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“Boring Photography”: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan Photography

Victoria Muskvik

Abstract

This article looks at the exhibition New Landscape (2018), which was the first full-scale attempt to reflect on the popularity of “deadpan” photography in Russia in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The show was partly modeled on the American exhibition New Topographics (1975). I look at the reasons why the American model was adopted and the earlier late Soviet and Russian photographic projects that dealt with boredom, including the most non-conformist ones, were avoided. I conclude that the reasons for this should be analyzed in the complex postcolonial context, which includes the acting out of collective trauma. In my analysis, I focus on the link between trauma and repressed aggression, violence, and resentment. I also show how Russian deadpan photography has opposed Putin’s regime and developed a pioneer methodology for reflecting on the post-Soviet condition. The American model was used to bring together a diversity of viewpoints, which reveals more complex and integrated ways of dealing with collective affect.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 All Russian texts in the article are given in my translation unless indicated otherwise.

Those who grew up in dullness
Have been marked from their youth
With flamboyant dreams, a mysterious virus
(Oxxxxymiron)1

  • 2 For a discussion of the influence, see “Novyy peyzazh,” an interview with Pyotr Antonov. As one of (...)

1In 2018, seven Russian photographers self-curated the exhibition New Landscape. Designed for the Yeltsin Center (Yekaterinburg), it later successfully traveled around Russia. According to the exhibition explication, the show “for the first time consolidated photographic research of post-Soviet landscape as a means of grasping new culture” (“Vystavka”). Curiously for a project that insisted on its novelty, it was consciously partly modeled on another show,2 the American exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (George Eastman HouseRochester, New York, 1975–76), and there has been little reflection about the reasons for this adaptation. The complexity of the Russian photographic tradition seems to have been substituted with a borrowing from another culture. In the article, I look at the rationale behind this process, focusing on collective emotions and affects in general and on boredom in particular.

  • 3 For history of photography theory, see Kriebel 349. For a specific discussion of photography, trac (...)
  • 4 For Walter Benjamin, “photography becomes a key medium for the circulation of a culture’s unconscio (...)
  • 5 I have explored this issue in Musvik, Picturing (in Russian), which will be extended in my forthcom (...)
  • 6 Postmodernists, though interested in psychoanalysis, often regarded feelings as “marginal concerns (...)

2As I concentrate on boredom, I cannot look in detail at other important concepts, but a certain theoretical explanation is due. Photography seems a perfect object for studying collective affects. Western theorists have been interested in the relationship between this medium, the unconscious, and the social since the 1930s.3 The prevailing pre-1980s theoretical approaches valued photography’s ability to visualize the unseen and the unexpected, simultaneously exposing the hidden social rules and giving breakthrough access to the “optical unconscious” (Walter Benjamin),4 “raw optical material” (Rudolf Arnheim), or “punctum” (Roland Barthes).5 Later, these concepts were deconstructed by postmodern theory,6 and then, after the “affective turn,” reassembled as useful methodological tools. The field has also been enriched by insights from trauma studies and affect theory, and certain concepts started to change their original meaning. For instance, James Elkins has criticized “the punctum’s inaccurate afterlife” and a “conflicted and under-theorized reception,” claiming that the scholars’ “motives for misreading” included a wish to escape from academic detachment and engage with “trauma, pathos, confession and affect in art” (What Photography Is 41).

  • 7 See Gillian Rose’s criticism of how scholars in the humanities use just “one or two psychoanalytica (...)
  • 8 See, for instance, Jan Grant and Grant, JanJim Crawley, Transference And Projection; for an analysi (...)
  • 9 See Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the Past; Michael Roper, The Unconscious Work of History.
  • 10 See Tracey Loughran and and Dawn Mannay, Emotion and the Researcher; Stephen Parkin, An Applied Vis (...)
  • 11 See Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames; Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Resea (...)
  • 12 See Gayle Letherby, Feminist Research; Louise Morley, Interogating Patriarchy; Liz Stanley, Feminis (...)

3The terms “affect,” “emotion,” and “feeling” have a long tradition of use, and their meanings vary in several contemporary fields. For this article, the difference between “emotion” and “affect” is important, whereas I use “feeling” interchangeably with both. I follow both psychoanalysis and affect theory, with a nod to early modern studies and the terms’ history in English. I understand “emotions” as more conscious and “(relatively) transparent indicators for interior states” (Enterline 27), and “affect” as a more elusive and covert entity, which always contains a preverbal, somatosensory trace since the subconscious is formed before a human being has mastered the language. Visual imagery can give additional dimensions to such research. Affect is easily shared collectively as a form of “intensity” (Massumi, Parables 25). As “[a]ffective transmission is never simply something one ‘catches’ but rather a process that one is ‘caught up’ in” (Wetherell 140), a researcher’s attention to her/his subjectivity and political engagement seems crucial. Here, I rely on psychoanalysis’s7 and psychotherapy’s vigorous debates about the limitations of their methods, especially how a researcher can misattribute impulses to others, which can become a form of aggression. The process of such displacement is described by the terms “projection” and “(counter)transference,” first developed by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein.8 In my oral interviews, I rely on psychohistory9 and on anthropology’s and sociology’s impressive body of work on self-reflectivity, especially in relation to visual data10 and photography.11 I am also influenced by feminist reflections on the binaries “activism/research” and “engagement/distance.”12

  • 13 For other analyses of trauma and boredom in this issue, see Mark Pedretti, “Tedium and Terror: Drea (...)

4I rely on a psychoanalytic and psychiatric understanding of individual trauma, which also underlies “trauma studies” in the humanities. “Trauma” is a reaction, often belated, to an earlier overwhelming catastrophic experience and an attack on borders. Importantly, the “complex ways” of “knowing and not knowing are entangled in the language of trauma and in the stories associated with it” (Caruth 4). On the other hand, according to sociological studies, there is a difference between a “social/collective trauma,” i.e. a massively tragic event that tears social life apart, and a “cultural trauma,” i.e. its mediation, selective representation, and a discursive response that involves a spatial and temporal distance from the former (Alexander et al. 1–59). This is not “necessarily... felt by everyone in a community,” and there exist “alternative strategies and... voices” to articulate such discourses (Eyerman, Cultural Trauma 2–4). According to Ron Eyerman, certain groups, such as politicians, journalists, and artists, have an ethical responsibility for making sense of the tragic event by articulating, symbolizing, channeling, and structuring the process of grieving (“Intellectuals” 456). Depending on their work, the traumatic past can be unreflectively “acted out,” i.e. compulsively repeated, or “worked through,” i.e. reflected on “in a critical manner,” and cured (La Capra xii).13

5But can we now apply the notion of “trauma” to Russian material? Apart from Western theory, my ideas have been developing in a specific non-Western culture. Soviet peoples were severely traumatized by the events of the twentieth century, and these “victimizing” aspects have been well-reflected upon in Russian dissident writing, perestroika narratives, and lately, during several bouts of conferences and articles on collective trauma. Interestingly, one of them was held in 2013, on the eve of the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. As has become clear after the second invasion on February 24, 2022, two important aspects have been largely ignored in the dominant narrative: the active resistance during the Soviet or Putin regimes and the aggression that hides behind the discourse about Russians as a traumatized nation. The latter needs to be rethought, and I see my article as a contribution to this process. By using the word “trauma,” in no way do I compare it to the ongoing horrendous war experience for millions of Ukrainians. Hence, this article needs to be complemented with a reflection on research ethics, especially after the 2022 Russian military offensive in Ukraine. According to Madina Tlostanova, a scholar from the former empire should not “offer a self-sufficient single truth proclamation... from a detached and vantage point” (169), and I am reluctant to assume it in an article that criticizes the unreflected “neutrality” of certain photographic discourse. My own mixed identity, Russian and non-Russian, makes me caught up in extremely strong feelings at the moment. Still, the position of an insider provides an opportunity to bring the previously overlooked material into academic discourse.

6Fig.1. Stephen Shore, Second Street East and South Main Street, 1974 © Stephen Shore. Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York.

7Fig. 2. Maksim Sher, Ulan Ude, 2014 © Maksim Sher. Courtesy of the artist.

2. New Topographics: Suppressing the Affective?

  • 14 See, for instance, Soutter 43, Mickevicius 13.

8Though it united mostly emerging artists, New Topographics was one of the most influential twentieth-century photographic exhibitions, a visual manifesto of a new photographic aesthetic. At various points in its history, such a gaze has been described as “calm,” “neutral,” “mesmerizing,” “distanced,” “serious,” and “research,” but also “deadpan,” “dull,” “unemphatic,” “unemotional,” “indifferent,” “blank,” “austere,” “impersonal” and “clinical.” And of course, “boring.”14 The link between the concepts of “boredom” and “deadpan photography” has been widely explored. Art theorists insisted that the latter aimed to move the medium outside of “the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective” (Cotton 81). Such images visualized everyday spaces that were not romantic or exotic enough to attract attention, an invisible wasteland. Thus, deadpan photography mapped and criticized capitalist society’s hidden structures, but, unlike in the earlier works of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine, in an emotionally distanced way. The deadpan aesthetic also emerged at the time when postmodernism was gaining momentum, and photography stopped being marginalized in contemporary art. The American social and political crisis of the 1970s might be another relevant context for the transfer of the deadpan aesthetic into contemporary Russia.

  • 15 See William Jenkins, New Topographics.

9Although eight out of ten show’s participants were from the USA, the most well-known came from Germany. By 1975, Bernd and Hilla Becher were already quite famous for their series of images of industrial structures, which they photographed on cloudy days, concentrating on “the shades of gray” and shying from showing humans. Later, the artists also taught at the Kunstakademie (Düsseldorf), where they mentored a generation of “Becher pupils,” such as Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer. Apart form their works, the curator William Jenkins showed photographs of eight American practitioners: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr.15 They also rejected the picturesque and concentrated on the objects “cropped out of American landscape photographs: ‘the spaces in-between,’ such as parking lots, industrial buildings, grain elevators, tract developments, shopping malls, freeway underpasses, and the likes” (Cheng 151). They were also united by an interest in banal aesthetic and minimalism, and their works had distinct formal characteristics, such as flat lighting or a focus on geometric forms of the urban landscape.

10The question of whether is it important to discern the differences between the European and American traditions has been much debated. According to Lucy Soutter, unlike the postwar Europeans, who were “highly critical of bourgeois subjectivity,” the photographers from the USA remained “more tolerant” to “the notion of personal... subjectivity” as “a source of value and meaning” (34). This led to variability in individual styles. They also relied on specifically American archive of images, which was seminal both for the construction of the national identity and the documentary tradition. Hilla Becher stated that “the war robbed us of the pleasure of looking at the past” (qtd. in Wiblin 230), and her melancholy also echoed the German New Objectivity movement of the 192os and 1930s, but American boredom of the 1970s had different roots. For some critics, the Bechers’ work is “distinctly devoid of the glimpses of hope,” while in the work of the American practitioners, “underneath its less attractive surface,” one can glimpse “a thriving, developing nation” (Lange). American images seem more energetic and actively critical (Lange). Visually, this feeling of energy might be connected with, for instance, the presence of color and/or sunlight in Robert Adams’s, Joe Deal’s, or Stephen Shore’s works (see fig. 1). In contrast, other researchers emphasize the overall similarities of the two traditions, connecting the “affective negativity” with globalization’s influence on landscapes, “thoroughly colonized by capital” (Shinkle, “The Universal” 107–10).

11Another point raised in the critical debate on the deadpan is objectivity. According to Alison Nordström, the “stylessness,” which Jenkins “attributed to the work of New Topographics,” and their “minimalism and ambiguity... allowed it to serve as a tabula rasa” for a “variety of interpretive perspectives” (73). But though, according to some researchers, these photographers transcended “the limitations of individual perspective” (Cotton 81), others call the avoidance of “any manipulation or hidden agenda” an illusion (Soutter 31). Their apparent “unemotionality” is illusory as well: for many critics, these images were “soiled” with strong feelings that hid behind detachment. For example, paradoxically, by defamiliarizing the disappearing modernist industrial architecture, the Bechers filled it with an eerie sadness, romanticism, and nostalgia, while Bernd’s personal experience of growing up in industrial Siegen might reveal “a conflict of interest... between the neutrality of recording and the subjectivity of memory” and a “chink or flaw in the objectivity of their method” (Wiblin 229–30).

12Finally, though such pictures might have the capacity to be “transformed into ethical and political action” (Shinkle, “Boredom” 182), they do not automatically have the assumed critical depth. In fact, the group has been criticized, especially by the left, for its lack of self-reflection and for its embeddedness in commercial collecting practices. Alan Sekula, for instance, “positioned his photographic practice in the mid-1970s, aesthetically and politically” against New Topographics (Witt 154); Sekula called the latter “the ‘neutron bomb’ school of photography: killing people but leaving real estate standing” (Sekula; see also Sher, “S lyud’mi”). Because of their manipulation with “depthless” space, such pictures seemed ambiguous in their simultaneous “sensory overload and sensory deprivation”: they constructed a viewer’s “body bereft of sensual pleasure” and “suppressed the affective—and potentially political—dimensions” (Shinkle, “Boredom” 168). Similar claims are made about “postmodern boredom” in literature, written by “the privileged men or women, separated by good fortune from the mass of humanity” (Spacks 252).

13Fig. 3. Anastasiya Tsayder, Arcadia, 2016, photograph © Anastasiya Tsayder. Courtesy of the artist.

14Fig. 4. Anastasiya Tsayder, Mzensk, 2013–14, photograph © Anastasiya Tsayder. Courtesy of the artist.

3. Embracing the Western, Avoiding the Soviet

15Keeping in mind such critical contextualizations, it seems interesting that they did not figure in the Russian discourse of the deadpan when, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it got suddenly resurrected, and, for some time, became the defining style of what was then known as “Young Photography.” With time, it became clearer that this described the practitioners mostly (with some exceptions) born between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. Overall, there have been few attempts, in research or art writing, to analyze the Russian deadpan. The New Landscape exhibition, first presented at Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg in 2018, crowned more than a decade of its domination. In the project, the photographers became researchers of their practice, trying to overcome this lack of reflection. But what was the reason behind this “tonguelessness”?

16One of the New Landscape’s participating artists, Alexander Gronsky, with his first well-known series Less than One (2006–2008), is frequently named the pioneer of their style. By the 2010s, a whole constellation of deadpan photographers emerged. Apart from other participants of the exhibition (Pyotr Antonov, Liza Faktor, Valeriy Nistratov, Sergey Novikov, Anastasiya Tsayder [see fig. 3 and 4], and Maxim Sher), one can name Yuriy Gudkov, Olya Ivanova, Pavel Otdelnov, Dmitriy Oldin, Sergey Poteryaev, Kirill Savtchenkov, Al’bina Shaymuratova, Vadim Sobolev, Fedor Telkov, Danila Tkatchenko, and Dar’ya Tuminas, and several prominent groups: two main contemporary schools, the Rodchenko School of Photography (Moscow) and Fotodepartament (St. Petersburg); the Department of Research Arts and, with some reservations, the Association of the Worst Photographers (Assotsiatsiya khudshukh fotografov).

  • 16 I am grateful to a Belorusian researcher and curator Antonina Stebur and the curator of the Nationa (...)

17The main subject of Russian deadpan was landscape, with repetitious and typically overlooked objects. Gronsky’s Less than One is subtitled “Russia’s less populated areas”; according to Vladimir Dudchenko, in his works “real, alive people are turned into an element of scenery and are dehumanized.” Another example is Maxim Sher’s project Palimpsests (2010–2017). Photographed in over 70 locations, it was an “exploration of post-Soviet built environment looked at from the perspective of the everyday and discarding the exoticizing visual tropes” (Sher, “Infrastructures”). What surprised one was the sheer totality of the style’s dominance over the field: other contemporary genres, such as docart or staged photography, were almost absent from the mid-2000s to the late 2010s. This seems especially striking if we compare it to the photographic scene of the Euro-American West or other former Soviet republics. For instance, in Belarus and Armenia, emotionally engaged photography has been more prevalent.16 In Lithuania, “boring photography” was popular in the 1980s and 1990s (Narušytė 13–39), but currently, it is just one of the styles.

  • 17 One of the rare exceptions was a self-published zin by Max Sher about a link with Soviet “boring” p (...)

18Judging from the New Landscape’s exhibition explications, curators’ texts, and the discussion during the closing event (24 March 2019, Yekaterina gallery, Moscow), the deadpan aesthetic was perceived by its practitioners as referring to two traditions. One of them was a broadly conceived “Western style,” with which they felt an affinity. The other was Soviet photography, a totally optimistic, emotional, and ideologically biased medium, which they wanted to avoid, stressing that they were interested only in post-Soviet landscapes.17 Their perception of the tradition excluded other former republics of the USSR or the 1990s. Nonconformist practitioners were also not included in this vision, and, rather unexpectedly, this uniform view of the Soviet style almost coincided with that of pre-perestroika officials. Later, Maxim Sher described their practice as a “radical look” that “processes the trauma of dogmatic socialist realism with its ban on the unauthorized representation of the everyday and public... spaces” (“S lyud’mi”). And yet, in the article aimed at confronting the critics of the Russian deadpan, he did not mention the Soviet dissident or semi-official photographers, whose practice expressed an analogous approach.

19Why would anyone use an aesthetic from 1970s American culture as an “ideal instrument” and avoid the resources of one’s own? To answer this question, let us look at two previous epochs when late Soviet and Russian photography dealt with boredom.

20Fig. 5. Aleksandr Slyusarev, Moscow, 1981, photograph © Aleksandr Slyusarev. Courtesy of Maksim Slyusarev and the artist’s estate.

21Fig. 6. Aleksandr Slyusarev, Moscow, 1974, photograph © Aleksandr Slyusarev. Courtesy of Maksim Slyusarev and the artist’s estate.

4. “The Most Boring Society in History”: Soviet Amateurs Oppose Boredom in the 1970s and Sensory Overload after 1985

22In the 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s protagonist called the 1917 revolution “all passion, all radiant interest,” “a work of inspiration” (unusual for “that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters”), a time when “workers, peasants soldiers were in a state of excitement and poetry,” but:

  • 18 See also Spacks 256 and Narushite 129–130.

When this short brilliant phase ended, what came next? The most boring society in history. Dowdiness shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party conferences, et cetera. What was permanent was the defeat of interest. (200)18

23Soviet official postwar photoimagery is often described as boring. The situation, however, was different in semi- and unofficial photography, which became the field of experiment, where boredom was deconstructed and feelings reinvigorated. Paradoxically, whereas in the West, amateur snapshots were deemed “art history’s worst nightmare: boring pictures” (Batchen 121), here the roles were reversed.

24Researchers of modern boredom often associate it with capitalist alienation. However, many of those who lived in the USSR would instantly recognize the feeling. Were socialist and capitalist boredoms actually part of the same process? Such debates are part of a discussion of “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt 1–29). The ideas of “anomie” and “alienation,” previously connected only to Karl Marx’s and Émile Durkheim’s criticism of capitalism, are now applied to post-socialist societies (Lytkina). Keti Chukhrov wants to avoid the question altogether: her aim is not to show that socialism has “the right to be integrated into the... emancipatory and progressive paradigms of ‘the West’ or of global contemporaneity” (15): socialist boredom was simply different. To a Western consumer, equality seemed divorced from desire, and, in fact, more unbearable than capitalist alienation. To a Soviet person, however, “poor socialist materiality” appeared “as already satisfactory, ‘beautiful,’ and virtuous”: “things are free from Lacanian lack, since the machine of libido is turned off” (109). Yet, an average Soviet woman or man was unable to appreciate this beauty.

25For Alexander Etkind, on the other hand, detachment in Soviet cinema was a sign of “double mourning” (390), both a way of grieving for the repressed and a symptom of the sadness about the early revolutionary ideals. The same explanation seems relevant for photography: its fate was the quintessence of trauma. Though Lenin’s government encouraged photo experimentation, Stalin repressed the photographers and appropriated photography: after 1928 all other genres, from artistic experiments to independent documentaries, were marginalized, labeled “unprofessional,” and superseded by the only permitted form, the social realist reportage (cf. Stigneev 78–94, Werneke 10–11). The Stalinist government both needed the new medium’s trace of reality (Barthes’ “certificate of presence”) for propaganda and panicked about its ability to “foment chaos within the monological order” (Dickerman 138–144).

  • 19 Personal interview (Anonymous 1). 2 November 2020.

26On the whole, an attempt to violate the connection between the affective and the social and to impose total control over the uncontrollable led to a specific kind of Soviet boredom seen as “the lack of content” (nenapolnennost) about which the photographers I interviewed speak19: the monotony of official photography, its absence of spontaneity, and compositional repetition. In the West, though the modernist idea of an “honest mirror,” embodied in early socially critical photo projects, was later jettisoned as naïve, the notion of social justice has resurfaced, for instance, in the idea of photography’s “civil contract” (Azoulay 3–30). Such photography was directly opposed to the Soviet regimes of visuality and was incompatible to construct the reality about which everyone would get the same message. It was in this situation that the so-called “amateurs” began to change.

  • 20 Similar processes have been described in other the countries of the socialist bloc, especially in G (...)

27A historian of emotions and affects, when describing her experience as a viewer of semi- and unofficial photography of the 1970s and 1980s, has to recourse to a whole palette of words with subtle and ambivalent meanings. What surprises one in the late Soviet parallel photography movement20 is the versatility of genres and the complexity of the grassroots activities and of the decentralized networks all around the country. But despite this diversity, these practitioners had the same aim: they were reclaiming the richness of the emotional gamut and the energy of the uncoded affect in photography.

  • 21 See Evlamp’ev.
  • 22 One should also mention the practitioners from other republics of the USSR, like the Ukrainian phot (...)

28Among those who explored dullness in conceptual ways was Aleksander Slyusarev (independent, Moscow; see fig. 5 and 6). Though his images are often called “abstract” and “geometrical” (Panenko 105), he was never keen on broadcasting melancholy or maintaining a neutral position but insisted that he wanted to revive photography’s lost emotional connections with the world (Interview) and look for the “spots of energy concentration” (“Momental’no”o”). The images of Yuriy Evlamp’ev and Sergey Tchilikov (club Rakurs, Cheboksary), with their gray tonal pattern, slight blur, and concentration on the textures, seemed realistic. Yet these were sometimes grotesquely staged. The aim was not, however, to manipulate their viewers, but to make them feel immediate emotions.21 Adding color was another way of reflecting on boredom and rebelling against the Soviet gray. Slyusarev sometimes drew yellow, green, and red lines on his “classical” black-and-white squares, and Yuriy Shpagin (club Volga, Gorkiy), in The House for the Deranged (the 1980s), made portraits of the patients in soft pink (the result of “copper toning”), revising our ideas of “mentally ill” or “male.”22

29The later return of dullness in Russian photography, which happened closer to the collapse of the USSR, had different reasons. It was a reaction to the new polarization of society and the opening up of the Iron Curtain, with the ensuing sensory and informational overload, to which these practitioners reacted by adopting more “boring” approaches. Some also rebelled against an upsurge of chernukha, or “black wave,” in the later years of perestroika (Horton and Brashinsky 163). Aleksandra Voronina describes how Krasnoyarsk photographer Aleksandr Kuptsov became engulfed by the dark affects (67–69): according to him, this happened “in spite of joyous life and optimistic character” (88). But many nonconformist photographers, who secretly took socially critical images in the pre-perestroika times, did not hurry up to publish them after 1985. The advent of chernukha heralded for them the new impoverishment of feelings and of the everyday.

  • 23 I am grateful to Catriona Kelly for coining this phrase.
  • 24 In the unedited version of Rybchinskiy Meglinskaya, published in Irina Meglinskaya’s blog: https:// (...)

30Since 1988, Igor Mukhin, an independent street photographer and the chronicler of perestroika’s changes, has shot six projects, Fragments [of Visual Propaganda] (1987/8–1992)], Soviet Monuments (end of the 1980s–cont.), The Soviet Children’s Playgrounds (1988–89), Trash bins (1994), Benches (1993–1996), and Vegetable Plot (1996–1998). In sharp contrast to his earlier work, Mukhin became uninterested in emotional contact and vivid street scenes. He clearly worked under the influence of both the Bechers and Slyusarev, but his pictures conveyed more melancholy. In the early 1990s, Mukhin completely stopped taking street photographs for some time, explaining that he “photographed shop-windows but not people” and that “the psychological state was so tense, that it was impossible to take a picture of another person; people were irritated” (Mukhin). This mood was also echoed in the works by Alexey Titarenko and Vladimir Kupriyanov. The early series by Yuri Rybchinskiy, a Moscow-based independent photo-documentarian, especially the macabre The Drunk Tank in Cherepovets (1980), are perhaps the grimmest images in the unofficial photography of the epoch. But they lack the “obvious markers of marginality”23 later associated with chernukha. What seemed important to him, were the range, smallness, and layers of emotions. By the 1990s, his images became flatter, and around the mid-1990s, he stopped photographing altogether: “social reportage” became needless, and he was “getting sucked” into shooting chernukha, which, for him, was just another side of Soviet optimism.24 The radical gesture of destroying his best negatives put a stop to this uncontrollable process.

31Such processes partly document the real economic and political crisis of the day. But the late perestroika’s “boring photography” can be also seen as both a lack of “container” (in a psychoanalytic sense) for difficult feelings and an attempt to resist a new breakout of “dark affect.” Ultimately, the latter refers us to the traumatic silence of Stalin’s times.

32Fig. 7. Maksim Sher, Tchto my sami sdelaem, 2019, photograph © Maksim Sher. Courtesy of the artist.

33Fig. 8. Yuri Rybchinskiy, Porezannye negativy, 2021, digital collage. © Yuri Rybchinskiy.
Courtesy of the artist.

5. Deadpan Photography and the 2010s: Acting out the Trauma

34Keeping in mind two previous waves of Soviet “photographic boredom,” the reasons for adopting the “Western” deadpan in Russia around 2010 become clearer. The “Young Photography” generation often avoided looking both at the pre-1985 era, echoing Russian propaganda’s encouragement of blending together separate Soviet periods, and at the 1990s, the time when they were children or young adults. Though undoubtedly using the deadpan’s critical potential to deconstruct some of Putin’s Russia’s hidden structures, they refused to reflect on the closeness of their own formal language to the official visual imagery, with its subdued colors, emotional distance, superficiality, and the wish to conceal conflicts and “play down” affective waves. The border between reflection, confluence, and acting out of trauma became blurred. The deadpan aesthetic, with its ability to block emotional response, turned into a container for the uneasy sense of the “lack of content.” Some practitioners of the 2010s also tended to concentrate on microhistory and family archives, shunning the macrohistory of revolutions, wars, and repressions.

  • 25 For a discussion of “traumatic silence,” see Caruth 1–9; Ritter 176–194.
  • 26 See research by psychoanalysts and neuroscientists on the trauma and violence (for example, Grattan (...)

35In my opinion, however, the Russian deadpan did not just demonstrate traumatic silence25: it masked repressed aggression that could not find a direct expression.26 Interestingly, an art therapist Varvara Sidorova’s field research on the impact of Soviet experiences on several groups, in which they verbalized vague feelings hidden in images showed the same generational difference. Unlike the participants over forty, who, even when drawing collective trauma, energetically worked with color and expressed hope, those whose childhood years fell in the 1990s mostly used gray. One of the latter explained that he did not “have a way out, the old world has passed, and the new has not come.” He restrained his feelings because “otherwise you would take a gun and shoot everyone around” (Sidorova 43–44).

36Around 2014, some artists started to work differently, and the shift coincided with the conflict with Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea, visual propaganda, which had previously tried to freeze the conflicts of the 1990s, started to oscillate between two poles: the earlier visual restraint and the new affective excess (especially of anger). In some cases, the latter induced artists to do more oppositional projects; in others, it seems that both were similarly rooted in collective processes.

37The subject of Sher’s acutely political Map and Territory (Moscow, Triumf gallery, 2014) was the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944). He tried to understand the scarcity of visual reflection and the low number of both Soviet monuments and contemporary art projects about its “human dimension” and reflected on the role of NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in this collective trauma. Paradoxically, he combined deeply felt emotions with “boring” photography. Detachment here could be interpreted as both an expression of trauma-induced silence, a rejection of sensationalism, a way of keeping distance from extreme pain, defamiliarization (in Viktor Shklovsky’s understanding), and a reflection on alienation. Sher also transcended the deadpan’s totality by using two other strategies: mixed media and docart, a genre popular among contemporary artists (Joan Fontcuberta, Walid Raad, and others).

38It is at the intersection of these artistic strategies that we can glimpse at what might be concealed behind boredom. For example, Sher exhibited a real photograph by Aleksandr Nikitin alongside portraits of the artist and his acquaintances in the guise of members of a fabricated conspiracy plot. This posed an ethical dilemma. Though initially in doubt, the artist decided to avoid any clues: he wanted to make the border between the imaginary and the documentary indiscernible without a conscious and painful effort, exposing the frightening irrationality of total mistrust in a totalitarian country. But this revelation came at a price: it raised the question of whether it is possible to discriminate between reflective criticism and identification with the aggressor. This uncomfortable entanglement with the past, which reproduces its affects, might explain why only a small number of artists worked with the collective tragedies till recent dates; their concentration on the private might have been a deliberate ethical gesture. In a later project, Infrastructures (2019), in which Sher together with Sergey Novikov deconstructed grand narratives (Soviet and pre-Soviet), some “boring” photographs were also historical re-enactments, but the doc/art border was shown more clearly.

  • 27 See Sokolov; Bubich. See also https://trs-trs-foto.livejournal.com/529511.html. In my own family su (...)

39Danila Tkachenko’s Motherland (2017) was a more controversial example of the tendency. Tkachenko worked with the deadpan in Escape (2014), Restricted Areas (2013–2015), and other series, but in Motherland, the carefully maintained “research distance” was suddenly blown up. The artist alleged that he only burned down the decorations and real houses that were “rotten, with the collapsing roofs” ( “Net zhelaniia”) and that “not a single private property or cultural heritage site suffered” (“Motherland”), but some experts recognized Kuchepalda, a unique village in the Arkhangelskiy district. The critics pointed out that currently heirs of the repressed mostly lose court battles for re-claiming their ownership rights, in an ongoing confrontation between a person and the state. The project also triggered many memories about repressed relatives, Nazi raids, or even the religious inquisition.27 The artist’s initial statement, written in a “research” style, contrasted with his overtly emotional interviews and posts, in which he described spending two years in abandoned villages, where he was “captured,” got “under a spell,” and then entered a “certain clouded state.” The only way out was a radical gesture of “burning everything the hell down.” It was also like a visit to a psychoanalyst, which he needed after the “absolute estrangement from oneself.” In this “void,” “a person does not mean anything, is a material,” which was “painful” (Tkachenko “Net zhelaniia”).

40Though there seems to be a similarity here with Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (the picture with the building on fire, 1978) and Gregory Crewdson’s Beneath the Roses (2004), Tkachenko was actually closer to Russian actionism, such as Peter Pavlensky’s burning down the door of the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow on November 9, 2015. Such pictures seem to reveal a (psychotic?) impossibility of setting up a container for excessive affect and a border between the symbolic and the real. But psychoanalytical interpretations easily become depoliticized. For instance, in 1989, during a press expedition to an abandoned gulag camp, Kraslag, Kuptsov and his colleagues could not contain their outrage, and Sergey Zadereev burnt down the former guard’s tower (Voronina 84–85). Unlike Kuptsov or Pavlensky, Tkachenko turned aggression against objects associated with the victims, whose houses he described as “all that crap” (“Net zhelaniia”). Kuptsov’s story belonged to the perestroika era, but the impossibility of empathy with the victims is rooted in the current political climate under Putin that fostered the “inability to mourn” (see Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich 69–79; Lyozina 131–139).

41Tkachenko’s latest non-photographic performance, however, was radically different from his previous work. Planned in solidarity with Ukraine, it was stopped by the FSB, and the artist had to leave Russia.

42Fig. 9. Alisa Gorshenina, Russia Alientated, 2017–2019, digital photocollage © Alisa Gorshenina. Courtesy of the artist.

43Fig.10. Alisa Gorshenina, I Hear the Voices of Russia [We Are against the War], 2022, digital photo collage © Alisa Gorshenina. Courtesy of the artist.

6. The Turn of the 2020s: A New Integration of Feelings

  • 28 In 2020–219, I interviewed nine photographers of two generations: those who started shooting in the (...)
  • 29 Personal interview (Anonymous 3). 23 March 2021.
  • 30 Personal interview (Anonymous 4). 15 March.2021.

44In 2020–2021, the “youngest” Russian photographic generation, now in their twenties, often pointed out to me that the deadpan aesthetics was outdated: “the sad truth is that the Becher typologies are such a simple... technique that it is... thumbed about in photography schools and rattled on even now.”28 But it still inexplicably haunted them: “Actually, [my] initial approach had been completely different: to catch the moment, to work with people.... But this just didn’t work.” This practitioner could not explain why: “Well, the space around was not communicated. Not the right angle. I don’t know. . . . But when I began to take more detached pictures,... peopleless...—then something started to work out.” He also did not take pictures in the sunlight: though he liked it “emotionally,” the picture got “too sharp” and was not in harmony with the landscape. He was tired of his deadpan images, did not like them “aesthetically,” and even “suffered thinking about this subject.”29 Another photographer initially talked about her subjective preferences: she liked working “in a clear and simple manner” and tried not to aggressively intervene into the reality but just “to take from it what it wants to give.” Yet later on she told me that she and her colleagues were “subconsciously... always... influenced by the visual environment” and “the flow in which you are placed.”30

45Recently, however, the situation has started to quickly change: the deadpan seems to be losing dominance. Many practitioners also go beyond the medium of photography, and this new plasticity of its borders helps to create symbolic spaces for feeling “difficult” emotions. Alisa Gorshenina (Nizhniy Tagil) is making digital collages and mixes photography with drawings, handmade textile objects, masks, and jewelry (see fig. 9). Photographically wise, some elements are “deadpan,” while others remind us of late Soviet unofficial documentaries. Such switching between “of course incompatible” styles is part of her artistic strategy (Gorshenina). This eclectic reassembling of the world has to do more with metamodernism than with postmodern pastiche, irony, or nostalgia. Her latest projects also reveal the tension between the Russian center and local places. Some of them are participatory. Thus, in 2019, she returned to her native village Yakshina and tried to bridge the gap between contemporary urban and rural cultures. The village inhabitants understood her work “better than experienced art critics” (Gorshenina). In her latest images, Gorshenina is openly protesting against the war in Ukraine, using the languages of different national and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia (see fig. 10).

  • 31 For a discussion of non-sites and boredom in the US context, see David Callahan, “Boredom, Cohesion (...)

46Throughout his career, Pavel Otdelnov has been interested in the suburbs as “nonsites” (“Russian Nowhere”) and drew photorealistic paintings, in the manner of deadpan photography.31 But his newest exhibitions came one step forward in deconstructing boredom in former “secret towns.” Promzona (2019, MMOMA, Moscow) reflected on several generations of his family who worked on the chemical plants in Dzerzhinsk (fig. 11). Ringing Trace (2021) showed the scars that the atomic project left on people and nature (fig. 12); it was mounted on the dormitory’s walls of the “secret laboratory B” in Sokol, a small settlement near Snezhinsk (Chelyabinsk district). Both projects went significantly beyond microhistory and engaged in reflection on an epic scale; the latter was partly supplied by the “transpersonal” deadpan. Otdelnov also placed drawings from Soviet photographic portraits, including that of his grandmother, inside a contemporary “affective museum.” The works exercised intense affective power. During my visit to the exhibition, after I dropped my scarf on the floor, which was covered with decaying gas masks, I panicked about contamination. As researchers note, Otdelnov reflects upon but does not identify with the past tragedy. The Düsseldorf school’s “cold panoramic view” offers him “an alternative, different from the Soviet, way of working with the national trauma” (Burov and Plungyan). Western boredom, however, does not supersede the local tradition anymore. Rather, as other metamodernists, Otdelnov pulls “strings of signification out of the larger textile” and “uses its residual signification to start a new dialogue” (McNeil 35). His detachment is not sterilely ethnographic or hierarchically arrogant; it is full of compassion toward those who lived through the tragedy. This sudden warmth points out to previous photographic generations, who have also started a new reflection, such as Igor Mukhin, whose latest work has become more openly critical of Russia’s political regime, or Yuri Rybchinskiy, who in a new project pastes together his cut negatives, simultaneously drawing attention to these seams and welds (see fig. 8).

47Fig. 11. Pavel Otdelnov, Ruins: Tetraethyllead, part of the project Promzona, 2017, oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm © Pavel Otdelnov. Courtesy of the artist.

48Fig. 12. Pavel Otdelnov, Promzona, 2019, installation, Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art © Pavel Otdelnov. Courtesy of the artist.

7. New Landscape and the American Trace

  • 32 See, for example, Holovach.

49In this new quest for reflecting on the complexity of Russian society and for overcoming the flattening of feelings and depoliticization, the turn to American photography seems also crucial. Of course, it can be analyzed in a complex postcolonial context, in which after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was reduced from “the second-rate empire” to “an ultimately peripheral status.” Though “originally in the heart of Europe,” it has been displaced by America and has become “an implied and delocalized reference point” (Tlostanova 170). In a way, the New Landscape exhibition embodied this process of transition—the American influence is both acknowledged and disavowed. When looking for the prevailing definitions of “the deadpan” in Russian,32 I found that the Bechers and their pupils are still seen as its main group, and they are referred to as “European” or “German” (Rineke Dijkstra and the Dutch roots are also mentioned), and not American. The traces of this “European” concept could be seen, for instance, in Valeriy Nistratov’s remark at the finissage of New Landscape in Yekaterina, when he detected the “sin of lyricism” in his own “very Russian” works, which could not become totally Westernly deadpan because of the presence of sunlight. In the reference, he clearly meant the Bechers. However, in the long interview (“Novyy peyzazh”), Pyotr Antonov completely avoided the European tradition. Instead, he dedicated two passages to the postwar American culture, New Topographics, and the connections between the US consumerist society and the new suburban landscape.

50There was also a direct influence of specific American artists on some of the exhibition’s participants. This is especially clearly visible in Sher’s images, with their mixture of interest in road trips and the ordinary, amateur snapshot aesthetic and detached formalism, subdued colors and presence of sunlight, and, above all, exploration of the photographic medium itself (fig. 2). Sher has been explicit about being “inspired by American photographs,” especially Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places (fig. 1):

Not only did I get inspired by Shore, but I have disassembled his method, actually, in a very simple way—I began to look for the places which he took pictures of, in Google Street View.... I pondered over what the defining archetypes of our landscape are, and after that started to work on the project in a reflective way. (“Fotograf Maksim Sher”)

51It seems more important, however, to notice not just individual influences but that the whole New Topographics model was used in New Landscape for bringing together the diversity of viewpoints and for undermining the previous Russian deadpan’s totalizing power.

8. Conclusion

52To sum up, Russian photographers’ adaptation of an earlier American model might be interpreted as avoidance of their own culture’s uncomfortable past and present. It can also mean catching up with international postmodernism, the contact with which was blocked in the Soviet Union (see Svetlyakov 12–17), or resonance with the American crisis of the 1970s. However, from the mid-2000s up to the present, the Russian deadpan’s trajectory went from straightforward substitution to more complex strategies and evolved into just one possible way of looking at the post-Soviet period, which is also now less strictly isolated from the Soviet one. The latest projects reveal increasingly sophisticated memory practices, described in other spheres as “multihistoricism” (Sidorova 33–34; see also Rubtsov et al.).

53At the center of Otdelnov’s Promzona was a lightbox with a photograph of the only preserved building of Dzerzhinsk. Shot in a deadpan manner, it was, however, filled with diffused light which opened up the sky and produced a feeling of hope. The events that happened several decades ago are impossible to justify. But the curtain of secrecy has collapsed, and time has dug up a new moat around it—not unlike the Renaissance, which had disentangled historical imagination from the present and created a symbolical space for working with excessive affect.

9. Postscript

54The first version of the article was ending on this optimistic note. However, the war in Ukraine makes me add a post-scriptum. It might be that the growing complexity of cultural responses, including very critical ones, which Russian propaganda found more and more difficult to control (see, for instance, “Lishit’”), led to direct aggression against another country. Many of the artists whose work I analyze had to leave Russia. However, even now, in the completely censured public and art spaces, the photographers who stay inside the country are going on with their reflections. This has intensified lately, with people of different photographic generations talking less about the unconscious dragging into the deadpan and more about the political reasons for their aesthetic choices. According to one of them:

  • 33 Personal interview (Anonymous 5). 25 July 2022.

many are overwhelmed. I myself for a long time was in a kind of stupor. All the plans and projects have been wiped out by the new reality. But I have also started to make new works.... [I should] accumulate the critical mass as symptoms of what I am now taking pictures.... Previously, I had been trying to make myself work in a lighter tonality. And then again would slide into darker feelings. Now I understand that [my previous project] was just foreboding. It would be better if it had been personal depression, of course.33

55These new artistic responses should become the subject of new research; meanwhile, scholars studying Russian photography should also “accumulate the critical mass” of new evidence and reflection.

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Notes

1 All Russian texts in the article are given in my translation unless indicated otherwise.

2 For a discussion of the influence, see “Novyy peyzazh,” an interview with Pyotr Antonov. As one of the curators, he also talked about this at the finissage of the New Landscape in Yekaterina (Moscow) on 24 March 2019.

3 For history of photography theory, see Kriebel 349. For a specific discussion of photography, trace, and trauma, see Iversen 116.

4 For Walter Benjamin, “photography becomes a key medium for the circulation of a culture’s unconscious desires, fears, and structures of defense” (Smith and Sliwinski 9).

5 I have explored this issue in Musvik, Picturing (in Russian), which will be extended in my forthcoming book (in English).

6 Postmodernists, though interested in psychoanalysis, often regarded feelings as “marginal concerns for politically engaged criticism” that “seemed to cloud the critic’s thoughts” (Brown and Phu 2–3).

7 See Gillian Rose’s criticism of how scholars in the humanities use just “one or two psychoanalytical concepts,” not paying attention to its “strict code of methodological conduct” (148). See also Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion.

8 See, for instance, Jan Grant and Grant, JanJim Crawley, Transference And Projection; for an analysis of visual imagery/photography in psychoanalysis, see Mary Bergstein Mirrors of Memory; Faye Carey, The Place of the Visual; and Shaun McNiff, Art Based Research.

9 See Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the Past; Michael Roper, The Unconscious Work of History.

10 See Tracey Loughran and and Dawn Mannay, Emotion and the Researcher; Stephen Parkin, An Applied Visual Sociology; Dawn Mannay, Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods.

11 See Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames; Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research.

12 See Gayle Letherby, Feminist Research; Louise Morley, Interogating Patriarchy; Liz Stanley, Feminist Auto/Biography.

13 For other analyses of trauma and boredom in this issue, see Mark Pedretti, “Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One” and Anna Ferrari, “Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket.”

14 See, for instance, Soutter 43, Mickevicius 13.

15 See William Jenkins, New Topographics.

16 I am grateful to a Belorusian researcher and curator Antonina Stebur and the curator of the National Gallery of Armenia Vigen Galstyan for their help.

17 One of the rare exceptions was a self-published zin by Max Sher about a link with Soviet “boring” postcards (see fig. 7).

18 See also Spacks 256 and Narushite 129–130.

19 Personal interview (Anonymous 1). 2 November 2020.

In 2020–21 I have taken 20+ interviews with the 1970–80s generation of the Soviet amateurs. To avoid danger for those who are in Russia during the war, I have decided to anonymize all the unpublished interviews.

20 Similar processes have been described in other the countries of the socialist bloc, especially in GDR (Pfautsch 1–17).

21 See Evlamp’ev.

22 One should also mention the practitioners from other republics of the USSR, like the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov (club Vremya, Kharkov), with his projects SotsArt (1975–1986), Red (1968–1975) and The Unfinished Dissertation (1984–85).

23 I am grateful to Catriona Kelly for coining this phrase.

24 In the unedited version of Rybchinskiy Meglinskaya, published in Irina Meglinskaya’s blog: https://meglinskaya.livejournal.com/446767.html.

25 For a discussion of “traumatic silence,” see Caruth 1–9; Ritter 176–194.

26 See research by psychoanalysts and neuroscientists on the trauma and violence (for example, Grattan et al. 1082), and by political sociologists on trauma and ressentiment (Demertzis 111–169).

27 See Sokolov; Bubich. See also https://trs-trs-foto.livejournal.com/529511.html. In my own family such abandoned villages are seen as “mass graves” of our repressed relatives.

28 In 2020–219, I interviewed nine photographers of two generations: those who started shooting in the deadpan manner in mid-2000s and those who are one generation younger. Personal interview (Anonymous 2). 12 March 2021.

29 Personal interview (Anonymous 3). 23 March 2021.

30 Personal interview (Anonymous 4). 15 March.2021.

31 For a discussion of non-sites and boredom in the US context, see David Callahan, “Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s Beverly” in this issue.

32 See, for example, Holovach.

33 Personal interview (Anonymous 5). 25 July 2022.

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References

Electronic reference

Victoria Muskvik, “Boring Photography”: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan PhotographyEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19138; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19138

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About the author

Victoria Muskvik

Victoria Musvik is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where she holds a grant from the Hill Foundation. She is an affiliated researcher at the Laboratory for Studies of Visual Culture and Contemporary Art (European Humanities University, Vilnius). Her doctoral project analyzes contemporary selective amnesia about the collective feelings of perestroika and of the early 1990s, especially of the “positive spectrum.” She has published on fashion history, Renaissance art, and the theory of photography.

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Copyright

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