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Negotiating New (His)stories of Photography

Article excerpt

Russian photography today, like all of Russian culture, is in a transitional state. The end of Communism has meant not so much a social revolution as a devolution, a falling away of a regime rather than an aggressive imposition of a new direction. Photography is still viewed as a minor art, both blessed and cursed by the fact that photography as an art form was not supported by the Soviet state. "Official culture" did, however, promote photojournalism, to pictorialize, personalize, and heroize Soviet achievements in life and labor. Now, ex-Soviet photographers are free to develop independently. Many are familiar with Western photography and are influenced by it in varying degrees depending partly on their level of education and access to foreign materials. Many deny such influences out of a desire for personal originality or national authenticity-desires that may or may not conflict with that for international recognition and reward. I have written about this transitional period in an earlier, unpublished essay.(1) The present essay is not a theoretical intervention as such but a report written after my return from a photography symposium and exhibition in Moscow.

Photography as an art form has recently gained some small degree of official and semiofficial support in Russia. This is so partly because photography can be counted on to provide a readily comprehensible and easily displayed medium of expression, as a carrier of aesthetic values or as a self-effacing ideological utterance. New historiographies are useful in depicting Russian history, to which artistic and intellectual history is integral, as a ruptured continuum in the process of reuniting its severed threads. This "normalization" is the constant theme: how to rebuild a civilization based in-as Gorbachev baldly put it, skirting the edge of desperation--"our common European home." In case the point needs underlining, a national identity is a ticket to economic stabilization as much as to national pride. But there are undercurrents to this rewriting of the national identity--now partly fathomed outside Russia's borders--that are neither so rational nor so attractive to the industrial "West." Especially in a culture in which art has been regarded as integral to the fabric of national life, we should expect to find a relationship to ideological and political issues, even if that relationship is eschewal. Efforts at de-Sovietification have included resurrections of earlier Russian styles and attitudes, including mystical and psychic strains of literary and aesthetic production, alongside sharp attention to successful Western styles--the latest incarnation of the dispute between Slavophiles and westward-looking intellectuals. One also finds a retardataire relationship to issues of gender and difference. The search for new personal identities in the context of new national ones--Homo non-Sovieticus--has been a critical factor in the intensive regendering of post-Soviet cultural expressions and social expectations. Attempts to reassert and celebrate Russianness, which itself must be seen as part of an intention to join an international community, have covered a spectrum from notions of sexual expression to cultural work.

In support of photography, the Russian Ministry of Culture has begun a new photography acquisition program and also provides some assistance (little of it financial) to exhibitions and events, as do some foreign groups. thin a day or two of each other in early January 1994, several photography exhibitions and events were held in Moscow. The Dutch-organized World Press Photo exhibition, brought in with financial support from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, opened at Cinema Museum, and the photographs and photomontages produced in the interwar period by German modernist photographer Anton Stankowski were shown at A3 Gallery with German state sponsorship. Opening across town was an exhibition, organized by Joseph Bakshtein and St. Petersburg curator Yekaterina Andreyeva, of photographs and videotapes by influential St. …