NIKITA SHOKHOV: WHILE CRITICIZING, I TRY TO BALANCE REALITY
Natalia Protasenya about young Russian photography
Nikita Shokhov, a graduate of the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia, prize-winner of the World Press Photo 2014 festival, participant in the Parallel Program of Manifesta 10 and among the keenest, most ironic and taciturn young photographers told Natalia Protasenya about how and why he became an artist.
Natalia Protasenya: So, what happened at the Pervouralsk exhibition, which you participated in this summer?
Nikita Shokhov: My friend Sergei Poteryaev, a photographer from Ekaterinburg - we met six years ago - decided to put together an exhibition of photographers from the Urals. My “Black Sea Vacations” series was included. And some local artists came and tried to beat up Sergei, saying, “why are you exhibiting this garbage?” They were saying that its place was at Winzavod, not there. It’s cool they know about Winzavod - I was happy about that.
NP: How did you start photographing? Did you begin by attending a photography school in Ekaterinburg?
NS: I studied law in Ekaterinburg and understood that it was not for me. I had just begun my studies and immediately understood. And I found the VGIK [Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography] photography department. But there, in order to be accepted, you have to pass photography. So I understood that I needed to learn to photograph. And I went to a photoclub, then to one of the commercial photography schools in Ekaterinburg. And then I began to work there. This was a photography school combined with a photography studio and a photography agency, and I began to do news photography and photograph night clubs.
NP: And then you went to Moscow to attend the Rodchenko school?
NS: No, I first tried to get into VGIK for three years. And on the fourth year I decided to attend the Rodchenko School for Igor Mukhin’s course, “Immediate Photography”. There was a group of photographers with the same name during the Perestroika - they included Igor Mukhin, Vlad Efimov, Boris Mikhailov, Alexander Slusarev, among others.
NP: Do you position yourself as a documentary photographer?
NP: Then how do you see yourself?
NS: Well, what does it mean to see yourself in a certain way… This implies certain restrictions: “I want to do this, but don’t want to do that”. But I want to experiment.
NP: What field do you experiment in?
NS: Today in one, tomorrow in another.
NP: But what interests you right now?
NS: If you were at the Random gallery for Alexander Evangeli’s exhibition, you could have seen my works on rallies and from the theater, where I experimented with digital distortions. So that’s not actually documentary photography. Just partially.
NP: And what kind of photography is it?
NS: Well Evangeli also called this photography candid.
NP: What is “candid photography” as you see it today? Let’s try to define it.
NS: That’s tough.
NP: Ok, let’s move away from that subject. What kind of subjects are most important for you?
NS: Religion, for example. The “Utrish” and “Sacred Procession” series are about that.
NP: But that’s not really about spiritual pursuits; isn’t it more grotesque?
NS: Perhaps. I was interested in the external aspect of the process.
Moscow Night Life, 2010-2014
NP: And how does it appear to you? Humorous?
NS: No, it’s not at all humorous.
NP: But what’s it about? About the weakness of people who try to put their existence in order by giving it some sort of material form through ritual? What were you photographing there?
NS: It’s certainly not weakness.
NP: Ok, and sexuality? For example, your series on nightclubs...
NS: Well, clubs are about something completely different.
NP: What are they about? Are they about lower culture?
NS: They’re more about the carnivalesque. And lower culture too, definitely. When we were preparing for the Zurab Tsereteli exhibition last spring, Katya Inozemtseva [head curator of the Multimedia Art Museum] introduced me to Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on Francois Rabelais’ book. Bakhtin divides life into the formal and the carnivalesque. Or, in other words, the spontaneous. In the formal there are frameworks, borders, the wealthy/poor divide, husband/wife - there are social roles. And there’s the spontaneous, where all of this is erased.
NP: But with the clubs, the wealth/poverty divide exists anyway… Which photographer is similar to you, who do you take your cues from? Other than Mukhin.
NS: From the American school there’s Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and William Klein. Among contemporary photographers, there’s Terry Richardson, David LaChapelle and Annie Leibovitz.
NP: Their work is very glossy. You don’t have that quality. Your work conveys more hidden drama, the unsightly side of life and a high degree of intimacy. That’s exactly what I like about you. And I’m not alone.
NS: But my work doesn’t have intimacy per se; after all, I photograph everything in public spaces.
Black Sea Vacations, 2011-2012
NP: And that’s exactly the secret. You photograph public spaces, but your subjects reveal a great deal to you. That’s seen in the series on clubs and in several photographs from the “Black Sea Vacations” series. Do you, by the way, love those characters?
NS: Yes, I love them. They’re beautiful.
NP: But do you identify with them? Honestly, it seems like you don’t. You have an aspect of alienation and a critical position vis-a-vis those you photograph. It’s as if you’re saying, “Look, what monsters!” What do you actually feel?
NS: No, well of course I don’t associate myself with their circle. I’m not entertaining them. But I also don’t judge them.
NP: At the same time, for you, this is “lower culture” after all?
NS: Well of course there’s a bit of criticism there. That’s inevitable.
NP: Is it, supposedly, primitive?
NS: Do you mean that I look down on them? No.
NP: Then what is it?
NS: That would be too malicious.
NP: But isn’t it degeneracy? Doesn’t it need to be overcome?
NS: Maybe that actually would make sense if things changed. But, as we know from Mikhail Bakhtin, this kind of culture also existed 2000 years agо. In Ancient Greece, basically the same thing was happening.
NP: So you’re portraying human nature?
NS: Well yes. If I worked at a bank, I would amuse myself in the same way. I would go Strelka club.
NP: But Strelka doesn’t have tigers, cages and nunneries after all.
NS: Well yes, the intelligentsia hangs out there.
NP: So, you separate people into the intelligentsia and the non-intelligentsia?
NS: Well yes, it’s a fact that that separation exists. I’m not doing the separating.
NP: But it’s more interesting for you to photograph at Pacha, not at Strelka.
NS: Yes, there are more photogenic things happening there.
NP: Photogenic or scandalous? For example, the photo where two men are lying on top of a young woman… Or the sleeping man who’d just stuffed his face with pork ribs?
NS: Yeah, the shock - it’s great.
NP: But there’s a certain degree of snobbery and speculation in that.
NS: Without snobbery it would be an official club photograph. And I have many staged photographs.
NP: Even like that? Which ones, for example?
NS: Where the guy with the bare belly is looking at the dancer. I asked him to sit down and unbutton his shirt.
NP: And you mean to say the there’s no snobbery in this?
NS: Well the photograph would not have worked out otherwise.
NP: So, through your photographs, you are reinforcing a certain stratification of society into the intelligentsia and the general mass?
NS: That was not my objective.
NP: But is the general mass, as you see it, primitive?
NS: Yes, 95%. Although that does sound a bit fascistic. There’s always been a majority, very few people in power and a stratum of intelligentsia.
NP: That separation has always existed, it wasn’t us who created it. But you focus on a specific aspect - on mass culture. That’s interesting to you, and the rest is uninteresting.
NS: Because that’s the majority. Because power is unattainable for a photographer. And the intelligentsia isn’t interesting to me, because they do the same thing that I do.
NP: They criticize the herd?
NS: No. (Laughs.)
NP: Then how is it possible to determine the intelligentsia’s position vis-a-vis the majority?
NS: The intelligentsia is trying to accommodate the authorities and the majority, it’s trying to find their common ground.
NP: But it isn’t trying to draw near to the majority. From the very beginning, the gulf between the intelligentsia and the majority was huge. What can be done under these circumstances?
NS: Yes, that was always the case. But if I was part of the majority it’s unlikely that I would be able to do anything that I’m doing now. By criticizing, I’m trying to balance reality.
Sacred Procession, 2012
NP: Did the Rodchenko School teach you anything?
NP: What, for example?
NS: The Rodchenko School built my way of life. Your whole life, you don’t know what do and suddenly you go to the Rodchenko School and you know what to do.
NP: But you also photographed before then.
NS: But it wasn’t the same.
NP: And what did you learn at the School?
NS: I learned that photography is an art. We were taught that for three years. We were taught about point of view. We were taught about what were we talking about in terms of the intelligentsia.
NP: Was the idea that you are assuming a certain sacral mission impressed upon you? Or were you just told, “You are now the intelligentsia, guys!”
NS: No. It was more, “You are now artists”.
NP: And what do you have to do?
NS: Criticize. In general, the Rodchenko School is actually based on the principle that the West is correct and the East is backward. And that we need to catch up with the West. But that’s only one standpoint, and it’s not necessarily entirely justified.
NP: And if you don’t want to criticize, what then?
NS: You leave the Rodchenko School.
NP: So, was the role of the artist explained to you?
NS: Are you asking for some sort of manifesto?
NP: No, I’m interested in the feelings of a person who suddenly begins to recognize himself as an artist.
NS: It made my search for a path easier. What I would have understood on my own by about age forty was shown to me in school in three years.
41 seconds, 2013
NP: Tell us lastly, what kind of a scandal erupted when you used Photoshop too actively in your photographs?
NS: I experimented with Photoshop with nearly all of my series. Look, earlier there was film. Then digital emerged. And photographs are taken digitally just like they would have been taken on film. With the same methods, which are already more than a century old. But with digital this method doesn’t work like it worked with film because the digital is a completely different instrument. There were some very successful attempts: Andreas Gursky did something that’s unusual for film. There were some other successful examples. And, having been inspired by that, I wanted to do something that was unusual for film. Up until the 1930s the approach to photography was the same as for painting. Then photography found its own language, one that doesn’t belong to painting; what emerged was expression, a moment, framing that’s used in painting and speed. And now another twist appeared. And whereas up until the 1930s photographs were trying to emulate painting, now we are trying to make digital photography emulate film. But now in digital, speed, expression and the moment - all of which were important for film photography - are not at all important. And that’s why this approach doesn’t work. Supporters of candid photography, especially Igor Mukhin, criticized me by saying that if I wanted to experiment with Photoshop, then I needed to go to another studio. As Mukhin sees it, candid photography is work with reality: do what you want, but only in the realm of reality. But work with reality and work with material are completely different processes and two different types of thinking. I needed a year and a half of arguments with my teacher to understand this.
NP: So you’re interested in working with material?
NS: No, I’m interested in working with reality, these were just experiments. I don’t mean to say that work with material is the only way to work with digital photography. It’s just that Gursky already introduced that possibility, and we know how to work with that. But how to work with reality and with the digital - that’s a big question.
NP: So where is the boundary between simple retouches and color-correction in Photoshop and more notable manipulations of the image?
NS: By using color-correction, we don’t change reality. And if we change something, we create a second, non-existent reality.
NP: The image on a photograph is already a certain second reality as compared with the actual reality.
NS: That means that we’re adding yet another, a third reality when we add subjects that initially did not exist. That already is not a copy of the initial reality.
Original interview in Russian on Aroundart.ru