Boris Savelev’s obscure Russia


Boris Savelev, Speaking Lady, 1988

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.


Boris Savelev, Pigeon, Chernowitz, 1988

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.


Boris Savelev, Bus Driver, Chernowitz, 1987

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.


Boris Savelev, Cakes, Moscow, 1987

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.


Boris Savelev, Sun Basket, Chernowitz, 2011

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.

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3 thoughts on “Boris Savelev’s obscure Russia

  1. …i just loved most your descriptions Marco – some of the pictures anyone could have taken anywhere – but – with the great help of your witty guidance the reader learns to stretch his eye into smallest and seemingly uninteresting details and all of that ” macht den doppelten AHA, aha Effekt”….

    …einfach toll und feuilletonreif !

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