Vicki Goldberg: Contemporary Ukrainian Photography

Vicki Goldberg considers the work of Ukrainian collective Shilo-Group.

In 2013, writer Vicki Goldberg traveled to Russia and Ukraine, where she examined postwar and contemporary visual imagery that illuminates life under and after communism. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we publish Goldberg’s three-part diary, which looks to photography from the Soviet era and today. In part two, Goldberg considers the work of Ukrainian photography collective Shilo-Group.

Part 2: History in Contemporary Ukranian Photography

Like human beings, contemporary art most often retains hints of its heritage whether it means to or not, sometimes even by maneuvering to disown it, which is one form of acknowledgement. In any case, it cannot help being part of the time it is embedded in.  Past and present have met head on in the work of the Shilo-Group, gounded in 2010 by three young men from Kharkiv in Ukraine: Vladyslav Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy, and Vadym Trykoz. Having nothing on display in galleries or museums when I was there, they showed me several bodies of work, including a dummy of a book they hoped to publish. (Since then, Krasnoshchok and Lebedynskyy’s Euromaidan has been shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards.) In November of 2013, the group had a show in Moscow. As a group they are unusual: all self taught photographers, they live in three different countries and only photograph together several times a year, and all three have different professions: Krasnoshchok is a maxillofacial surgeon in Kharkiv, Lebednyskyy is finishing a PhD in particle technology in Germany, and Trykoz is an adhesive engineer in Austria. (I was told that this kind of cross-country art collaboration is relatively common in Eastern Europe, most commonly when people who are citizens of different nations work together) The Shilo-Group shares ideas about photography and, evidently, attitudes to the contemporary life around them. Their individual styles all bear a strong family resemblance to each other.

They have previously written that they joined forces when they “felt stuck in a big swamp of played out and constrained local photography environment.” In Kharkiv independent photography began tentatively in the early 1970s, when the first unofficial photo clubs began meeting informally and irregularly. Today the best known of those photographers is Boris Mikhailov, who has continued to photograph a social documentary of life after communism fell, often seeing it at its worst, as in his unblinking pictures of the homeless. In the mid 1980s he made Unfinished Dissertation, a book of his own images glued onto the back of his uncle’s lecture notes, with short handwritten texts on most pages. The Shilo-Group’s book project is called Finished Dissertation: they cut Mikhailov’s pictures out of a published copy of his book, replaced them with their own, and also erased and replaced his texts. This could be seen as appropriation disguised as obliteration, but it is appropriation at a basic structural level: Barbara Kruger’s catalog illustrations have been removed from catalogs and Richard Prince’s Marlborough men from ads, but no matter how transmuted Finished Dissertation is, it remains a book, in fact, still the original book­ which was itself appropriated from another man’s notes.

The defaced and refaced use of an earlier book is a logical expansion of appropriation. London-based photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin bought 100 copies of the 1998 edition of Berthold Brecht’s War Primer, first published in 1955, and in 2011 issued War Primer 2, their profoundly revised version. Brecht’s book reprinted black-and-white mass-media photographs of World War II; Broomberg and Chanarin superimposed media photographs of the “War on Terror,” in color, over the earlier images. (Their book, which in a new edition won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize this year, was shown in the New Photography show at MoMA in New York last year.) War Primer 2 not only comments on the earlier publication but also on earlier photojournalism and war photography itself as well as the means of its dissemination. War photography is as continuous as war itself but as variable as circumstances, technologies, and the changing media, a family lineage that is inevitably reshaped by new generations.

The Shilo-Group calls its book a diary of “the creative life of the emergent photographic generation” and of friends and colleagues as well as both a prank and a serious work: “‘Finished Dissertation’ is a play in impudence,” they said. It’s a kind of furtive social documentary at a distance, observed through sunglasses at night and tinged with apprehension and a sense of dislocation that lingers from long after 1989, when so much fell apart and so many left Ukraine. A prank it may be, but one couched in a contemporary idiom that is at once faintly plaintive, quietly melancholy even when it laughs, and consistently, raggedly, expressive. As of today, of course, the constant stream of photographs from Ukraine might make one nostalgic for mere dislocation.

The Shilo-Group’s revisions of Mikhailov could hardly be a more direct reference to their local photographic history, and in their own way the members of the group are as intent on telling the story of their period and place as their Ukrainian forebear. But like inheritors mindful of their family’s success yet determined to make their own mark, they have changed both the approach and the ambience. Their images are black and white, gritty, dark with sudden flares of light, sometimes purposefully outrageous, other times simply off kilter. Their street photography is determinedly half legible, the people anonymous, the streets more atmospheric than descriptive, the message hovering on the edge of ambiguity. They develop by lith printing, a process that invites accidents and unpredictability and is, therefore, not reproducible. No two prints are exactly the same, and the group uses Soviet-era paper, which is hard to find and, inevitably, altered by time.

In the Shilo-Group’s kit bag there are also some painted-over and written-over color photographs and a pointed political fantasy called “Timoshenko’s escape or the first step to the exhibition on Mars.” The escape rewrites the fate of Yuliya Tymoschenko, the imprisoned former prime minister of Ukraine, who was released during this year’s revolution. In this narrative, where a mostly naked woman takes the role of Tymoschenko, she escapes and finds Kharkiv, an old industrial city free of excessive charm, so beautiful she decides to stay. That’s current history seen through Alice’s looking glass – or perhaps a grim fairy tale: as of this writing, Tymoschenko is free, has run for election once more, and lost.

Vicki Goldberg is a writer on photography and author of the Aperture book Light Matters.