Photography of the Everyday
‘For me the first and the most fundamental source of the origin of photography is love’: these words of Alexander Tyagny-Ryadno could serve an epigraph for this book as well as for another book of three parts, where the phrase about love as a driving force for the sun and the stars completes the journey of a great poet coming out of the dark forest towards the dazzling light.
The creative life of a photographer, with its periods overlapping and replacing each other, reflects a peculiar pathway of our collective memory which at times finds it awkward if not painful to remember past decades. Photography as a medium is an excessively explicit, distinct and blaring reminder of what we might choose to forget. Alexander Tyagny-Ryadno’s works, with their common feeling of infinite, all-embracing love of the world with all of its deficiencies, crises and absurdities, are the best and the most compassionate way of remembering everything.
The book’s first part has a lot of what is very characteristic of Tyagny-Ryadno’s talent, the qualities which have been repeatedly noted and singled out by other scholars of his work: his astute observation, meticulous attention to details, lack of hopeless despair, craving for harmony and balance between negativity and positivity. A careful scholar of photography will, however, also notice something which is a visual reflection of a particular moment in time when Tyangny-Ryadno began his work in photography; something which makes his series of the 1980s and 1990s so kindred in spirit to his contemporaries and predecessors; as well as something which takes us not only along the inroads of the art of photography but also into the deep labyrinths of our own memory.
Tyagny-Ryadno began his life as a professional photographer in the very early years of the Perestroika. His series of the time, ‘I’m Engaged to Moscow’s Boulevard Ring’, ‘Country Roads of Shuya’, ‘Light Is My Sadness…’, ‘Lenin’s With Us, Ain’t He?’, ‘Moscow at the Time of the Change’, ‘The Other Russia’ and ’50 Cities’ were all done in a style where one can obviously trace the aesthetic traditions that influenced his formative years. First of these was the so-called ‘small alternative’ photojournalism. Since the times of the Thaw, photo journalists of Izvestia, one of the USSR’s most official newspapers, and especially of its supplements, had strived to show a most ordinary life without any ideological or political content. Tyagno-Ryadno had also been significantly influenced by the two ‘second row’ publications which, even in the pre-Perestroika years, dared to venture into photographic experimentation. One of them was the Sovetskaya Rossia newspaper with its close-up presentation and very emotionally charged humane photographs by Pavel Krivtsov and his colleagues. The other was the Sovetskaya Kultura newspaper with its slight slant towards art photography; it generously published the works of Lithuanian artists who strongly impressed many Russian photographers of the time. One can also trace in his work the tradition of the amateur photography movement as represented in the photography clubs so popular in the USSR, as well as the underground that had just broken out into the open in those years.
Soviet photography of the time was split along many division lines: official vs. unofficial; photojournalism vs. amateur photography; officially approved ‘photographic optimism’ vs. gruesome realism which came to be known in the Perestroika years as ‘chernukha’; what was published and exhibited vs. what could be seen only by an immediate circle of close friends and associates. This split and these divisions were acutely felt by anyone who started taking pictures in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pravda Photography Club, photojournalism courses by the great master Lydia Dyko, School of Journalism at Moscow University, NTR Problemy I Reshenia newspaper, Sovetskaya Kultura newspaper, Izvestia Sunday supplement – all these steps of his professional biography are well represented in his early series, as well as the course he took in art history and his penchant for art photography. ‘As soon as I came to work at a newspaper right after the photography club I realised that for me every photograph was not a disposable illustration to a news item but an object that can be hung on the wall or become part of an exhibition or a book,’ he says,
There is one more tradition which has not been much talked about by historians of the Soviet photography but which is crucially important for Tyagny-Ryadno. It finds the balance between the faux bravura optimism that reshuffled and restaged reality and the ostentatious flaunting of social evils that feel suspended in the air, unrelated to history. This tradition is the photography of the everyday. Since the 1920s and 1930s it had been nearly entirely stamped out by Soviet ideologists with their ruthless denunciation of everything that dared to step out beyond the boundaries of the triumphant ideology. Unassuming, it kept equal distance from the pompous officialdom and the radical opposition of the sarcastic underground. It lived its quiet life as if apologising for its very existence, at times exchanging whispering similarities with the works of its famous Western counterparts: Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Martin Munkacsi, American post-war street photography. But it would not let itself be completely eradicated.
The everyday life, only occasionally and condescendingly allowed in its uncensored form in the last pages of media supplements, was the main and favourite subject of this photography. It lived on in little known series of Alexander Grinberg of his 1930-60s post-pictorial period; in rural and urban images of Ryazan-based photographer Evgeny Kashirin that he made in the 1970-80s; in the late 1980s work of Belorussian photographer Sergei Brushko. Now these images surface in exhibitions, in social media and memory books. Even photographers themselves did not seem to value them and regarded them with the same quiet modesty that characterised the visual language, the very tactful treatment of reality and the aesthetics of these works. They seemed to be almost completely overshadowed by either monumental graphic expressionism of socialist construction photography or by gruesome harsh critical sarcasm of Boris Mikhailov, Valery Schekoldin and the Tasma Group.
In the late Soviet and Perestroika-era photography of the everyday (within which I believe
Tyagny-Ryadno evolved) one can observe reticence and restraint, even tension and shyness. It is hard to say whether it was rooted in the long period of suppressing any photographic style alternative to the officialdom, in the specific Soviet sensitivity to reality or in the paradoxical humaneness of the non-capitalist system so appealing to Western liberal intellectuals that they tended to ignore the price it had exerted. With its light sadness and restrained joy, Tyagny-Ryadno’s early series perfectly fits into this tradition, as if its very function and raison d’etre were in healing the wounds and bridging the split between the unhealthy late Soviet optimism and the Perestroika-era chernukha with its fixation on everything that had been deemed secret and shameful.
Moving from one series to another I was experiencing an increasing feeling of recognising the old-forgotten sentiments of the tumultuous time of change and hopes that had begun in 1985. Maybe this was because it was the time of my childhood and early adolescence, when everything is perceived especially vividly and gets stamped onto the deepest layers of your memory.
Here I am again strolling along the Boulevard Ring of my youth, among soft colours of the old Moscow. Quiet courtyards, soda drinks dispensers at 1 and 3 kopecks per glass; very modestly dressed and ever-troubled people; the word ‘deficit’ which meant shortage of virtually everything. I see rickety suburban houses, women washing linen and clothes in an ice-hole and the same women on the city beach in their now grotesque-looking swimming suits. And the proverbial ‘punctum’, the affected ‘prick’ of the photography: bra-straps deeply sunk into their flesh. These bra-straps take me into very distant, hardly formulated but at the same time very corporal memories of my grandmothers, with their outdatedly plump but ever-eager-to-give-you-a-proper-hug arms; they were equally willing to plant a warm kiss not somewhere into the air above your cheek but right onto your own self.
And next I see makeshift kiosks that had mushroomed overnight in Arbat, political rallies with hundreds of thousands protesters, pensioners abandoned to the mercy of fate, shuttle traders with their huge bags and tanks outside the White House. The chaos of transformation with its intoxicating feel of freedom and humanistic articles in the renewed Ogonyok magazine overlays with the uncertainty of my own coming-of-age. The pace of change that never managed to completely overturn, lament and overcome the past. And again, looking at the ’50 Cities, ‘Hot Armenia’, ‘The Jerusalem Syndrome’ and ‘The Travel Gallery’ series I remember endless trips where my adored father took me across Russia and the world (it’s probably only Mali that I haven’t been to). Some of these works are recent and they convey a very recognisable, very ‘now’ feeling. But others that were made in the 1990s and early 2000s again take you back by time machine and resurrect details of the long-distant past. And I start to feel as if in my own journey of discovery of the world, I moved along with the photographer, in spite of our age difference. All this – forgotten and long-gone – makes you remember ‘The Moments of Life’.
A Close Circle
Before the School of Journalism, Tyagny-Ryadno had received a degree in aviation engineering and for three years worked in a ‘post-office box’ secret facility. While still at the university he started working in the NTR Problemy I Reshenia newspaper. This work inspired his first major series, ‘Creators of Science’, more than a hundred portraits of the most famous Soviet scientists. The series was his graduation work and many of these portraits were published in Zhurnalist, Sputnik and Sovetskoye Foto magazines. The entire series were printed and prepared for an exhibition but for bureaucratic reasons the exhibition never happened.
1984, the very end of the Soviet era, was a time of fascination with science and technology. Engineering was still prestigious although the prestige and respect of the profession were dwindling. NTR stood for Nauchno Tekhnicheskaya Revolutsia – a revolution in science and technology, and ‘post-office box’ was a secret research institute that worked for the military and had only a post-office box number for the address. Those who lived at the time vividly remember endless discussions of the NTR problems which led to the ideas of acceleration and eventually perestroika.
In 1984-87 Tyagny-Ryadno made portraits of Vitaly Ginzburg, Tatiana Zaslavskaya, Sviatoslav Fedorov, Andrei Sakharov, Evgeny Velekhov, Dmitry Likhachev – all beautiful, spirited, intelligent human faces. This is how we imagined Soviet scientists, the pride of the nation who inspired and instigated the future changes. For the photographer these portraits became a vent-hole, a way of escaping the dullness of the newspaper routine: ‘I worshipped them. Watching them and listening to them was an enormous happiness and joy. It was like touching a naked thought. I was coming to their institutes and laboratories, visited them at home or at their dachas. Sometimes I was allowed to be present at the Academy of Science meetings. I realised then that even at these meetings they were not bored. They were thinking. They belonged to those three per cent who are always thinking.’
Next to the scientists there is another series of black-and-white portraits that Tyagny-Ryadno made for Sovetskaya Kultura. It is called ‘Cinema is My Life’: Jean-Luc Godard, Annie Girardot, Gerard Depardieu, Gregory Peck, Marina Vladi, Fanny Ardant, young Kira Muratova and Alexander Sokurov, Nonna Mordiukova, Sergei Solovyev, Vitaly Solomin, Georgy Zhzhenov, Ludmila Gurchenko, Alexander Shirwindt. This was the world to which in Tyagny-Ryadno’s own admission, his ‘soul belonged’ since the time when he wanted to study at the Film School. And as soon as he started working for Sovetskaya Kultura he got submerged into this world.
The list can go forever: great names, familiar faces. These black-and-white images are a reference to classical photography. Even our knowledge of the changes that happened to these people and sometimes revealed their non-heroic characters does not take anything away from their photographed faces. The following series, ‘Theatre Affair’ (on the world of theatre), ‘Homo Scriptus’ and ‘poesie.ru’ (on literature) were made differently. They were photographed later, there is more contemporaneity and less monumentality, less of heroic posture and myth in them. But scientists and cinematographers belong to a different era and invoke memories of portrait photography by Valery Plotnikov, Igor Gnevashev and Mikola Gnisyuk. They also make us recall many other numerous attempts at photographic portrait galleries: from Nadar and Edward Steichen to Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. We can look even further back, to Renaissance portraits – monarchs and princes in the glory of their fame – as well as to the concept of famous men, uomini famosi that goes all the way back to the antiquity.
What were the times that left such a powerful aura of the heroic? What is it that makes us yearn for the Golden Age with its genuine artists and their characters chiselled in rock or woven out of light? And what makes it so different from the later doldrums? Aren’t those the same times that could so skilfully disguise their own unappealing and unsavoury back alleys: despotism and cruelty of the constant power scramble, hidden and open; neglect of the little man and his needs; the repressing machine? Ideals of the Renaissance and endless sectarian wars; the magnitude of industrialisation and Nikita Khrushchev’s crumbling concepts of light and the food industry’s accelerated development.
Unassuming silhouettes of bourgeoisie that became a mass produced craft at the time when money and aesthetic aspirations reached outside the class of aristocracy cannot even begin to compare with the portraits of the Renaissance. Photography, as the most mass art form, from the very outset tried to balance galleries of the mighty and famous with images of common people, like August Sander did. At the same time, photography itself helped to create new cults and new heroes; it is almost solely responsible for generating an industry of gloss. Theorists like Walter Benjamin wrote about the disappearance of aura and distance between the model in the portrait and the viewer, about the camera’s invasive intrusion into the world of idealised heroes and their simultaneous glossification. This very camera, however, made it possible to take people out of the atelier into the street, to bring down the heat of gloss and pathos. Of course the process was two-way and ambivalent.
In this sense Tyagny-Ryadno, with his ability to notice the common, the simple and the human next to the lofty, heroic and nostalgic, follows both traditions. It does not seem so out-of-place that when photographing the world of cinema, he, unlike many of his peers, preferred the livelier reportage style to the staged studio compositions; he also preferred directors to actors. He was not really attracted by the never-ending game of pretending out of which the photographer had to drag a real person. As much as in the scientists’ portraits series, he was fascinated by the work of thoughts and ideas that created great art and great concepts, great inventions and great spectacles. He feels very well – on the level of aesthetic, visual language and frame selection – this split between modern-generated cults of science and cinema and more antiquated art forms with their ‘outdated’ distance from the viewer (theatre) or lack of spectacle (literature).
Philosopher Elena Petrovskaya observed that ‘photography highlights the common in the poet’ and it also ‘presents poetry as a common routine’. It is not only that we live at the time of ostentatious, superficial and flashy art while its earlier forms functioned and were structured differently. Photography that speaks this new language recreates it right in front of our eyes. In a paradoxical way it allows us to retrieve what we need out of those early forms; to balance the chaos and the speed of modernity, to bridge the past and the present. It finds the chamber introspection which cannot be expressed in words or images: the common and the everyday, the fabric of life with its smooth uninterrupted flow. It also retrieves the small, the humble, that which exists without narcissistic grandeur but what possesses the warmth of human connections. This is the paradox and the mission of the thinking photographer.
Tyagny-Ryadno’s ‘glossy’ period began after his work for Sovetskaya Kultura, between the ‘cinema’ and ‘literature’ series, and it is quite telling that he decided to almost completely leave it out of this book. He recalls a story that happened when he photographed Sergei Bodrov Jr. in 2002, just three months before the actor/director was killed in a tragic accident. A visionary image with the vulnerable, fragile, boyish Bodrov never got published: Premiere magazine, which commissioned the shoot, chose instead a simpler, smoother, somewhat ‘confectionary’ frame. Collaboration with the world of gloss was finished for the photographer completely after an editor told him, ‘We need no humanism’. ‘Before that conversation,’ Tyagny-Ryadno says, ‘I could not explain to myself the cognitive dissonance that had lived inside me. And then I realised that I always photograph a Person while the magazine needs a Model. I did not want to break myself and soon stopped working with glossy magazines at all.’ Here one could recall the entire history of glossy publications and reflect on the reasons why the civilising mission of its great early authors and editors of the 1920-60s – Alexei Brodovitch, Alexander Liberman and others – eventually resulted in today’s editors’ conclusion about the irrelevance of humanism and what it says about the time we live in. This, however, is a subject for an entirely different article.
His latest series of portraits is called ‘Brothers in Camera’. Its characters are those who are normally on the other side of the lens. Those whose names and faces, unlike their iconic and immediately recognisable images, may not always be familiar to the public, but invoke awe and admiration among the initiated: Gunārs Binde, Vladimir Vyatkin, William Klein, Josef Koudelka, Inge Morath, Antanas Sutkus, Gueorgui Pinkhassov. Making the normally unknown visible is after all a function and a mission of photography as an art form.
All his portraits are in fact nothing but a close circle that always exists around every creative individual; in the case of Alexander Tyagny-Ryadno, this circle is genuinely enormous.
America, Greece, Cuba, Israel, Mexico, London, Geneva, Alushta, Moscow, Yamal; but the artist’s work with the form, his vibrant, bright colours, his profound connection with emotions, his interest to people; all that expresses, visualises his full-bloodied nature, his ability to rejoice, his love of life are eventually much more important than these travel destinations. Photography here is only an instrument of search. Two main projects that came about as a result of this search are ‘On Both Sides’ and ‘Coloroforia’.
Tyagny-Ryadno’s turn to colour was unexpected to many who had known his previous work. For 25 years he had worked almost exclusively in black-and-white. He said in interviews that for him this was a matter of principle. He himself was certain that his most important work had nothing to do with colour. Yet sometimes he did work in colour, for the Sovetsky Soyuz and Vokrug Sveta magazines. By his own admission, colour was never important to him; it was an appendage, an accessory to his serious work in monochrome: ‘In fact it was not a colour photography, rather black-and-white shot on the colour film.’
And suddenly this turnaround. A very sharp one. In 2009, when going to London, he for the first time ever did not take his film camera and all the pictures he brought from that trip were in colour. The impulse for the move was quite practical: the crisis made the ever expensive black-and-white film virtually unaffordable. But the reasons were of course not only financial: “Cartier-Bresson said that he was not shooting in colour because colour was unmanageable. In his time, it was indeed so, technologically. But by the 2000s, in the digital age, colour became manageable and calculable, and the colour photography entered a new era. It was then that I understood that Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘the decisive moment’ theory and practice did not work in colour, and that in colour I had to look for new principles and a new specifically colouristic language. And so I entered this ‘river of colour’”.
It is remarkable how precisely these words describe the process that is evolving right in front of our eyes and how the artist’s intuitive search (based of course on his profound knowledge of photography and painting history) asserts and confirms reflections of photography scholars around the world.
What indeed is colour in photography? Lately we have come to associate it with millions of unprofessional photography enthusiasts roaming between countries and cities. Black-and-white moved into the art domain. This is how it is today. But it had been like this before the 1970s when the colour photography could hardly make it into a museum; photojournalists and documentary photographers had not worked in colour either. William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Harry Gruyaert did not happen overnight. Colour was associated either with the gloss or with the everyday. Now nearly forgotten pioneers of the colour photography like Paul Outerbridge used the extremely laborious process of coloristic pigment printing to make vibrant and vivid images. None of them, however, made it into the 100 black-and-whites selected by the MOMA curator John Szarkowski for his iconic Looking at Photographs collection. Photographers of Ogonyok and albums like ’60 Years of the USSR’ did shoot in colour but their work was never taken as seriously as the black-and-white images of major newspapers: daily graft vs. serious politics. The colour does not define the image as graphically and as precisely as the black-and-white does; it does not ‘nail the content to the site’. It was only recently that we discovered colour photographs of World War II – here colour had always seemed inappropriate.
Colour is in fact by no means simple. One well-known master once said that if you can remove the colour from your image you should not shoot in colour at all. Colour should be an indispensable element of the composition; your composition should fall apart if you switch it off. To shoot in colour Tyagny-Ryadno had to fully restructure his principles of approaching reality, to move from the instantaneous to the plastic, from a snapshot of a moment in life to its fabric and fragments which only when put together like a puzzle convey all of its completeness. This restructuring, this search of new principles was already clearly visible in that first London series but they were most fully implemented in the most significant, conceptual project of the third volume ‘Coloroforia’.
Latin and Greek linguistic roots are fused in this witty name to create a new definition of photography – not as an imprint of reality or a captured moment’ but as a means of ‘bringing colour’. The frames with most ordinary, common things – neon signs in Heraklion, a painted bus in Sri Lanka, string-bags outside windows in Yamal, television aerials in Havana – fixate our attention on what we usually just glance at or duly admire prompted by a guidebook. But these are precisely the details that build up our everyday experience, emotional as well as corporal. Tyagny-Ryadno finds an unusual angle, a fragment or a detail in common touristic sites. He continues his experimentation in harsh industrial conditions, he finds his colours and his techniques in dark mines and hot smelters when making the ‘Images of Nickel’ series.
You never get, however, the feeling of chaos and cacophony: every frame echoes the others, but not in the narrative way, not through words, titles and snippets of semiotic systems that Roland Barthes and other photography theorists believed inevitably get built into photographic images. They echo each other in different ways; it’s a smooth and plastic migration of reality’s visual fragments and their reflections (as in another important series of the second volume ‘On Both Sides’).
We have here almost a literal materialisation of William Blake’s famous verse: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand; and a heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour’. Unhurried viewing of these photographs turns into a meditation: it’s like fingering a string of beads in an attempt to capture a thought or define an emotion. A non-trivial task for a modern man hardly ever giving himself time to experience a feeling. Educating the viewer’s vision, as Tyagny-Ryadno is involved in, is remarkably in sync with many contemporary movements like ‘slow life’, that try to make us slow down the crazy pace of life, stop and feel the beauty of a moment. To enjoy it, to leave the virtual reality and the internet, to move from text and spectacle to feelings, sentiments, to our bodies. Moving from one image to another we feel as if we are fingering the fabric of multi-coloured scarfs; we feel the uncomfortable chair in a café, or a sudden taste of a tomato in the mouth. There’s an ongoing debate about the viewer’s vision getting blundered by the enormous amount of visual and at times shocking information – should we try to kick them out of this numb state by an ever stronger shock? Tyagny-Ryadno resolves this dilemma with his characteristic humanism and a lust for life.
These series are a convincing evidence: the colour gets back into our lives. An image that used to be perceived just as a fixation of the surrounding world starts to melt; there are more and more extended, long series, blurred art renditions or ‘hybrids’, where photography is just one of the artistic techniques. Photography scholars say that our positivist fantasy that everything in the world can be seen, calculated and photographed has all but crashed: we study distant galaxies through their blurred telescopic prints. The world has become more chaotic, more emotional and much wider. We are constantly on the move, trying not to lose ourselves in the globalised world; on the contrary, asserting our individuality. Travel photography is a part of this process. It appeared in the first post-war years when many artists bitterly disappointed in politics went around the world trying to heal their wounded souls and reinforce a new feeling of humanism and universal brotherhood. Travel photography which until then then had been seen mostly as an instrument of anthropological documentation, very Western-centric and full of imperial ambitions, was gradually turning into an anti-war humanistic project. This heritage becomes especially important today when the Hydra of War seems to raise its ugly head again.
But strange as it may seem, in spite of the genre’s rich and meaningful past, only very few people can do really good travel photography. To make not just superficial touristic snapshots, but truly moving stories about others, you have to know how simultaneously to get closer and remain detached; you have to honour the other’s boundaries as a true and genuine treasure, you have to enable your emotions and immerse in empathy. Only then the dialogue will happen and the image will become collaborative, even if the photographer claims invisibility. But for this to happen the presented fragment of reality should absorb a multitude of contexts, precisely define its location on the map of art and photography history, capture the historical and the social and engage the artist’s own emotions. It should show a philosophy of life concentrated in one moment. Alexander Tyagny-Ryadno does all this.
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