Archive for January, 2012
It is perhaps Boris Savelev’s first career as a scientist that makes his photographs look as if they don’t immediately fit into a history of representation. Born in Russia in 1947, Savelev chooses subjects which initially appear to be scattered, even accidental: the faint silhouette of a man riding on a street car, an elderly woman in a telephone box, the empty interior of a grubby looking garage. Drawn from a personal archive of negatives that spans a quarter of a century, Savelev’s photographs recently on display at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London focus on observations he made in Chernowitz, his city of birth, and Moscow; while more recently he also photographed cities in Western Europe.
Many of Savelev’s photographs include graffiti, scratched surfaces, crumbling walls, torn down posters and other markers of urban decay. Despite his apparently iconoclastic approach to image-making, the umbrella term ‘street photography’ might best describe the genre that Savelev is working in. Within the messiness and business of the street, Savelev’s photographs also allude to an overarching order. Most of the photographs on display are dark, subdued or even, in the true sense of the word, obscure.
It takes a while to actually discover that one of Savelev’s main subject matters are shadows. The long and straight shadows created by a burst of sunshine on an otherwise dark and moody day create a prominent pattern throughout the exhibition. The exhibition title, ‘Colour Constructions’, cleverly hints to constructivism as an aesthetic paradigm in Savelev’s work. Despite small bursts of colour, as a whole the photographs on display are surprisingly monochromatic. Using a rare and complex method of printing on to aluminum (multi-layered pigment prints on gesso coated aluminum), the large photographs turn quotidian objects into monuments.
Amongst the predominantly dark photographs, Savelev also displays a penchant for humour. As a reference to the scarcity of food during the Soviet era, Savelev photographed a rather pathetic looking display of cakes in the window of a bakery. The cakes are so small and few in the otherwise empty window that they are barely noticeable near the edge of the photograph. The title of the photograph ‘Cakes’, Moscow 1987 better describes the very absence of items one might expect to find at a bakery. As such, the photograph represents a particularly dry type of humour, perhaps enjoyed by Russians of an older generation who witnessed the slow and steady demise of their country towards the end of the Cold War.
Metaphors also seem to be a dominant trope in Savelev’s photographs. In ‘Sun Basket’, Chernowitz 2011, Savelev photographed a basketball hoop drenched in sunshine while the back- and foreground of the photograph characteristically remain in the shadow. The vibrant red of the basketball hoop, and the circular shape of the metal ring of the net are strongly reminiscent of the outline of the sickle on the flag of the former USSR. The height of the basketball hoop (an object usually associated with American culture) and the bright red colour clearly evoke the old flag as symbol for communism. The photograph, and perhaps Savelev’s body of work as a whole, is a comment on the schizophrenic political system in contemporary Russia: despite the wholehearted embrace of capitalism by the oligarchy, the country is still haunted by its troubled transition from two conflicting ideologies.
This post is part of a new series of exhibition reviews I write for the photomonitor.co.uk.
Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have turned my attention to the so-called photo op on a number of occasions. For instance, in my post ‘A Photo Op Gone Awry’, I wrote about the amazing moment caught on news cameras when a doctor angrily kicked the British Prime Minister David Cameron off his ward for failing to follow hospital procedures. While the photo op can be a potential disaster, it can, on the other hand, also be a golden opportunity for politicians wanting to improve their public image. Barack Obama famously bent over to allow a little boy to touch his hair as analyzed in my post ‘The President’s Haircut’. Unpredictable behaviour from children or ranting doctors – they are the unforeseen variables that can turn a photo op into a success or an utter failure.
Yet it is also the politicians themselves who can dramatically impact the potential success or failure of a photo op. Let me turn my attention to a more recent photo op to illustrate my point. In advance of an important speech on the economy, the leader of the opposition in Great Britain, Ed Miliband, visited the Bethnal Green Academy in East London on 10 January. Sitting at a table with young pupils, the majority of whom are from an ethnic minority, Miliband sought to portray himself as a careful and empathetic listener, in tune with the desires and anxieties of a younger generation.
Miliband’s position at the table is crucial. Sitting next to two black girls Miliband’s advisors wish to emphasize three important agendas: the Labour party supports young people, young people from ethnic minorities, and especially, young women from ethnic minorities. Miliband’s empathy with this marginalized future group of voters (one that might decide who becomes the next Prime Minister in 2015) is also explored on a visual level. Miliband’s attire is somewhat mirroring that of the pupils next to him, while his tie closely resembles the main colour of the school library in the background and the pamphlets on the table. This mirroring effect can also seen in the image as a whole as the left side of the image closely resembles the right side of the image with Miliband representing the central axis point.
While the girl on the right hand side of the image appears to listen intently to someone in the background, the girl on the left looks straight into the camera. Her facial expression and the slightest hint of a smile give the impression that she is aware of her own image, and possibly, that she also knows why she is placed next to the leader of the opposition. She exudes the type of awareness that is normally associated with image savvy celebrities.
In contrast to the girl’s self-awareness, Miliband appears spaced out as he neither seems to listen intently nor look at the camera. His eyes, wide open and not focusing on anything in particular, make Miliband look as if he is a pupil himself, lost in his own thoughts and struggling to hang on for attention. If this was a real classroom situation, one might imagine the teacher asking Miliband: ‘Ed, are you with us?’. The tragedy of the photo op is that Miliband looks like a child, even less mature and aware of his surroundings then the very children around him.
A small detail in the photograph that debunks this narrative is the cup of tea in front of Miliband. In spite of empathetically sitting next to young students, the cup of tea makes Miliband look undeservedly privileged. One British newspapers exploited this detail when it wrote in the caption of the photograph: ‘Not your cup of tea? Ed Miliband meets pupils at Bethnal Green Academy, in east London, ahead of a speech on the economy.’ (Metro) From an image campaigners point of view, what was likely a carefully planned photo op, turned into a complete disaster. Emerging dazed from the Bethnal Green Academy, Miliband would give a speech that was supposed to convince the British people of his economic prowess.
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