An Update: Afterthoughts on Two Annual Exhibitions

By Stigneev, Valery | Art Journal, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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An Update: Afterthoughts on Two Annual Exhibitions


Stigneev, Valery, Art Journal


Soon after our country began its groping advance through post-Soviet history toward a market economy, Russian photographers realized that they had two crises on their hands. This realization came to many as a surprise. Some still wonder what to make of it.

The first was an economic crisis. To enjoy their newly acquired creative freedom and to operate as artists, photographers now had to rely exclusively on their own resources: the old days of government support, small as it was and with many strings attached, were over, and the prices of materials and equipment began a nonstop climb. Pressure on the part of consumers of photographs, such as publishers and advertisers, often induced Russian art photographers to adapt to the very crude demands of their new patrons and the new economic realities of everyday life.

Even more disconcerting to some photographers was the apparent ideological crisis. The collapse of the old myths and values imposed by the totalitarian regime left a gaping abyss in its stead. The photojournalists, especially those with a taste for sensation, had, at least for a while, the time of their life documenting many previously tabooed subjects in the vortex of events that followed perestroika . Alas, the thrill was not enduring.

One particular aspect of the crisis was that the photographic community, especially those members of it calling themselves artists, was suddenly deprived of its most influential "sponsor"--the totalitarian state. For all the nasty things justly attributed to them, censors and some other agents of the Soviet state performed one significant function: for decades they inspired artists to look for ever new ways of challenging Communist ideals and asserting their ideological independence in the face of totalitarian pressure. In the nay situation, the search for personal ethical and aesthetic ideals proved quite a problem for not a few artists.

In an attempt to meet this and other challenges, Russian photographers set up the Russian Union of Art Photographers. It is noteworthy that RUAP is not very popular with commercial photographers, with photojournalists, or with conceptual photographers (even though all three categories are represented among its members). Instead, the union relies upon the elite of the amateur movement in the country, a group that was the mainstay of art photography in Russia in the period between the 1960s and 1980s.

In setting up an association of their own, the amateurs introduced organizational weaknesses inherent in photo clubs and, at the same time, elements of creative thinking that have always distinguished them from the professionals. An air of amateurishness has marked all RUAP projects during this period, including the two major artistic events-the 1991 and 1992 annual exhibitions in Smolensk and Moscow respectively. The concept of an annual show is an old Soviet "report on the work accomplished during the period under review." That was the most popular form of display among various artistic unions created by Stalin for the Soviet intelligentsia in the early 1930s.

The RUAP organizers of the 1991 and 1992 annual exhibitions appear to have aimed at an ambitious goal--to present to the general public all there was in contemporary Russian photography. At both exhibits one saw new approaches to photo documentaries, works emulating photographic classics, works whose authors openly declared their interest in formal problems alone, and, finally, works exploring fresh possibilities in experimentation that also dealt with substantive issues.

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An Update: Afterthoughts on Two Annual Exhibitions
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