Photographers of Igor Moukhin’s generation from the former Soviet Union face an array of formidable challenges as they and their work enter the 21st century. And we, as audience, face comparable tests in interpreting and responding to their bodies of work.
One issue that this exhibition foregrounds is the ongoing problem of positioning and evaluating work that comes to us largely decontextualized, especially when it also comes from a culture not our own, produced by a member of that culture. Like any act of communication, a photograph is in many ways culture-specific. We often assume, wrongly, that photographs speak some international language, when in fact they frequently cross borders both visible and invisible, and as a result call for translation. Igor Moukhin’s imagery of Russia, our case in point, is filled with both data and information — clothing style, body language, physiognomy, signage, locales — that any Muscovite and many Russians would recognize automatically but to which those in the U.S. do not have ready access.
Moukhin claims Alexander Rodchenko and Lou Reed as influences, suggesting both a grounding in his own cultural history and an international outlook, with — if we take both those artists as exemplars — a distinctly rebellious streak. Now represented by Rapho, a respected photo agency in Paris, Moukhin has not only developed a following in his native land but has begun to disseminate his imagery abroad. Along the way, he has done portraits of artists and writers, a series documenting Soviet sculptural monuments, and a set of observations of Paris. But he has become best known for his ongoing chronicle of the daily life — mostly as conducted in public — of his fellow citizens, especially the younger set, as post-Cold War geopolitics, geoeconomics, and geoculture reshape Russia.
Certainly one can sense in Moukhin’s images a deep identification with his own generation as they strive to move toward an open society while the old order turns into the new chaos, homogenized but hardly resolved by globalization, with ads for McDonald’s and Marlboros and Ray-Bans replacing the earlier icons. At the same time, he is not unsympathetic to the plight of his elders, with their disillusionment and nostalgia, their medals and uniforms from the Great Patriotic War, their tattered, fading portraits of Lenin and Stalin.
The photographer presents all of these emblems as relics of a past rapidly eroding away from that older generation, much like the heroic statuary examplifying socialist realism that seems to appear everywhere but to which no one nowadays pays attention. Moukhin even appears tolerant of those of his peers who have decided to embrace and endorse the reassuring fixities of that past in the face of a shaky present and a fearsomely uncertain future. All of them, he suggests, old and young alike, when push comes to shove, simply strive to get by, taking pleasure in a quiet smoke in a bar, an outdoor game of pool on a sunny day, a little dancing cheek to cheek in a garden on a summer’s night.
Born in Moscow in 1961 and Moscow-based ever since, Moukhin was an original member (1989-91) of the influential group Immediate Photography, founded by his contemporary, the artist, teacher, and curator Alexei Shulgin. He comes out of the small-camera tradition of «street photography» as initially formulated by Cartier-Bresson and members of the «New York School» — Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt — and subsequently elaborated by Mary Ellen Mark, Larry Clark, and many others. This approach, since the 1940s a major tributary of the form we loosely call documentary photography, remains very much alive throughout the world, rumors of its death at the hand of postmodernist theory notwithstanding.
Yet even stating that Moukhin comes out of that tradition makes me uncomfortable with its presumption. It takes for granted his familiarity with and embrace of that tradition, while entirely disregarding the impact on him of the imagery that surrounded and molded him from childhood on: the visual discourse of his own society, with which viewers in the West are of course less familiar. If we assume that, like any of us, Moukhin is a product of his culture, even if an atypical one, how might we start to contextualize this exhibition as evidence of his long-term project?
First of all, the necessarily chaotic thought structures of the Soviet political system in its death throes shaped the educational processes through which Moukhin and his cohort came to photography, along with the cultural and creative environment in which they grew up.
Second, their sense of the history of their medium in general and the tradition(s) from which their particular work springs became skewed by state censorship. Whatever the «official» version of the medium’s development may have proposed (a subject that has received no significant scholarship to date, and about which we know far too little), it unquestionably elided large chunks of material and seriously distorted the rest. Nor could photographers and others interested in the medium readily supplement that authorized account with information from alternative sources. Material from the States, the Orient, and elsewhere that circulated freely in the west in the 1980s, during Moukhin’s coming of age as a photographer, could not be obtained easily, if at all, inside the eastern bloc. This may explain why Moukhin’s work appears stylistically conservative, displaying little of the formal experimentation that Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Gilles Perress and others after them (and Frank and William Klein before them) applied to comparable subject matter.
Third, their knowledge of their own photographic patrimony — the multiple histories of photography in eastern Europe, the work produced within their own complex of cultures by those who had preceded them — had undergone a comparably drastic surgery. Governmental censorship, combined with self-censorship, had resulted in the destruction and/or «disappearance» of many important and previously influential bodies of work by «discredited» or «politically incorrect» photographers and artists; access to archives and collections of surviving material was often restricted; even many books and periodicals originally published within the borders of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites were subsequently banned.1
Fourth, even their awareness of what their own contemporaries inside the borders of that collapsing system were up to was limited to what appeared in state-sponsored publications and exhibitions, or what circulated surreptitiously and erratically via samizdat exhibitions and publications or through personal contact. Thus Moukhin and his cohort had to invent themselves from scratch or else patch together a crazy quilt of influences as a premise for their own explorations.
Fifth, and finally, during a period in which photography moved to the foreground of public attention in the west (from the early ’70s through the late ’80s), their work remained largely unknown to those outside the eastern bloc. Since it did not circulate effectively within those confines either, they can be said to have worked in something approximating a vacuum.
Given that photographic equipment and materials were commonly available throughout the U.S.S.R. for all of its existence,2 and that photography was encouraged as a hobby and widely practiced on virtually every level — amateur, professional, applied, fine-art, vernacular, documentary, photojournalism — it’s not surprising that vast amounts of photography of all kinds was produced there. What’s noteworthy is that the resulting heap of imagery constitutes perhaps the world’s largest remaining trove of twentieth-century photography that has not yet undergone serious critical and historical analysis or circulated widely even in its nations of origin. On many levels, this work is new to us all.
In part this is because it’s only recently that photography itself has begun to be taken seriously — as a field of study, and as a cultural barometer. Simply put, no one anywhere was looking at what was happening in photography in the U.S.S.R. between, say, 1975 and 1985, for what it might reveal about the condition of those cultures, in the same way as they were looking at literature, or at music, or at art.3 The West always knew a great deal about the eastern bloc’s oppositional writers and artists, and next to nothing about their equivalents in photography. A cultured world citizen circa 1985 would of course have recognized names like Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, or Irina Ratushinskaya, but surely not that of Boris Michailov.4
Yet by the mid- to late ’80s that photographic work had begun to trickle out — mostly in group shows, occasionally in a one-person exhibition.5 Moukhin, among others, benefitted from that loosening of strictures.6 Consequently, there is by now a high-profile presence of historical and contemporary imagery from central and eastern Europe in venues across western Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and elsewhere. But what the contemporary survey shows have offered are mostly hints and glimpses — tantalizing fragments, provocative in their intimation that behind each of the samples on view lay larger bodies of work whose rewards awaited us (as with Moukhin’s monument project, or his portraits of cultural figures), yet hardly sufficient or satisfying in and of themselves. Few of these shows have looked at any image-maker in depth, so the scope and resonance of individual oeuvres cannot even be estimated.7
Thus the opportunity afforded by this solo exhibition of Igor Moukhin’s photographs constitutes a still-rare occasion in the U.S. It enables us to attend at some length to a substantial representation of the output of a single mid-career photographer whose work began in the period just preceding glasnost and perestroika and continued through the parting of the curtain and into the present. A set of carefully calibrated glimpses from within, both personal and sociological, this exhibition affords us a series of trenchant insights into a culture in dramatic transition — as well as (in Moukhin’s work from Paris and elsewhere) a comparative scrutiny of the world outside those now-porous borders.
The value of Igor Moukhin’s work lies in his patient accumulation of acute visual synopses of the quotidian experience of his own people during a time of crisis and opportunity. He has already produced a durable archive of such summations, a repository whose individual pictures resonate with and amplify each other, and whose significance as a chronicle of this era will inevitably increase over time. A mere handful of Moukhin’s images to date have become familiar in the U.S., if not to the general public then at least to the knowledgeable audience for photography here. Surely this will change as we become better acquainted with his larger body of work — especially in relation to that of his contemporaries — and as the now-jumbled pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is eastern European photography past and present begin to come together to reveal their still-hidden patterns.
1 Hence the importance of such exhibitions as «Photography and Soviet Censorship
(from the 1960s until 1980s),» mounted by the Giedre Bartelt Galerie, Berlin, from February 6th — March 27th 2004. Its curators described this group show as «one of the first attempts to comprehend censored photography of the Soviet Union from Brezhnev until perestroyka.» While the tracking of censorship can never provide us with a plausible picture of what could have developed in a non-censorial environment, it can at least clarify for us the conditions under which production of work and its public presentation took place.
2 However, Soviet and eastern-bloc photographers did not enjoy access to as diversified a toolkit as those from western Europe, the U.S., and Japan had at their disposal. Materials, tools, and processes that photo students and professionals alike took for granted in those countries circa 1980 were often unaffordable or unavailable to their eastern European counterparts.
3 Consider, for example, Vassily Aksyonov’s 1983 novel Skazhi izium, published in the States as Say Cheese! (New York: Random House, 1989). This trenchant satire relates the adventures of a group of dissident photographers during what turned out to be the last decade of the U.S.S.R. as such. To what extent Aksyonov’s fable bases itself on actual Soviet and eastern-bloc photographic activity during that period, and to what extent he uses photographers as stand-ins for the samizdat writers among whom he numbered, I cannot say.
4 A recent stream of book-length publications of Michailov’s works, and a number of significant honors, have begun to bring him some long-overdue recognition.
5 Emigrés and self-appointed ambassadors from the West brought out samples of what the younger generation was up to. Scholars and curators began to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the work done from the revolutionary years up through World War II. Gallerists and private dealers — many of them scrupulous, some of them not — began acquiring, gathering and retailing material for which they found/created a developing market. Traveling survey shows, historical texts, monographs, special thematic issues of journals gave further evidence of this burgeoning interest in these issues and images. But the fertile period of Soviet photography between 1916 and 1940 has yet to be fully annotated.
6 Perhaps not coincidentally, Moukhin’s first major exposure outside the U.S.S.R. came in a group show bearing the same title as Aksyonov’s novel — Say Cheese! — that traveled to Paris, London, San Diego, and Chicago in 1989-90.
7 For some additional thoughts on these matters, see my response to the editors’ survey, «Whose photographs or which photographers from Central and Eastern Europe contributed to European and world photography between 1985 and 1995?» in Imago #3 (Winter ’96-97), p. 59.
This text was published in a brochure accompanying the exhibition «Igor Moukhin: Visions of Contemporary Russia» at the Clara Hatton Gallery, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, in Spring 2004. © Copyright 2004 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, P.O.B. 040078, Staten Island, New York 10304-0002 USA; firstname.lastname@example.org.