There has long been, to my mind, a schizophrenic strain in Russian photography. It may be consequent of the still-brooding legacy from the seismic shift in all the Russian arts after Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid 1920s. The heady formalist experimentation of the previous Lenin years, with its shared aesthetic of the German Bauhaus, fell victim to the “Iron Fist” of the Georgian born dictator and his fantasies of a heroic proletariat embodied in the rubric “Soviet Realism.” It teeters even in the uneasy balance of formalism and propaganda in the films of Sergei Eisenstein. This decades long face-off between Formalism and Soviet Realism during the Stalinist years, and even through the darker years of the Cold War era, has found an unlikely coming together, a surprising synthesis, in the work of Sergey Maximishin, a contemporary photojournalist whose newsworthy images are filled with the composition, color, light, and action that are hallmarks of Russian art: formalist photography, and the dramatic humanity of Socialist Realism. A quick look back at 20th century Soviet photography gives some context for Maximishin’s stylistic integration. No photographer represented the formal experimentation of the early Soviet era more solidly than Alexander Rodchenko, whose industrial abstractions are balanced alongside his dynamic human portraits.
Sergey Shimansky’s images from the 1930s breathed heroic life into the anonymous regimentation of collectivized farm life, a misguided government mandate that often led, in fact, to grinding privation, even famine, among Russian farmers.
Shimansky also created stunning propaganda images extolling the manly virtues of the Soviet military.
But most familiar of the period to Western viewers are the boldly collaged photographic and graphic posters that embody the political propaganda of the time, finding a kind of apotheosis in the images of Alexander Zhitomirsky; the one below proclaims “Peace” in several languages.
In the 1970s, photographers of the late Soviet time broke free of these old restrictions with individual styles: from Alexey Titarenko’s long exposure, poetic images of St. Petersburg’s (formerly Leningrad) street scenes.
To the grittily harsh, nude portraits by Boris Mikhailov, of the addicted and homeless people (bomzh) of the city of Kharkov, in his disturbing book Case Histories—a work that Guardian critic Adrian Searle describes: What remarkable, unforgettable, awful images they are. Their impact is not lessened or dulled over hundreds of examples. Part of me wished I had never looked at them.
In the 21st century, twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR, the smoldering embers of the aesthetics of Collectivism still flicker, albeit dimly, in these photographs of Mikailhov, just as Titarenko in his 1980s series Nomenkatura of Signs evokes the Formalist spirit of Rodchenko and El Lissitsky.
I confess to an abiding love of Russian photography, whether it’s the experiments of the early Soviet years, the 1930 industrial/farm collective images, the suffering and pathos of the WWII battlefields, the late and post-Stalinist era of the Cold War, or the enormous diversity of its contemporary photojournalism. When Nailya Alexander, who has a photography gallery in Manhattan that shows Russian work, introduced me to the work of Sergey Maximishin, I immediately felt a connection, one that has deepened in emails with the photographer, and most movingly, in his answers to a few questions I recently posed to him. Here, his comments are interspersed with images of his work. Maximishin is enormously articulate; he references art and literature as touchstones—with an enviable ease. The broad-based education and life background that he brought to his photojournalism is evident in both the humanity and the artfulness of his images; like many artists, he disdains the label “artist.” He also has a quick wit and sense of irony. I think you will find his reflections on his life story to be inspiring, especially in the recent Russian “annexation” of the Crimea, where Maximishim passed his childhood.
As you might anticipate in Maximishin’s work, there is a close dialogue between the dignity of work and of social man, while framed within the sensual and formal abstractions of pure art.
1. Did you receive your initial training in photography while in the Soviet Army? Was this a factor in why you decided to become a photojournalist?
When I was 14 years old, my Mom and Dad gave me a camera— it was the first Soviet half-rangefinder camera with a built-in lens, called “Silhouette— Electro.” I took pictures of girls in my class; they liked my photographs, and I liked the girls—so from the very beginning I began to receive joy from photography. Then soon enough I had my first encounter with the world of professional photography.
In those days in the Soviet Union it was obligatory for every schoolchild to develop a working skill. In my town there was a special institution where one could study a trade. I decided to work in a photography laboratory. At classes I had to memorize recipes of developers; to practice, we went to a studio at a Soviet mall, where the best of us were entrusted to retouch acne and other dermatological troubles on huge portraits of the “heroes of labor.” Then these portraits were posted on the City Hall’s Board of Honor. Unfortunately, at that time I did not manage to secure a profession—as our teacher was jailed for selling contraband stockings at a black market. In Soviet times this was considered a crime. Then I went to an Institute where I studied physics. During the third year I was drafted into the Soviet Army. For six months I was taught to be a signaler, then was sent to Cuba where signalers were needed. But even more, they needed a photographer to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of the foundation of our military brigade. There was a soldier/photographer who was degraded for drunkenness—into the significantly less prestigious position of grenade thrower. The head of the soldier’s club personally interviewed the newly arrived recruits and he chose me.
My very first professional shoot was the visit of Fidel Castro to our military brigade. Then, after discharge, I continued my studies at the Institute, and went to work in the laboratory of scientific and technical expertise at the Hermitage. I was responsible for attribution and dates of pottery and coins. Hard times of perestroika forced me to leave the Hermitage (my salary was only $14 a month.) Of course, this was not enough for food, not to mention photography. In 1992, my institute friends organized a real estate company and asked me to join the business. For seven years I was involved in boring affairs, occasionally photographing my friends and their children for free.
One day in 1996 a friend casually mentioned that he heard on the radio that the Faculty of Photojournalists of the Union of Photojournalists of St. Petersburg was accepting new students. I phoned the radio station, got the address, grabbed my best photos and ran to apply for the Faculty. This is an old and famous school; in Soviet times it was called “Photojournalist School for Workers,” where amateur photographers from factory newspapers studied. They were accepted only by the recommendation of the District Komsomol Committee. The first dean of the school was the photographer Alexander Brodsky – the father of Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky. The school miraculously survived the hard times of perestroika and functions today. After a year, I realized that I didn’t want to do anything but photography. Two years later, I was working on the staff of the daily newspaper Izvestia; the following year I photographed the war in Chechnya. I was a grown man, 35 years old but my income was reduced exactly ten times. Photography is an illness (like a drug) and I became seriously addicted.
Even in the depths of Soviet atheistic secularism, the Russian Orthodox Church endured, and Maximishin finds a metaphysical power in many seemingly ordinary images.
2. You were born and raised in southern Ukraine and Crimea, an area far from most people’s notion of the Russian heartland. Your childhood town, Kerch, was a Greek colony from the 7th century B.C. That region has long been in the center of contending Middle East and European military forces. Just how “Russian” do you feel?
Kerch, the city of my childhood, is a very interesting place. On the way to the beach you can kick a potsherd that might be part of an antique amphora with an embossed stamp of Miletus, Chios or Rhodes. The hillside terraces of Kerch course down from a high hill called “Mount Mithridates,” (in honor of the famous King Mithridates, the last of the great rivals of Rome.) Summer rains run down the steep streets, washing out antique coins; looking for them was a favorite entertainment of Kerch boys. Kerch was populated by Italians, Greeks, Jews, Tatars, Germans, Armenians, and Russians. But even before WWII, Stalin deported the Germans, Greeks and Italians; during the war, the occupying Germans killed all the Jews. Immediately after liberation, Stalin deported the Tatars to Central Asia. There was nothing left of the city (it was burned to the ground by bombing) or of the local people. With them, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Mediterranean simply vanished.
About whether I feel “Russian”? This is a rather complex question. My mother is Ukrainian, my father an atheist and a Jew, but one who doesn’t know a single word of Yiddish. Growing up, I spoke Ukrainian with mom and my elder sister; with my father and younger sister I spoke Russian, by reflex switching from one language to another. My wife, a quarter German, a quarter Pole, half Russian, and born in Estonia, first noticed this language switching. I have lived in Russia already for thirty years; I speak and think in Russian. Who am I? A Ukrainian, a Russian or a Jew? I am not clear myself. From time to time I check myself—for example, when Russian and Ukrainian teams play soccer. But, alas, this does not work, as I always seem to root for the losing team.
There are images of solemn spirituality and of hedonistic carnality, both polarities captured in dramatic camera angles and light.
3. You have had photo assignments around the globe and have been published in a wide variety of international magazines and newspapers. Do you feel you have a “home” today, or are you a citizen of the world?
No, I do not feel like a citizen of the world, I have a home in St. Petersburg. And the older I get, the more I cherish this home. I have been to many different cities and countries, and it may be presumptuous of me to think so, but at least from May to September, St. Petersburg is the best city in the world.
Even photos that seem to capture a documentary literalness of no great drama or narrative become ambiguous in Maximishin’s lens.
4. In many ways, you are a “Southerner.” But you also have been attracted to the desolate spaces of Siberia in Russia’s far north, especially to Norilsk, a mining and smelting town that even the Russian State Statistics Service has called the most polluted city in Russia. Do the idea of and the land of Siberia have special meaning for you as a photographer coming from the South?
Well, probably because I’m a Southerner, I feel drawn to Siberia, because it is interesting to see what I have not seen before. Siberia does not disappoint you; it is really an amazing place. The best thing about Siberia is the people. The Russians know that the farther east of Moscow you go, the better the people you meet. Perhaps this is due to the fact that only the strongest, most determined, brave and enterprising people migrated to Siberia. As for Norilsk: I’ve been wanting to go there for some time, but never had a chance until the guys from a local photo club invited me to give a master class. It would be a sin to miss such an opportunity. Norilsk is a fantastic place. This city could not have been built in any way except by the slave labor of prisoners. Today, one is shocked by the unsettled state and terrible dilapidation of the city. No one wants to live there forever. All residents of Norilsk once came with the purpose to quickly earn money (there was a system in the former SU of the so-called northern coefficients – those who worked in the north, were paid two or three times more for the same work as people were in the center of the country). For some reason, they stayed longer, but the feeling of temporariness remained. Why paint a house, repair an apartment, establish a life if, anyway, we are going to leave this place? Some people call this a “syndrome of an occupant” and some a “syndrome of a deferred life.”
Some of Maximishin’s images that at first seem static and of only passing interest become arresting simply through their formal elements of color, composition, and line.
Even more removed from any real life context are Maximishin’s photos where the subject matter itself seems to be “light,” as in this dual portrait where the lamp is strongly centered
5. The history of 20th century Soviet era photography has been defined by the uncertainties of shifting politics, at least as much as by art. The formalist experimentation of the Lenin years, dismantled by the Collectivist and propaganda dictates of the Stalinist era, created an uneasy duality in Russian photography. But I think there is a synthesis of form and content in your work that is truly unique; an almost meditative consideration of the formal elements of composition, color, space, texture, and action blend with a deeply sympathetic humanity in all of your work. Can you say something about this and about how you approach each assignment?
Thank you, I am very pleased to hear it. I think my formalist search comes from classical painting—after all, five years of working at the Hermitage formed an addiction. If we talk about humanity in terms of interest in a person, especially the “little” man – I think it’s inherent to all Russian artists and photographers because we all grew up on Russian literature. When I am asked who was the greatest influence on me as a photographer, I know the answer: the writer Nikolai Gogol. [Alexey Titarenko also references 19th century novelists as influence]. As far as my approach to an assignment, an ability to accomplish it (editorial assignment) is a weak point among Russian photographers. We are very ambitious. For many of us, it is not enough to be the first violin, or even a conductor; one has to be a composer of his own stories. Personally, I love to work on assignment; each assignment is a challenge. Perhaps it comes from my first education – physics. As a child I loved to solve problems.
There are photos where the human figures are barely etched by light.
The magic and the vulnerability of children are frequent subjects in Maxmishin’s work, witnesses to, but helpless objects, even victims of, the world of adults— as in this poignant image of Afghan children.
And the irony of children at play—but in Norlisk, the most polluted city in Russia.
6. There is a long tradition of photographers in the United States becoming filmmakers, from Strand and Steichen to the late Tim Hetherington. Have you been lured by the idea of making documentaries? If so, what might that be?
I think making movies is not for me. I am an observer. I am one of those who regret that an invisible cloak exists only in fairy tales. Like in physics, it is often difficult to take into account the effect of the instrument on the process or phenomenon under observation and study. Observation changes the properties of the observed object: one of the postulates of quantum physics. [The observer alters the reality of the observed.] There is a wonderful story about how Japanese scientists decided to investigate the behavior of stray dogs. They hooked a video camera to each dog’s collar. So, the study showed that the stray dogs spent 90% of the time trying to get rid of the collar with the attached camera. ” Where does the grass go when we do not look at it? “—This is a question obsessively asked by a heroine of Remarque’s novel ” The Black Obelisk.” So, I’m not sure that the grass is not going away. Movies (I’m talking about documentary films) invade life more intrusively than a still photo camera, so in my opinion, the author is present more in documentaries than in photographs: therefore there is less truth. To tell the truth is my job. After all, I’m a journalist, not an artist.
Nowhere, in all of Maximishin’s work is the mix of ambiguity (even a kind of surrealism) so blended with his formal concerns, than in the gentle portraits of a lone child caught in a private moment. Considering his above reflections on the observer/observed, one can’t help but speculate on the artistry itself as a mediating element. Is there any true reality? Perhaps it’s a question for a second interview.
This has been a quick ramble through more photos than I normally include in one of these essays, but the depth and diversity I find in Maximishin’s work as I explore his website, leaves me astounded. He has absorbed deeply the proud, disparate tradition of 20th century Russian photography, a tradition that is still insufficiently explored and appreciated by Western collectors and historians. Sergey Maximishin is a unique photojournalist, twice honoree of the World Press Photo award, in 2004 and 2006. His website is a rich mine of the most keenly observed photojournalism of today. http://www.maximishin.com/ I would like to thank Nailya Alexander, Maximishin’s U.S. dealer, for her insightful translation from the Russian.