Publisher: British Journal of Photography
BJP: You started out as a philosopher, how did you get into photography?
SC: I started photography aged 12. I asked my friend who had already mastered processing what I should photograph.
“You should do photo-art,” he replied.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s when you photograph trees.”
So we skied to the pine forest we could see from our houses, and dedicated my first photographs to art photography.
In 1969 an experienced amateur photographer who had contacts with Moscow and Leningrad photo-clubs moved to our town from Kazakhstan. He set up a photo club and I was made chief of the school division. When I was in the ninth and tenth grades I had a photo-lab at school and had to provide the whole school with photos. It was a very convenient way to skip lessons! I continued photographing in my spare time at university and in the army.
Reading theoretical literature led me to a complete rejection of what was written there about “art” and in response I developed my own theories. With my professors’ permission I spent time in my senior years explaining it to my fellow students – they enjoyed it as they did not have to discuss the blurry subject of different “aesthetic ideals”. Postgraduate studies on the subject of “Marxist-Leninist theory of self expression” followed.
In 1976 three of us separated from the city photo-club to create a group named Fact, with the intention of breaking from their standard and making “art photography”. A lot of effort and philosophical thinking went into forging an individual photographic style in the face of the dominating, collective instinct of Soviet ideology. Our philosophy did not tell us “what to do”, but it forbade us to react to mass art impulses in ourselves. The shots happened, and from 1978 we began to export our three-headed collection over the USSR.
BJP: How closely is your photography related to the philosophical ideas you were looking at?
SC: Photography is a pictorial play and philosophy an intellectual one. The more self-sufficient each of them is, the more fully they will be expressed – purity of genre if you wish. Each sustains its own mechanism, and I found that neither could be joined to the other. I could attempt to explain how I understand each of them but I’m afraid I’d have to separate them completely and that they’d contradict each other.
BJP: Why did you start taking nude photographs?
SC: You do not want to play the accordion but you want to photograph; you want semolina but you do not want pudding. No one has yet explained this impulse. In Russian there is a particular word for this which means an outburst, existence or inner strength. It is the same with nudes. This is it! They are independent from the art. Despite the ubiquity of the nude, it does not stop being the norm of another dimension. As in purgatory, in front of the God every artistic fraud is seen in this state, and you want to look deeper.
I dare to say there are no nudes in my photographs. Though I have travelled the vast territory of USSR, though I have photographed for 30 years, I have never and nowhere seen “nudes”, except once in Crimea at a nudist beach. All the rest has been framed by me: I have removed the clothes of my subjects with my own trembling hands and photographed the bare result – but bare in such a special degree.
BJP: Is your work a comment on Russia and Russian politics?
SC: I have never thought about politics, nor have I thought specifically about Russia. There are so many tiny screws in the inner mechanics of an artistic work – God grant I grasp them. In my work there are instances of Homeric laughter, tragic tears and tears of tenderness. But I harbour no bitterness towards those who find ideological motives.
BJP: I’ve heard it said that sex is revolutionary, because it can inspire people to break the rules. Does that reading apply to your images?
SC: It seems we are speaking about love here. Our villagers try to love each other deeply and in my opinion this cannot be transfused into a photograph. But what is clear for me is that every photograph should be based on the deepest feeling.
BJP: Who are the models in your images? How do you work with them?
SC: I call the method I use “total”, meaning I photograph everything that moves. I try to use techniques beginning from spontaneous, almost uncontrollable, shooting to the most subtle composition, which forms over many hours. All these variants convey a different condition and I consider that when they overlap they are at their most effective. At that point, a multiplicity of artists exists as unexpected reactions, reality and artificiality are evoked and created. Subjects act as they wish but the stage is contrived. From hundreds of my subjects no one has managed to bring something from their own self into my composition – except Samara in 1994.
BJP: How do you think your photography has evolved over the years?
SC: I work on one and the same picture all the time. Maybe some people consider it boring, but it happens consciously. Self-restraint allows me to concentrate on the smallest nuances, on re-exploring the already explored. Speaking from the technical side, I rarely change materials – a little bit of the hardware perhaps – but I try to achieve the same result. My technique does not escape scandal. Recently I scolded myself in front of my friends-critics for brazenly repeating one of my previous compositions for the first time in three decades. They consoled me; I calmed down.
BJP: Many of your images include blurred figures, what do they represent to you?
SC: Do you really think that people from other worlds do not visit me?