Fotograf Magazine

Fotobienalle Moscow 2004

Although the Moscow Photobiennale has taken place this spring only for the fifth time, and therefore has not by any stretch attained the kind of long tradition like the Recontres d’Arles, the Month of Photography in Paris, the spring photography festival in Barcelona, or the Photofest in Houston, it is already evident that it has become one of the most significant photography festivals worldwide, one that in many ways – such as in the number of extraordinary exhibitions and the enormous public and media interest, as well as the illustrious openings and social events – outdoes some of its more established rivals. At the same time, this year the festival lost its main venue, as the spacious exhibition hall Bolshoi Manezh in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin burned down to its bare walls just weeks before the show was due to open. The organizers of the Photobiennale, headed by the Director of the Moscow House of Photography (Dom Fotografii) Olga Sviblova, however, managed, at considerable expense, to secure alternative venues for the several dozen exhibitions originally planned to feature at the Manezh, as a result of which in the end the festival program boasted a formidable number of one hundred and thirty exhibitions divided into three thematic sections; City, Identification, and New Technologies (though some exhibitions were only very loosely related to the afore-mentioned themes). Apart from this, a number of so-called master classes held by prominent international photographers and curators also took place, as well as workshops and film screenings.
Most abundantly represented, naturally, was local Russian photography. Among the most revealing shows were Photomonatge in the USSR 1920–1950, which aside from the notorious constructivist works of El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutzis featured also a whole range of now little-known avant-garde collages for film posters, book and magazine covers as well as a number of agit-prop photomontages rendered in the spirit of Socialist Realism. Historical Russian photography was also represented by hand-colored images dating from the period 1890–1910, shots from the First World War, and somewhat descriptive photographs of the architecture of Leningrad by Sergei Shimansky, and some rather more lively images of Moscow from the 1930s through the 1970s by Naum Granovsky. A vast majority of the shows, however, presented contemporary work, manifesting that Russia today has a number of promising artists in various fields, such as in the genres of staged photography and the photographic documentary, as well as in portrait and fashion photography. The AES + F group presented impressive, giant blowups of digitally manipulated images of children sporting the most state of the art weapons, in sand-swept wastelands or in the streets of large urban areas. These technically spotless photographs, with their expensive production, employing scores of models and shooting in locations such as the Negev desert or the dowtown areas of New York City and Cairo, remind one of film production or especially upscale fashion shoots; they are extremely spectacular, but at the same time their content is powerful, responding to many burning issues regarding child abuse. Unquestionably the most controversial work on exhibit was another set of gigantic color prints by Arsen Savadov, entitled Book of the Dead, in which he presents apocalyptic images of corpses grouped in various still life combinations. Savadov here continues the work of Joel-Peter Witkin, but carries the fusion of horror and beauty still further. The fragments of dancers’ bodies against black backgrounds, inspired by ancient statues and their missing parts by the formerly provocative Oleg Kulik were made to look as merely futile decorative quirks by comparison.
Russian photographers presented a number of decent works, especially in the field of the portrait, that had until recently fallen slightly outside of the principal creative trends. Andrei Chezhin of St Petersburg showed his 366 imaginative self-portraits, taken day by day over the course of one year. Among the revelations were the portraits of Vladimir Mishukov from the cycles Neon Dreams and The Cult of the Family, making superb use of sociologically evocative environments. Docu- mentary work, richly represented here, showed considerable constrast in terms of quality. On the one hand, one appreciated that the era of the predominance of naturalist shots of various prisons or homeless shelters, in which Russian photography as it were compensated for the long years of compulsory optimism and Socialist Realism, seems to be over. On the other hand, a number of collections of various remote reaches of Russia were notable for their tedious descriptiveness and superficial enchantment with the exotica of the motifs. Still, there were numerous exceptions. Many artists manifested a very thoughtful and striking sense of colour, such as Boris Savelyev, in his contemplative photographs discovering chimeric motifs in everyday urban life, Igor Mukhin in his cycle Southern Cities of Russia, Valeriy Stigneyev in his inventive photographs of American cities, or Sergei Burasovskij’s photo- graphs from Bashkiria.
As usual, at the center of the crowds’ attention were the foreign shows, which included also several historical exhibitions. A particular treat for experts was the retrospective of original prints of social photography from 1936–1951 by members of the New York Film and Photo League, who due to their left-wing leanings ceased to be either written or talked about during the Cold War. It is only in the last two decades that the works of Aaron Siskind, Helen A. Levitt, Walter Rosenblum, Ruth Orkin, Jerome Liebling and other members of the group, focusing chiefly on the life of various minorities at the peripheries of New York, have been abundantly published and appreciated. Photography of the interwar period was represented also by the well- known Berenice Abbot cycle New York, 1935 – 1939, and the adver- tising photographs of the Swedish artist Emil Heilborn, who exploited the principles of Neue Sachlichkeit and Constructivism. An exhibition of postcard shots of Roman sights from the mid-nineteenth century until the present day was of little interest.
In the foreign part of the festival, contemporary work also predominated. Martin Parr’s new work, Europe, oh la la ironically portrays various typical manifestations of globalization and consumerism in sharply colored details of people and objects. A subtle irony also distinguished the outstanding photographs of offices, homes and weekend cottages by the Swedish artist Lars Tunbjörk. The American pioneer of subjective documentary William Klein presented an extensive selection of expressive shots of Paris, the city he has lived in for more than half a century, but to which – unlike New York City, Rome, Moscow or Tokyo – he had not yet dedicated an independent book or exhibition. The double bill of Mary Ellen Mark featured, apart from its documentary side, American Odyssey, also her fascinating portraits of twins rendered in technically flawless platinum prints. Among other outstanding exhibitions were John Demos’ black and white images of the rural life, religious festivities and traditional customs of Greece in his cycle entitled Shadows of Silence, Luigi Ghirri’s collection of subtle color details of Italian landscapes and cities, and Lauren Greenfield’s color cycle on contemporary American girlhood. Worthy of mention was also the retrospective of the icon of Lithuanian photography, Antanas Sutkus, who as far back as the 1950s and 60s created subtle, melancholic portraits of ordinary people, showing everyday rural life as well as life in Vilnius with a veracity unusual in the Soviet photography of those times. The several exhibitions of Iranian photography were of rather varying quality – as is similar with the cinema of Iran, its photography is at the moment much in vogue in Western Europe. The collection of recent works by the famous American photographer Ralph Gibson provided a unanimous disappointment – the spectral quality disappeared almost altogether, leaving only superficial formal effects. Totally below the mark of a festival of this importance were the amateurish portraits of Spanish writers and poets by Mario Muchnik.
Although aside from Russian work the Photobiennale has traditionally presented chiefly photography from the USA, Western Europe and Asia, this year also extensively featured Czech photography, and for the most part directly next to the exhibition of Pablo Picasso in the Museum of Contemporary History. The exhibition The City in Contemporary Czech Documentary Photography presented various aspects of city life in the works of such already established artists as Antonín Kratochvíl, Jindřich Štreit, Viktor Kolář, Jiří Hanke, Dana Kyndrová, Jaroslav Bárta, Václav Podestát and Evžen Sobek, as well as the work of talented members of the younger generation (Tomáš Pospěch, Jiří Křenek, Markéta Kinterová, Tomáš Třeštík, Jan Dyntera, Jan Bartoš). The program also featured the Self-Portraits of Dita Pepe, the much exhibited and published cycle of subtly nostalgic images of the village of Rokytník by Jitka Hanzlová, a Czech photographer living in Essen, and Inexpressible, by the author of this article.

vladimír birgus