by Alina Sanduliak
Whereas in Europe and America of the 1960s through 1980s, photographers were free to choose to document any aspect of everyday life, the Soviet Union required long, hard thought before engaging in street photography and angle experiments. “The Kharkiv School of Photography: from Soviet Censorship to a New Aesthetic” is a project that allows us a clearer understanding of how late Soviet Ukrainian photographers saw the socialist everyday life.
European and American photographers were not constrained in their choice of protagonist or scene – every new thing that appeared in society, was thoroughly documented by curious authors: whether people of non-standard appearance (works by Diana Arbus), New York bohemians propagating the sexual revolution, drug addicts or people with AIDS (works by Nan Goldin), the night life (works by Ed van der Elsken), marginalized communities (works by Anders Petersen), etc.
At the same time, the scope of themes showed through the lens of Ukrainian photographers of the time, had very narrow limits. The laws in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, forbade unsanctioned photography not only of “strategic objects” (such as railways, factories, military facilities), but even street photography. The nude was a separate taboo.
The powers that be even dictated aesthetics: photography was to contain no extravagant experiments – these were branded “formalism,” and led to the outright persecution of their authors. Proper Soviet photography was to be “correct,” staged, carefully selected. Essentially, it was propaganda – photography of this kind was meant to show a strictly positive view of Soviet life, stressing the advantages of Socialist utopia. Documentary photography that would reveal other sides, a variety that was not always attractive, was prohibited. And so, until the slight liberalization of social life in the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw” of the 1960s, Ukrainian photography shows no examples of direct documentary photography along the lines of European or American photography (at least, if such examples exist, they have not yet been found or studied). Audacious experiments began in the late 1960s in a circle of Kharkiv photographers, now known as the Kharkiv school of photography.
The Kharkiv school of photography is an umbrella term for several photographic groups and lone authors – three generations of photographers in all, who shot from the late 1960s in Kharkiv. The term encompasses about two dozen names, including Eugeny Pavlov, Juri Rupin, Boris Mikhailov, Oleg Maliovany, Oleksandr Suprun, Anatoliy Makiyenko, Oleksandr Sitnichenko, Gennadiy Tubalev, Viktor and Serhiy Kochetov, Sergey Bratkov, Sergiy Solonsky, Misha Pedan, Valerii and Natalia Cherkashyn, Igor Manko, Volodymyr Starko, Roman Pyatkovka, Igor Chursyn, Andrii Avdieienko; and four groups: “Vremia” (“Time”), “Gosprom,” “Rapid Response Group” and “Shilo” (“Awl”). These not only created documentary photography to show all aspects of life in the Soviet Union, but incorporated artistic elements to interpret, exaggerate, distort, and thus create even more apt images of the era.
Authors of the Kharkiv School of Photography created many works that documented and interpreted the Soviet and post-Soviet everyday life. We can get a broad sense of the themes, methods and formats of their work by browsing through the online archive “The Kharkiv School of Photography: From Soviet Сensorship to a New Aesthetic,” was created as part of the Ukraine Everywhere program of the Ukrainian Institute.
The unattractive Soviet everyday life made its first appearance in the works of Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov (this now internationally known artist has lived in Berlin in recent decades). His photography – as well as that of his Kharkiv colleagues – was a complete opposite to the official, propaganda photography cultivated in the Soviet Union. Whereas mainstream photography aimed to produce pathos-filled valorization of the Soviet citizen and their working days, artists in undeclared opposition to it clearly wanted to show another side – the everyday and the intimate, that which was painstakingly hidden by the Soviet authorities. To them, photography “served an important cause to de-heroicize the Soviet,” as Mikhailov put it in an interview while describing his artistic approach.
The theme of the everyday life was widely explored in his project “Unfinished Dissertation” – a photo book with black and white photography and handwritten texts, which he created in 1984-1985. At first glance, the book may appear as a bit of a hodge-podge collection of amateur snapshots. However, this simplicity hides an unsentimental and frank look at the mood in Kharkiv, and people’s lives in the final decade of Soviet power. The juxtaposition of photographs (the visual) with texts (the verbal) is somewhat out of character: the handwritten sentences are unexpected thoughts or excerpts from recently read books, and have nothing to do with the images. Generally, Mikhailov pays a lot of attention to the city and its changes through history; these themes can be traced in all of his photographic series. With his maverick vision, Mikhailov was a leading figure for many of his friends from the “Vremia” group, as well as subsequent generations of photographers. His works today are widely known and analyzed, which is why we propose to look at the works of the authors who are as yet less well known.
Viktor and Serhii Kochetov are a father and son who only position their works as joint projects. Never part of any artistic group, they have always kept somewhat to themselves. However, interactions with Boris Mikhailov moved Viktor Kochetov, who worked as a reporter for Soviet media (and thus was part of the official photographic establishment), to shoot “for himself.” This meant creating the sort of photography that would not have been accepted by any editor of any paper at the time. The camera eye caught everything – the camera was a diary of sorts. Their photographs represent their daily routes, the way to work and back home, as well as their strolls. Even in shooting central streets, they selected a “behind-the-facades, look” which was usually ignored by professional photographers and reporters – rather than frontal, facade, views. Their landscapes are marked by a focus on peripheral and marginalized places.
In the Kochetovs’ photography, the everyday reveals itself as a dichotomy: in one photograph we see an old Soviet “Festival” radio transmitter, but the snapshot itself is dated 1994 – i. e., after the collapse of the Soviet Union; in another we see “Marlboro” inscribed on shopping bags and trams. But such was reality in 1990s Ukraine – everything was mixed, with no correspondence to place or time.
A characteristic move of the Kharkiv school of photography is the technique of painting the snapshots. But whereas other representatives of the Kharkiv school tried all manner of techniques – the collage, overlaying of slides, solarizing, toning – the Kochetovs constrained their experiments to just one. The bright-coloured, striking, weird painting (such as blue faces or a pink sky, for instance) serves the authors’ intention to bring forth a strong sense of dissonance in the viewer.
Some photographs by the Kochetovs can be viewed through a historical lense: they had a strong interest in old cars. Many photographs show Soviet Moskvitches, Chaikas and Pobedas in various conditions. It is very striking to see these symbols of time documented at close quarters, like majestic monuments.
Boris Mikhailov has a series entitled “Case History,” in which he photographed homeless people, and thus documented a new social stratum that came to be in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kochetovs did not photograph homeless people, but their landscape works from the 1990s contain many street dogs and cats. They are a characteristic trait of post-Soviet public space, where, uncared for, street animals began grouping into packs to survive.
In Kochetovs’ works, the mundane turns surreal. Perhaps it was the boredom and apathy of life in Soviet and post-Soviet reality that motivated this turn. The Kochetovs use photography as an ironic way to depict the absurdity of (post-)Socialist existence.
Other authors of the so-called first generation of the Kharkiv school of photography were more interested in themes of the nude body and sexuality.
The next, second generation, much like the aforementioned authors, paid much attention to the everyday, to the changes in surrounding space and people. Prominent here was a group formed by Igor Manko and Hennadii Maslov in 1985, first called “Encounters,” and later “Gosprom.” The group also included Volodymyr Starko, Boris Redko, Misha Pedan, Leonid Pesin, Kostiantyn Melnyk; Sergey Bratkov later joined instead of Maslov. The young photographers interacted with the Vremia group, and showed them their photographs, but diverged from them in the “knock out theory” [a concept formulated by Kharkiv photographers, whereby arresting, sometimes aggressive photographs are meant to “strike” the viewer, immediately grabbing their attention and thus forming a strong impression – ed.] As Ihor Manko noted in an interview, their group “primarily strove for documentary reliability, a return to realism, showing true aspects of Soviet reality in its decay.” They were interested in the unadorned Soviet everyday.
Misha Pedan provided an almost all-encompassing documentation of the final years of hte Soviet Union. Already by 1990, Pedan emigrated to Sweden. His photographs from 1986-1990 depict various street scenes, where people often look into the camera or strike ironic poses. In his works, the everyday shows in the clothing of the subjects of his photographs, their facial expressions and their poses. By the late 1980s, young people behave more freely, they are no longer afraid of the camera, they take brave, perhaps even slightly defiant, “cool” and “modern” poses. The poses and faces of older people still sometimes show reserve or shyness, but again, there is no fear of being photographed. This is a telling mark of the changes in social moods, of how people were becoming freer and less uptight. This sense of sudden freedom was in the air, and Misha Pedan managed to document it. The photobook “The End of a Beautiful Era,” which compiles his 1980s photographs, was published not that long ago, in 2012. In one interview, Pedan describes the album thus: “This freedom, this initial stage of freedom, was beautiful. This book serves a double purpose: on the one hand it depicts the Soviet exotic, but at the same time it shows ordinary life.”
Ordinary life is also shown in Pedan’s penultimate photo album, entitled “M,” and dedicated to the Soviet subway. In 1985–1986 Misha Pedan took secret photographs of subway passengers in their, and his, daily 45-minute work commute every morning and evening (it was still prohibited to openly photograph daily life). The 80 black-and-white photographs only show sad and mistrustful faces: it seems as though there were no happy people in the Soviet Union at all. In preparing the book for publication, the publishers took pains to find old Soviet photographic paper, in order to create an appropriate impression: “The photographs look dirty and dark — precisely the effect I was going for.” The photographs, the text and the book’s overall visual design come together to give a striking image of the “average Soviet person”.
Other members of the Gosprom group were also interested in manifestations of the everyday, and found an appropriate aesthetic to convey them: “If I tried to sum up the aesthetics of the Gosprom group in a word, the word would be ‘Indifference’”, — Pedan said in an interview. And, indeed, the photographs can be said to be boring and grey, but that is precisely the aesthetic that gets the final years of the Soviet Union when viewed without irony or sarcasm, as was the preference of the first generation of the Kharkiv school. Ihor Manko, co-founder of the Gosprom group, and curator of the “Kharkiv School of Photography: From Soviet Censorship to a New Aesthetic” project, describes the artistic attempts of his colleagues thus: “Within this general line [of documentary precision – editor’s note] Pesin and Starko tended towards the critical anti-Soviet expression, while Borys Redko preferred the ironic demonstration of the absurdity of the surrounding life.”
Volodymyr Starko’s photographs present a direct and somewhat detached look at dilapidated public space: here a pile of broken asphalt, there an empty notice board for a cinema, elsewhere twisted wires with unclear purpose in the middle of a courtyard. In most of his works, spaces appear abandoned by humanity. The photograph of the empty chair with a jacket draped over its back is also symbolic: it’s as if the owner of the piece of clothing was no longer with us, their place stands vacant. Or vice versa, we see a crowd preoccupied with their own affairs while waiting for transportation – the daily automatic ritual of the work commute.
Striking in Boris Redko’s works is the repeating narrative of prefab panel highrise buildings and projects. Construction of these in the Soviet Union began in the 1960s, and by the 1980s they dominated the city outskirts. In Boris Redko’s photographs the “panels” aren’t direct objects of photography; rather they accompany the author’s attempts to photograph his childhood courtyard, a view from a window, or even a landscape with the moon or baby wagons. These photographs evoke the feeling of grey “urban jungle,” where people are almost absent, squeezed into one of many boxes not meant to differ in any way from other, neighboring boxes.
The theme of the unadorned everyday seems to form a closed cycle in the works of the Shilo [“awl”] group, the so-called third generation of the Kharkiv school. The group was formed in 2010 by photographers Serhii Lebedynskyi, Vladyslav Krasnoshchok and Vadym Trykoz, who eventually split away. Like their predecessors, these photographers frequently resort to irony, and see it as their function to “prick” (hence “awl”) the somewhat sleepy photographic milieu as it existed in Kharkiv in the 2010s. They created a photoalbum entitled “Completed Dissertation” as an homage to Boris Mikhailov, both an attempt to “build bridges” between the generations, and also to scoff at a recognized master. They used the same aesthetic Mikhailov resorted to in his “Unfinished Dissertation,” the same grey, boring photography combined with ironic texts to now document modern Kharkiv. However, it is hard to tell the difference, as if time in this place had stopped still.
To sum up, representatives of the Kharkiv school of photography were drawn to the minutiae of life. The majority of their oeuvre consists in a sort of game of these insignificant details. In a situation where the abovementioned works could not be exhibited, or where their very presence in an exhibition led to their removal and the exhibition’s closing, it’s as though the authors took these photographs only for their own private use, and were free to play with them as they pleased, with no constraints of technique or aesthetic point. Anything is possible in a game. This is why Kharkiv photography, with the centrality of irony to many of the series represented here, is entirely consistent with Postmodernism. Irony and game manifested in the way of looking at things. They were a way of fighting Soviet boredom and the greyness of the mundane. As Misha Pedan noted in one of his interviews: “If there was any unifying theme to the Kharkiv school, it was the sense of the absurdity of the surrounding world, and an ironic attitude [to that world]. This irony allowed us to continue living while knowing that the world is absurd.”
To learn more about the Kharkiv School of Photography visit the platform Kharkiv School of Photography: Soviet Censorship to New Aesthetics. The platform is a part of the Ukraine Everywhere program of the Ukrainian Institute and is dedicated to the promotion of the Kharkiv School of Photography achievements among the wider international audiences and its introduction to the all-European artistic context.
Alina Sanduliak is a historian of photography, independent author and curator. Her research interests include contemporary world photography, methods of creating photographic projects, as well as classical Ukrainian photography. Her articles have been published in different online magazines such as Bird in Flight, Art Ukraine, Korydor.