PETR ANTONOV. TREES, CARS AND FIGURES OF PEOPLE
Petr, have you ever studied photography? Where and when?
Petr Antonov (PA): When I first decided on becoming an amateur photographer and bought myself an autofocus SLR there were not too many places to study photography in Russia, and most of them were schools teaching how to shoot model portfolios or pack shots. Despite both these options were not completely lacking in attraction, I somehow managed to evade either and set off on the winding path of a self-taught photographer. It is pretty obvious (at least to me now), that when you are finding your way about the medium on your own, you are spending a lot more time solving questions that other people solved decades ago. Structured studies and exposure to critical opinion certainly help you fast-forward to the point where you start solving questions specific to yourself, rather than to the medium in general.
Years later, around the time I decided on turning myself into a professional photographer, I was lucky enough to become a student of photojournalism workshops organized by Objective Reality Foundation, which carried online for about two years. There was a variety of courses lead by a number of Russian and international tutors, both photographers and photo editors, who helped me a lot in understand-ing how both editorial and photography in general works. Objective Reality were among early explorers of online learning format, several years before Coursera or iTunes-U made it popular, but unfortunately the workshops do not run any more.
© Petr Antonov from the series ‘A model for a city’
After these workshops I twice went to International Summer School of Photography in Latvia. During my first time I was in the class of Eiko Grimberg, and my second time it was Peter Bialobrzeski’s class. The result was that I pretty much steered away from the more photojournalistic approach that I had had. Speaking of the school itself, I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a workshop. It is a team of really nice people, a very nice location, and it is very much about team spirit and community (in case you enjoy team spirit and community).
What is your main theme in photography? I saw on your website that you shoot a lot of landscapes/cityscapes in Russia. Why is it important, from your point of view, to photograph contemporary Russia?
PA: It would be tempting to say that contemporary Russia is my main theme, but it might rather be my main tool. The visual language of post-Soviet cityscape is the one I know best, so it is natural to use it in my work. I am not sure whether I am making statements about modern Russia using photography (rephrasing John Schott), or making statements about photography using modern Russia. Perhaps it is neither, and I am using photography and contemporary Russia to make statements about the world and my perception of it.
You cannot help but to see the world through your personal experiences, and much of these, the earliest and most powerful ones, come from your surroundings — these are the ones that inform you. Russia is my peep-hole through which I’m seeing the world.
I am not sure whether it is important to photograph contemporary Russia, but it certainly feels quite rewarding. Russia is a rather unexplored subject artistically and photographically. When making my photographs for 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers' I could pretty well be sure that I am the first one to approach this or that subject in the given manner. It was similar to what Lewis Baltz wrote about American landscape of the 1970s — a new world was being born that no one wanted to acknowledge. Back then (but in fact very recently) the idea of making a project with the central idea of showing ‘what everything looks like in Russia’ did not appear a single bit absurd.
© Petr Antonov from the series 'A model for a city’
I think now, five years later, there are a lot more photographic projects focusing on the aesthetics of post-Soviet Russia, than when I was starting this work. Still, making photographic projects in Russia you can allow yourself to work on much broader themes than you probably would in the West, where generations of photographers have been carrying out their explorations, and you need to be very specific so as not to repeat other people’s work.
Let us talk about your book 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers’which was published this year (it has unlimited digital print run and is available for order). That’s a very interesting book and the concept reminds me about the idea of catalog or online photo stock (you use keywords to describe the photos). Did you think about the idea of stock, when you were working on this documentary project?
PA: The relation of word and image is something that started coming through my work at a certain point, perhaps not unrelated to my language studies at the university on the one hand, and my photojournalistic work on the other. This first resulted in a small series titled ‘Keywords’ in which I combined my photographs with the keywords added by the photo agency. Some of the keywords would come totally out of the blue for me and reveal meanings never intended to be in the photograph, or not even present at all.
© Petr Antonov from the series 'Keywords’
In my book 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers’ I took it a step further, writing captions myself and turning them into a plain listing of what I saw in the pictures. When working on the project I was trying to make photographs appear close to being simply lists of what is in them — through composition, shoot-ing style — as if it were photographs of ready-made objects that would otherwise be to too large to be placed in a gallery space.
What also links this to a photo stock is that stock photos most often show archetypal situations, situations impersonal and unspecific enough to be suitable as an illustration to largest possible variety of meanings. In a way I was looking for such unspecific situations, situations that would appear archetypal of post-Soviet space, and could happen anywhere, any time, over and over again.
Why did you publish this book with the unlimited print run? Is it a part of the concept as well? It looks like you didn’t want to create something that is very “author’s” and unique. It seems you rather tried to emphasize the feeling of the “catalogness”, “universality” of it. I would say the project is like a visual dictionary of Russian daily life (especially given the list at the end of the book consisting of objects with references to pages where they are depicted.).
PA: It was my intention to make a book that would be an encapsulation of a certain set of ideas. I wanted to place more focus on these ideas than on the physical object of the book, to have a certain transparency of the medium if you will. Limiting your edition to a certain (voluntary) figure you stress the physicality of your product, so doing the opposite felt like a good way to play it down. Unlike traditional printing, digital allows you to print 10 or 100 books at pretty much the same cost per copy, so a fixed print run really becomes more of a convention than a necessity. I was interested in seeing how an unlimited print run might or might not work, so it is too an exploration of the medium.
What kind of photographers are you inspired by? Could you give us a couple of names. And why?
PA: Recently I’ve taken special pleasure in looking through “Berlin nach 45” by Michael Schmidt, 'Cinque Paesaggi' by Guido Guidi, 'Ruhr' by Joachim Brohm, 'Uncommon Places' by Stephen Shore, 'Apples and Olives' by Lee Friedlander, 'Contacts' by Toshio Shibata, 'Skirts' by Clare Strand.
Each of these photo books shows its own approach to landscape photography (with the exception of 'Skirts') and to balancing the documentary and the aesthetic ('Skirts' included). 'Berlin nach 45' is a brilliant example of how a very tensioned narrative can be built using very limited means. The same goes for 'Skirts' by Clare Strand, with the addition of a strange feeling of an unidentified menace felt throughout the book, and the very seductive black and white printing delivered by GOST Publishers. 'Apples and Olives' shares this simplicity of the subject and the incredible finesse of the execution — a seven year documentation of apple and olive trees in the Old and the New Worlds. Toshio Shibata’s 'Contacts' is balancing on the verge of being a formal exercise but never seems to cross that line. 'Cinque Paesaggi' are too photographs of man-altered landscape, but filled with incredible lyricism. There is no need to describe the virtues of 'Uncommon Places', and I will not do that for Joachim Brohm’s 'Ruhr' either. There have also been 'The Americans' by Robert Frank, the two Paul Strand monograph books that I have, a recent retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work at Jeu de Paume in Paris, early documentary photographers, such as Charles Marville, Roger Fenton or Alexander Gardner.
I would like to mention some Russian contemporary photographers here too, and among them Anastasia Tsayder, Elena Chernyak, Liudmila Zinchenko, Sergei Novikov, Alexander Gronsky, Valeri Nistratov, Max Sher, Igor Starkov. Most of them are my good friends so I feel lucky.
© Petr Antonov from the series 'A model for a city’
It seems to me that there is a generation of post-soviet photographers such as Max Sher and Alexander Gronsky, who explore Russian landscapes, cityscapes and transformations in a quite resemblant way, likely influenced by Dusseldorf School of Photography, Andreas Gursky, Peter Bialobrezki, etc. Do you think you have something in common with the Russian colleagues?
PA: Let me start with a partial dismissal of the Dusseldorf School thesis. It is not that I do not feel influenced by the Dusseldorf school, it is that it directly or indirectly influenced the whole spectrum of what there is in contemporary photography. The goals and methods of these artists seem to vary as much as the medium of photography can possibly allow. Some artists like Andreas Gursky or Thomas Ruff may use photography as one of their tools in constructing the image, or may do away with it altogether as with Thomas Ruff’s computer generated ‘photograms’. Others, like Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, or Bernd and Hill Becher are nearly as documentary or photographical in their work as it gets.
It recently occurred to me that this interest in photographic exploration of post-Soviet built environment coincided with the general emergence of interest in urban studies in Russia. If we are after historical parallels here, Robert Venturi’s book 'Learning from Las Vegas' was published just a couple of years before the “New Topographics” exhibition. When a new interest arises it manifests itself throughout the culture.
Do you consider yourself a documentary or art photographer? Do you use any kind of post-production, retouching in your pictures?
PA: I am interested in what is called documentary photography. The ability to document is the inherent quality of photography, so ridding myself of this aspect feels counter-logical. I do not however think that there really exists the opposition of documentary and art photography. To me documentary is rather an approach spanning all over the many uses that we may find for photography, be that photojournalism or art.
I limit my post-production to making the photograph look close to what I think the scene looked like to me when I made the photograph, mostly in terms of colour and contrast. I am not much interested in what I can add to the image (as I more or less know it), rather it is what may happen without my involvement that I feel is worth exploring.
Let us talk about your residence in Latvia this year. What kind of project did you work on? What did your learn from this experience (positive and negative sides)?
PA: I titled my project 'Artist in residence', and it was one of the cases when you know the title since the very start and work off it. I had long had the idea of making a project dealing with the phenomenon of artistic residence, making artistic work on commission, the institutionalization of art in general. We often think of making art as of something resulting from an inspiration, so I liked the idea of producing art in a way more associated with the manufacturing of goods, working off a schedule and measuring the result quantitively. The result was 32 square meters of art.
Other than that I felt (and was) quite free in what I was doing, the only guideline from the inviting institution being the name of the residency 'Poetry Map of Riga', so I was trying to make something related to poetry, mapping, and of course Riga. I decided it would also deal with how we make a place into a familiar one, and construct our mental maps and images of the world, and how in fact all is related in our perception of time-space. I started with re-photographing every object in the apartment where I lived and worked, which was another thing I had long wanted to do. As I was progressing with this first step of my exploration, I started making purposeless strolls around my nearest surroundings and photographing this area in a predetermined manner. In my last week I switched to a medium format film camera and shot a series of pictures of Riga in the style that I had used when working in Moscow. I was also photographing everything I was buying in the nearby shopping mall, the food I was cooking, the changes occurring to places and objects over time, how they entered my life and then left it, I made one video, and wrote three short poems loosely related to my photographic subjects.
© Petr Antonov from the residency “Poetry Map of Riga”, Latvia, 2014
It was certainly interesting to see how it would feel to work outside of Russia, and I found it different. When I’m photographing in Russia it is much to do with photographing what constitutes my mental image of the world, a process which helps me both explore and enrich it. In Latvia I often did not have this mental image to start off, so it was much about gradually building one.
© Petr Antonov, Art residency “Poetry Map of Riga”, Latvia, 2014
The visual language of Latvian landscape, though in some ways similar, is still different and not so well known to me as that of Russian landscape. The landscape itself appears more organized as opposed to Russian landscape. Working in Russia you get used to this chaotic energy that only takes channeling to make it into art. It is a bit like oil that is often thought to be the backbone of Russian economy. You do not physically make it, you find the right place, the right tool, you extract it, refine it, and sell it.
I know that 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers' is not your first publication in the book form. Your book ’Za garazhami' (literally: “behind car-shelters”) was published two years ago. In the text of the book you refer to the idea of non-places. I am aware that the idea of “non-place” belongs to the French anthropologist Marc Auge. But how is it connected with the idea of “za garazhami” - “the area of 80 x 80 meters located in between residential blocks”, which is a natural cityscape for Russians (it is a part of our visual post-soviet culture), but could be very odd for a foreigner?
PA: To start with, ‘non-place’ is very a nice sounding contemporary-speak buzzword. It’s a place, and it’s not one. But apart from that this fragment of Russian cityscape that I am observing is a very typical cross between Soviet city planning and post-Soviet vernacular. I think that in some ways the Soviet Union was a precursor of the globalized world that we live in today, the world that makes possible the existence of 'non-places’ of Marc Auge. So it could have had all that was necessary to produce settings that would approach Marc Auge’s portrayal of a 'non-place’, devoid of personality, half-planned and never complete.
Any communication permits multiple layers of understanding, so photography cannot really be expected to act as a true universal language (with the exception of the Grumpy Cat). This is a question I ask myself: how much is getting lost in translation when my images are viewed by someone unfamiliar with the visual language of a post-Soviet residential neighborhood? Can one become familiar with a 80 x 80 meters plot of land through seeing 2 ½ years worth of photographs populated with different cars and people, and made in different seasons?
Are you more interested in people or places? In your projects it seems like people mostly play the role of “staffage”, you look at the scenes from above and are not interested in details of their daily life or in psychology. Why is the idea of place exploration so appealing to you?
PA: I think I am interested in people and places, places built by people, and people inhabiting places. What looks like “staffage” are actually details of daily life, except they might be too tiny to discern. Some of these scenes catch my eye when I am photographing, but normally there is a lot more information in the frame than you can physically absorb as a moving three dimensional stream. So it is quite interesting to study afterwards what it actually was that you photographed. Even if there is no people in the picture, I am interested in traces that people left in it. The psychology is in how people act in these settings, and how they built these settings in the first place. We explore what we do not know or do not fully understand, and that is perhaps what makes me explore places.
At what moment do you press the button of your camera? Are you always waiting the people to be arranged in a “special pattern” on the surface, I mean, that everyone is situated in the right place?
PA: I think it is down to what I expect to achieve. In my series 'Za garazhami' I was trying to make images that would look un-photographic and un-composed, so I would press the button at a chosen moment that would appear equal in visual importance to any other moment. 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers' was a lot more about finding a structure in the seemingly chaotic, ‘the order we cannot see’, so I tried to make more balanced compositions, and was perhaps looking for “special patterns”. I think often you will be doing it in an instinctive and not fully conscious way, balancing your composition like you would be keeping your balance on a slippery surface. In my current project I press the button when there is least wind shaking the camera, and no bird flying through the frame.
© Petr Antonov from the series 'Za garazhami’
Tell us about your current photographic research. I know that you are working on the project “Ruins”, which has not been published yet. Could you tell us about the concept? How did you get the idea of the project?
PA: 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers' was an exercise in being un-selective in the choice of subject, and exploring the aestheticizing of what is commonly thought to be unsightly. “Ruins” on the contrary deal with subjects expected to be picturesque, and are very selective. If “Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers” was my answer to the selectivity that I saw in the documentary photography of the time, as well as everyone’s obsession with desolate unpopulated spaces, 'Ruins' is an answer to my own obsession with populated spaces in 'Trees, cars, figures of people, assorted barriers'.
A few years before I began working on this project I had started thinking of these ruined churches which were so common in Russian landscape, and it had really surprised me that no one had approached the subject artistically. These thousands of abandoned churches scattered in the Russian landscape tell us so much about who we are. Around the same time I received a magazine commission to photograph ruined pre-revolutionary manor houses near Moscow. Photographing them I started thinking of these buildings as of remnants of Russian Antiquity, a term I coined then, something not so distant in time, one hundred years back, but perceived as totally unrelated to the country of today and its people. Their neoclassical architecture only added to this feeling of visiting ancient ruins.
The subject is very loaded both visually and emotionally, and is very layered. There is the architectural layer with different regions having different dominant architectural styles; the cultural layer — most of these churches were built in the 19th century, the century of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky — of what we perceive as the Great Russian Culture; the historical layer with these buildings being so much tied to Russia’s twentieth century history, with how we fail to associate ourselves either with those who built these churches, or with those who destroyed them; the socio-geographical layer with churches standing in the middle of no-where with no human settlement in sight due to migration and rural depopulation in the 20th century; the spiritual layer with signs of grassroots religiousness seen in people decorating the interiors with paper flowers, printed icons, burial crosses. It also acts as a mix of intimate tourism and pilgrimage for me, something we look for going to places like Giza or Athens or St. Peter’s Basilica, only to find ourselves in a crowd of fellow tourists.
© Petr Antonov from the series 'Ruins’
I think it was a timely start, if not a slightly late one. Somehow after the collapse of the Soviet Union these buildings seem to have started to deteriorate at a faster pace. At the same time those buildings, which are not losing it to time and ele-ments, get rebuilt in a functional manner and using modern materials and most of the sense of history embedded in them is lost. So I might be photographing an era — the era of the landscape with a ruin — that will soon be gone. In modern Russia you have to be quick as time rushes like a clock that has lost its pendulum.