Proletarian photography

The official social space of the Brezhnev-era Soviet regime was positively inhuman. This space was blind to the presence of an individual; it ignored the individual, and, most painfully, offered this individual no chance to be one’s own self, no chance to differ from others. This space could only provide very few and very uniform responses to every individual’s search for an identity or for an answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ The social whole only offered every single citizen a very scarce set of social roles that fit into a short formula of ‘a Young Communist League member, a sportswoman, and just a beauty’ and, possibly, ‘a citizen, a Communist Party member, and a shock-worker’ as well. It was very hard to push one’s unique personality into the Procrustean bed of such tight patterns. An individual with even the tiniest bit of imagination wished to identify and express him- or herself in somewhat brighter colors and in more personalized terms.

The large-scale ‘privatization’ of the Soviet identity was the inevitable outcome. A USSR subject was slowly but surely rejecting the image of an impersonalized citizen, a Communist Party member, or a shock-worker. Unable to find an identity within the official social space, this citizen kept looking for and found a plethora of unofficial niches free of the Soviet formalities. This was how hiking and camping, amateur singing and composing, and amateur photography burst forth. In the 70s, photography came to mean more than just a hobby and turned into a way for an individual to identify him- or herself, to work towards self-expression, and to find his or her true self. It was during one-on-one interaction with the camera or in the intimacy of the locked-up dark room with the red light, the developing solution, and the fixing salt that an individual could become his or her real self, whereas when he or she was operating a mill or drawing on a sheet of Whatman paper, this individual was only a cog in the enormous Soviet machine. Yet in their attempts to express their inner self through searching for and eternalizing the beautiful that is present in the surrounding world, the Soviet people were unavoidably faced with the overbearing and obtrusive social being which, as the Marxist and Leninist classical authors insist, inevitably determined their consciousness, their vision of the world, and their photographs. The Soviet daily routine barged in onto the photographs like some sort of a gate-crasher. Wherever an amateur photographer pointed his or her lens, this lens would always end up focused on the more or less rundown walls of a tiny Khrushchev-era apartment or the wooden ceiling of some barracks. However hard a photographer might be trying to find some traces of the beautiful in the surrounding reality, however much he or she might want to create landscapes and still lives, the mundane, with its unmade beds, pans with traces of burnt food, and half-empty bottles, was an ever-present component.

The clash of a free spirit’s elevated aspiration for self-actualization and the unsettled Soviet reality produced a peculiar photographic form known as ‘proletarian photography’. Ironically, proletarian photography remained only an insignificant, if not an entirely marginal, genre in the victorious proletarian country. As long as photographs were a way of finding one’s identity, a way of understanding one’s place in this Universe, the aficionados of creating likenesses did try to turn their works into objects of art, nevertheless. Photographs were taken very seriously. One ‘staged’ them, thought over the design, and struggled with the shot layout. It was only the totally proletarian nature of the mundane reality that supported the dualism of the end result.

Proletarian photography went through a stage of revival when inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras and industrial-scale picture-printing became widespread. From the complex, ritualized mysteries which only a few elect were party to, picture-taking turned into an affordable entertainment. Photography was soon converted to ‘documenting the mundane’, the way to document reality ‘as it is’.

The P&S cameras made everyone a photographer. Affordable picture-printing opened a way for everything that used to be considered unworthy of documenting to make it into the picture. The results were quick to follow. Millions of self-educated photographers produced billions of shots. The unpretentious life space around them intruded forcefully upon the photographs along with ‘life-likeness’. The P&S cameras lifted all the bans on the ‘low’ images in the shots. The unmade beds and the tables that were never cleared up and featured empty bottles and dirty plates were rapidly winning their share of the film. The most unsightly bits or reality penetrated the photographs from every corner, table, and carpet. What is more, this ‘reality’ was no longer seen as a factor that ‘kills’ a shot, it became ‘everyday life’ and stopped hurting the viewers’ feelings. It was as if the overwhelming and heretofore thoroughly hidden collective unconscious entered the plane of the visible and the manifest and established its dominance over the picture plot. The growing popularity of the Internet, photography forums, and social networks made the distinct and easily recognized style of ‘proletarian photography’ (that was initially based on the lowly taste, the lack of picture-taking expertise, and the de-sacralized attitude to a picture) quite wide-spread.

At the same time, one could speak of a certain ‘proletarian’ vision of the world that manifested itself in the new style. This unassuming and non-clinging way of looking at things de-aestheticized the picture and let the mundane fully conquer it. The aristocratic spirit was totally defeated, and ‘total literalism’ – a cut above any kind of realism, from classical and socialist – set in.

A number of distinct and easily recognized genres could soon be singled out in the mass-produced proletarian photography: snapshots of a booze party and its consequences, one-person or group portraits in the ‘settings’ that are much more revealing that the most expressive faces. A particularly popular genre is the ‘erotic’ variety of proletarian photography that combines the same kind of ‘hyper-realism’ with images of more or less naked women against the backdrop of the ubiquitous carpet or plumbing fixtures. Yet the laws of the dialectic never fail: the gargantuan quantity of ‘proletarian pictures’ was bound to convert into quality sooner or later. Billons of tacky home-taken pictures finally produced a special aesthetic form that went through stages of concentration, ‘purification’, and multiple ‘sublimation’ and ended up as a sort of an insane photo genre. The unfathomable amount of husk started producing very few grains of what can be defined as ‘the art of proletarian photography’. Certain photographers, who are well aware of the peculiarities of this genre and who have mastered its world-view, are now creating ‘low’-style photographs that fully meet all the canons of the ‘proletarian’ style and that are, at the same time, true works of art. It might be precisely this aestheticized proletarian photograph that is the only Russian product that has the potential on the global photography arena. This peculiar genre, totally infiltrated with the distinct ‘Soviet’ daily routine and the original ‘Soviet’ mentality and view of life, is the very limited unique and non-reproducible something that

Russian photographic community can present and offer to the ‘outside’ world. After all, no foreign pastiche expert will ever be able to take a truly proletarian picture without the long and painful experience of mastering this special ‘post-Soviet’ de-aestheticized vision of reality.

Maxim V. Susoyev,

Philosophy PhD

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Написал blackpr в 12.11.2012 | 14:46. Соответствие In English, Лента новостей. Вы можете перейти к обсуждениям записи RSS 2.0. Вы можете сделать trackback вашей записи

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