Humanistic overshadows formalistic in 'conceptual' Soviet photography


"You say in many, many years life will be wonderful, but if it is . . ."

Each of the three snapshotlike pictures shows one young person, posed straight on against a nondescript background. The perforations at the edges of the film have been left in, scratchy red lines crisscross the image, and underneath each is a slightly different message.

"You say in many, many years life on earth will be wonderful, but why . . ."

At the exhibit of contemporary Soviet photography, "Photo Manifesto," being shown in Baltimore by the Museum for Contemporary Arts, Soviet photographer Valery Stigneev recently stood in front of this series of photos by Igor V. Savchenko, given neutral numerical titles as if to bely their message: "1.90-4.1," "1.90-4.2," "1.90-4.3" (1990). Through an interpreter, Stigneev explained them as examples of conceptual photography. "Conceptual is a unity of picture and meaning: the photos and the texts, the imperfections, the rhythms of the red lines, the nuances of the phrases."

"You say in many, many years life on earth will be wonderful, buhow . . ."

What are the meanings to be gleaned from the works in this show? Are they representative of contemporary Soviet photography in general? And what do they tell us about the changing Soviet society that produced them?

"Photo Manifesto" concentrates on the avant-garde, experimental work that has surfaced and found increasing acceptance in the U.S.S.R. in recent years.

One may think of experimental and especially conceptual art in rather formalistic terms. With this Soviet photography, the formalism is there, perhaps not always in as sophisticated a way as one would find it in the West. But the humanistic content of so many of these works so often comes to the fore that it overrides the pure analysis of experimentation.

Mr. Stigneev, for instance, asked to talk about his own photos in the exhibit, discussed "Victory Day" (1989), which shows two former soldiers, a man and a woman. The woman has her arm flung around the man in a gesture of comradeship, but the photograph is printed in two tones, sepia and blue, and the irregular diagonal that separates the tones also separates the two figures.

" 'Victory Day,' May 9, is a holiday of mourning for the people of World War II," the photographer said. "That war is still an unhealing wound. The picture shows [the two people] together, as if they have a communal spirit, but they are different souls. War forces many people to know themselves as they have not known themselves before, and the difference in colors attempts to portray that meaning."

Mr. Stigneev is one of two Soviet visitors who accompanied the exhibit here for its first week. He is a photographer, essayist and author of "The World of Photography," a book on the history and theory of modern photography. The other visitor was Irina Racheyeva, art historian with a focus on contemporary photography and design.

Both took part in a panel discussion last month on "Soviet Photography in Context." In what context was never as clear as it might have been, but the most provocative statement came from the American critic Grant Kester, editor of After Image, a photography magazine. He suggested that if one can see certain similarities between recent Soviet and American experimental photography, a reason may be found in parallels between the "existing economic systems," in particular the "essential role played by the state in both late socialist and bureaucratic capitalist" systems. Each in its own way seeks to stifle dissent, producing similar reactions.

In the U.S.S.R., denying opposition voices access to the public sphere produces "elusive and subterranean . . . communities such as the ones which generated and nurtured the work in 'Photo Manifesto,' " said Mr. Kester. Whereas in the United States, there is "containment and co-option" of dissent, "not by excluding oppositional voices but by embracing them, by penetrating and colonizing even the most hidden efforts of communication." Thus it is not surprising that some themes and approaches (the use of the human body, for instance, or the use of texts) should appear in one form or another in both Soviet and American contemporary photography.

But did these developments occur independently? To what extent are Soviet photographers aware of what is going on in the West? "People come to this country and see an American exhibit and tell about what they've seen," Mr. Stigneev said during the recent interview. "And we look at books and journals on photography from the West. But we also see things in our own work from the past, not just from the West," he added.

In his essay on "Soviet Artistic Photography" in the book accompanying the exhibit, Mr. Stigneev singles out Alexander Rodchenko and other photographers of the 1920s, whose work was highly experimental before the Stalinist crackdown. And in the present show there is a section on the Rodchenko family workshop down to the third generation which even today carries on experimental work.

While Mr. Stigneev's essay emphasizes the kind of experimental work that one sees in the Baltimore exhibit, it also deals with more traditional photography such as can be seen in another current show, "Changing Reality: Recent Soviet Photography" at Washington's Corcoran Gallery (through July 21).

Mr. Stigneev pointed out that the Washington show covers a longer period, from the 1970s forward, whereas the Baltimore show covers only the last couple of years. There is also some overlap between the two -- Vladimir Filonov and Boris Smelov are included in both shows, for instance.

Neither show, however, deals extensively with the kind of documentary photography that directly addresses certain deep social problems. Mr. Stigneev's essay refers to this sort of work. "The straight social photography which exposes the pain of our society has disappeared during the last two or three years," it states. "Visual narratives about the U.S.S.R.'s conflicts, queues, alcoholism, prisons, prostitution, etc., have disappeared. The depictions of the immorality of life, of life where double standards thrive, where there is no mercy and no tolerance have disappeared."

But Mr. Stigneev said that the translation of that passage perhaps leaves a wrong impression. Such themes have not been suppressed, for instance. "The social photograph which tells about pain in our society is still valued in some sense, but it has been publicized widely [to the point at which] some have expressed opinions that it's negative. Some themes have been repeated so much that they have become [subjects of] exploitation."

Inevitably, a show such as "Photo Manifesto" raises the issue of how much one can learn from it about Soviet photography and photographers, and more widely how much one can learn about the society that has produced this work.

Mr. Stigneev sees a show like this as at most a beginning. "Many photographers show only one or two pieces," he said. "In order to understand them somewhat, one would have to see much more." As for the larger issue, he said, "For the public to understand something about society [the works reflect] the exhibit would have to be huge."

Ms. Racheyeva expressed not so much an opposing opinion as the other side of the coin: "Some may think this is too romantic, but there is a saying that you can see the sea in one drop of water. If one wants to gain a feeling of how people live in the Soviet Union, this experimental work can be vivid even if the person finds one photo that is close to his heart. The aim of the exhibition is not to remember the name of the artist, but the emanation that comes from the work and strikes the attention of the viewer.

"The point is not only political but cultural. Many American people have heard about perestroika, but it's more important to know about the culture." Art, she says, provides the necessary personal and emotional aspects to learning about another people; otherwise, "it's like learning the telephone book. To know something about people, see their art."

'Photo Manifesto'

'Photo Manifesto'

Where: The former Greyhound service terminal at Park Avenue and Centre Street.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. daily through June 21.

Admission: Free

Call: 462-3515

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