum, the most active one in Moscow,” says Sviblova. “Before the Moscow House of Photography, there was an enormous vacuum. Russian photography of the postwar period was a vacuum. The culture of exhibitions, publications, and historical research simply didn’t exist. We had to start doing it all at once, and we chose to do it at a large scale in order to be of any consequence.” How does one begin breaking down more than a hundred years’ worth of material, and demonstrate to the largely unsuspecting public that taking pictures can be an art? The Moscow Photobiennale tackles the problem through thematic organization, as well as through an astounding volume of photographs. “Russia: Twentieth Century in Photographs,” or “The Young Generation Meets the New Millennium,” or “Dedication: Into the Third Millennium Without War”: such theme titles somehow smack of the old Communist slogans. Indeed, the Moscow House of Photography is repeatedly criticized for staging its festival in a “Soviet” (read: megalomaniac) manner. However, there are many Russians who welcome the massive show format as rather glorious. “For the whole month Moscow is the photo capital of the world,” reports Moscovskaya Pravda. Certainly, none of the shows in the 2000 festival failed to draw crowds; the opening in Manege, Moscow’s principal exhibition hall, was so packed one could hardly move up and down the stairs, let alone approach the images on the walls.
Russians do tend to unite—out of habit, perhaps. Maybe that’s why, despite the criticism, the concept of a Photobiennale appeals so much to both the public and the photographers who participate. And if contemporary photographers complain at times that individual work is lost among the masses, few can pass up the opportunity to be included in a Photobiennale and seen by thousands of viewers.
Photographers in the festival are given great freedom: on an allotted amount of wall space, they can exhibit whatever pictures they wish, however they wish. The only requirements are that the photographer has to be generally approved by Sviblova, and that
the work has to fit loosely into one of the major themes. Sviblova sees a virtue in curatorial open arms when it comes to contemporary photography. “I am afraid of a deficit much more than I am afraid of an excess,” she says. “People must have a choice as to what they can see. You can’t hate photography solely for the fact that there is a lot of it. You can hate the kind of photography that you consider poor and criticize it, but that doesn’t mean that someone has to forbid showing it.”
Documentary photography tends to lead the way in popularity, but documentary work with an artistic twist. Igor Moukhin is a photojournalist whose photographs go beyond the level of chronicle to capture a palpable sense of human drama. His images are untitled, graphic, black and white: they seem tailor-made for the roughness of the newspaper context, and indeed have been featured in many reviews of the Photobiennale. But perhaps the most important attribute of Moukhin’s photographs, and the principle reason for their popularity, is their distinct optimism.
For obvious reasons, it is difficult to find positive images among contemporary Russian documentary photography. The living conditions in many parts of the country are still grim. But while pictures of suffering were well-represented in the first two Photobiennales, by the third festival they had ceased to be a main focus. A derisive term was even created for bleak documentary work: chernuha—“repulsive blackness.” Now, there seems to be an unofficial ban on chernuha in the Russian media, and the themes planned for 2002 Photobiennale allow little room for it to slip through: “Landscape”; “The Body and Its Movement”; “Childhood”; and “The Legacy of the Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.”
Of course, not all photographers are willing to abandon straight documentary work. Valery Shchekoldin, whose images of the conflict in Chechnya were featured at the 2000 Photobiennale, stands firm. Nonetheless, Shchekoldin understands the current move away from chernuha. “Any photographer involved in photo-
graphing war for a long time will eventually find it necessary to heal the soul through taking pictures of pretty landscapes. The same happens with the viewers,” he observes.
While photojournalism remains dominant, conceptual work and multimedia work are growing in popularity with each festival. Sviblova sees a simple explanation for this: “Photography is the most fashionable art language right now. So more and more artists are abandoning their conventional ways and picking up the camera. And a picture taken by an artist is always in some way conceptual.”
Olga Tchernysheva and Vikentii Nilin are two artists working in a relatively avant-garde vein. Tchernysheva’s project “Waiting for a Miracle,” seen at the Photobiennale 2000, addresses through symbolic imagery what she sees as the limbo state of Russia today. Nilin’s installation at the same festival broke with traditions of “respectable” presentation: his large, black-and-white transparencies were punctured by railroad nails, and lit from behind by a bare light bulb.
Many of the festival’s participants are gaining recognition in Moscow, where numerous fashionable photography galleries are now cropping up, and nearly every art gallery carries photographs. “In the past five years, our photographers have improved tremendously,” Sviblova explains. “Their work is becoming highly professional, while remaining different and very Russian. And the public is beginning to support our photography through collecting. Finally the idea of photography as an art form has been accepted.”
History has been rewritten a number of times here ... it is only logical for Russians to turn to photography to tell them “the truth.”
At the Moscow Flouse of Photography, it is understood that Russians missed out on many of the developments in world photography during the years of Soviet isolation. “Back then, we didn’t have any magazines or books or teachers to learn from,” Shchekoldin recalls. “In the early 1970s, when I began photographing, I had to rely entirely on my own instinct.” Now, shows by the masters of photography are not infrequent events in Moscow. Sviblova proudly points out that “you don’t have to go to Pahs or New York anymore to see an important show.”
Historic or contemporary, documentary or conceptual, native or foreign, photography is undergoing what seems to be a golden moment in Russia, due in great measure to the efforts of the Moscow House of Photography, and also, it seems, as a matter of inevitable course. “We have only scratched the surface so far,” Sviblova observes. “Photography’s status has been definitely established, but now is the time to be careful and keep the flame going. Absolutely all traditions have been destroyed in our country in the last century. That’s why today I am becoming incredibly conservative and strive to enforce every positive tradition. There simply must be a Photobiennale every two years in Moscow.” And there will be: the new Russian photographic movement has become bigger than any one person, organization, or city. New ways of living in Russia demand—and produce—new ways of seeing.