Mikhail Dashevsky. 1935-2021
I, Mikhail Aaronovitch Dashevsky, was born in Moscow in 1935. One and a half years later, in 1937, my father was arrested, and my mother and I found ourselves alone. Then came the war, the evacuation, and my return to Moscow, where I would finish school with a gold medal. My father, having survived the camps, did not make it to rehabilitation, and died in exile in 1953. Around that time also came my first real flick on the nose, gentle as it may have been. All of the following is directly related to my personal background. The year was an early post-Stalin 1953. The Leader died in March (I even contrived to see him coffined in the House of the Unions) and Beria was executed in December. Jews were generally not admitted to major technical universities, and having a father in exile did not exactly seal the deal, either. So I settled upon mechanical optics at MIIGAIK, the Institute of Geodesics and Cartography. After the interview there was a hearing attended by all the deans as well as the Principal, where I was told the following: “Mikhail Aaronovitch, choose any other faculty. Why on earth did you apply for mechanical optics? Sure, we can teach you, but you won’t set foot in a single military factory, even for an internship. And this here in your application—‘Father repressed, unjustly.’ Come, now. Choose another faculty.” I had actually written that in my application. And I was grateful for that chat, because everything had been so clearly laid out for me. So I said fine, sign me up for aerophotogeodesics. (Only later I discovered this was an even more classified field as it dealt with maps!) I was a first-class marksman, and a DOSAAF (Soviet paramilitary volunteer organization.—editor’s note) buddy of mine said “Misha, say no more. We need marksmen for the team.” So all my good grades didn’t count for zilch. I was a good shot and that’s how I got the place. When I came home and told my aunts (on my father’s side), however, their response was adamant: “Misha, are you mad? On a plane… they crash, don’t they? Out of the question. Now, off you go to MISI (University of Civil Engineering.—editor’s note) like you wanted to!” I was accepted into MISI to study hydraulic engineering. Having graduated with distinction, I was able to secure a place at the Stalingrad Hydro Power Plant, and later transferred to the facility in Bratsk, a prime tourist destination. It was there that I met Pasha Komarov, a MISIan like me who, also like me, dabbled in photography. He showed me this shot of a birch made from the base looking directly upwards, and it was absolutely beautiful. I saw a similar work by Rodchenko years later, but Pasha couldn’t possibly have known about Rodchenko, as there were no albums at the time. That piece really struck something within me. Then, in the winter of 1960, Pasha was murdered, and in July I took a leave to Moscow. Later, a twist of fate would have me come back to stay. It happened like this: I was promised a promotion to chief engineer, a real dream come true. Exuberant, I took another vacation to Moscow, where I received a surprise phone call from Prof. Boris Korenev, my old university lecturer and head of the dynamics laboratory at TsNIIPS (Institute of Industrial Construction Materials—editor’s note): “Mikhail Aaronovitch, are you in Moscow?” “Yes, just flying by.” “Tell you what—I have an opening for you as Junior Research Assistant.” Well, this was something else entirely! Research Institutes were strictly off limits to any and all Jews and the position was beyond even my wildest dreams. So I became a researcher. In 1968 I defended my candidate thesis, receiving my DSc degree in 1991. I continued to tour the country, only this time on business and camping trips, sorting cabbages in musky warehouses. After a time I found my Vera (Vera Druzhinina), we got married and had two daughters. The fall of Communism was a breath of fresh air, a gulp of freedom especially tangible in photography. Today I hold a doctorate in engineering, and work in civil vibration protection. And that is how my life and views came about, a mix of rebellion and technology, if you will, one that has proven quite expedient in my practice of “people photography.”
I picked up photography around seventh grade when my parents bought me a Komsomolets camera. My first shots were of nothing more than random stuff, and I would develop the film in tanks. Then I purchased a FED-2 and moved on to my fellow students, production snaps, nothing psychological. It was only later while working at the Research Institute that I began producing coherent stories. And it was later still, after I had defended my thesis, that Kolya Scherbak, a colleague of mine, said to me: “Dashevsky, you should come along to the Innovator photo club. It’s great. I go there and I’m sure you’ll love it.” So I came along, and boy did I love it. You had the masters, many of them my age, just sitting there engaged in discourse, all so refined and cultured. I knew I was here to stay. So, 1969 marked the beginning of my photographical biography at the Innovator photo club. It was then and there that I really formed a sense of photography as an art form, thanks to the informal discussions hosted by Alexander Khlebnikov and Georgy Soshalsky, the two professional photographers and old-school intellectuals heading the club at the time. Uncompromising in their principles, they would work at us like a pair of Geppettos: no lying, only honest shots, strive for compositional perfection, love the visual arts, frequent museums. They were survivors from a different epoch, shamelessly nonpartisan despite having gone through the war and all that stuff. They would work at an agricultural exhibition and shoot a perfume bottle for an advert, a bread loaf, a bottle of milk with a glass, and the like. Their photos would always be no less than illusory perfection. But they never caved in to the system, never traded in their honest photography for subservient propaganda. And under their fold came we, techies with no background in the humanities. Not a good thing, on the one hand. But then again, we hadn’t had Marxism-Leninism forced down our throats ad nauseam, which left us free to learn the life of honest photography from our mentors. We had photographers like Pavel Ivchenko and Alexey Vasilyev, who were also fantastic printers. Vasilyev could achieve this insane quality of print, and he would only make prints 50x60cm (he still does, in fact). My own shots, however, all seem to lack optimism—and with it, a chance of being published. Up until 1985, only one photograph of mine ever saw the light of press—Fisherman’s Daughter (see photo no. 383 on page 109 Vol. III—editor’s note), published in Sovetskoe Foto magazine in a piece on our club exhibition of 1972. But then one time, I received this foreign album as a birthday present. It was compiled by the German Karl Pawek, similarly to Steichen’s The Family of Man. Yet Pawek is German, he has a harsher view, different to Steichen’s. In the album I find this amazing shot, along with a name I had naturally heard nothing about—William Klein. It was made in the USSR, at a union meeting at the Academy of Sciences. It depicts the union presidium members seated at a table covered by a plush velvet cloth. What a load of mugs… To the one side is a woman reminiscent of Nadezhda Krupskaya, busy keeping the minutes. Some geezer behind a pulpit speaks into the microphone, mouth open wide. In the background is a bumpy, worn out portrait of Vladimir Lenin, lighted from the side. It has clearly seen a lot of use. I took one look at the picture and thought: “God, what an ass I am! I see all this several times a year, how come some Klein person can just come to Moscow and take the shot, while I miss it? Why can’t I do the same?” Then I come across two more of his works: one is of a bustling crowd, there’s a woman with this terrible look in her eyes and some guy in a grey cap (1961); the other is at the departure hall at Kiyevsky railway station, some man with two hats on, an old woman with an empty stare, and a blurred figure (1959). How did Klein see all this? After all, he wasn’t some Anti-Soviet agent guided by ulterior motives, all he did was visually react to stark human contrasts! The people in his pictures had been “unseamed” by him, their essences laid bare. Astounding! That encounter really made me sit up. Even the great Bresson wouldn’t impress me as much, and his photographs from the Soviet Union, save for three or four maybe, had best be left undisturbed in my memory. So, I went on taking pictures, but they were all not for publication—“for the drawer”, if you like.
In 1994, thanks to the efforts of fellow Innovatorian Mikhail Golosovsky, I had my first Russian exhibition in Krasnogorsk, titled The Sunken Time. It was reviewed in Fotografiya magazine by a truly “big” Russian author, Alexander Borshchagovsky. The article was titled Unsweetened and I have sailed in the world of photography under the “unsweetened” banner ever since, guided by the fairway of that piece.
In 1980, influenced by Vygotsky (his Psychology of Art had recently been republished following a decade of total blackout) and being a dexterous techie-turned-photography-student (taking evening photojournalism classes at domjour), I decided to do my course paper and scribble up an oh-so-verrry audacious piece, titled Photography as Art. This I took to Sovetskoe Foto magazine, no less, where Innovatorians had an ally in the editor of the amateur photography section Fomin. Naturally, we smoothed out the harsher bits, squeezed in a formal bash to Freud and “their order”, and off it went to the editorial board for approval, where the poor thing was promptly cut down by one comrade Oganov, Central Committee instructor, amateur art historian, editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda, and caricaturist, to top it off. The cause for rejection, which Fomin showed me in secret, read: “dismiss as propagation of lechery, sexual profligacy, and violence.” All that for mentioning catharsis. A pity we denounced Freud in the article: he was right about Oganov, that’s for sure! Those were the olden days, though, the piece being finally published in Sibirskoe Foto magazine in 2002, and it would be my pleasure to now cite an extract from it.
Currently, five books by Mikhail Dashevsky have been released: “Through the Eyes of the Old House,” “Sunken Time,” “Ordinary” and “Moscow Palimpsest,” “Native Retro. 1962-2002. Photo Saga.”
His photographs were shown in Moscow in the Museum of Architecture, Lumiere Brothers Gallery, exhibitions of the Novator photo club in the Belyaevo village, House of Photography, Gallery of Classic Photography, in St. Petersburg in the exhibition hall of the Faculty of Journalism of St. Petersburg State University, in the ROSPHOTO Museum "And in the Museum of Nonconformism (Pushkinskaya, 10) and in the Museum of Anna Akhmatova, in Yekaterinburg in the “House of Metenkov,” in Krasnodar as part of the International PhotoVisa Festival of Photography, in the art gallery in Velsk (Arkhangelsk Region), at the photographic festival" Photo Parade "In the city of Uglich. Abroad, Mikhail Dashevsky's exhibitions were held in Japan (gallery of the Tokyo Polytechnic University), in Lithuania (Fuji gallery in Kaunas), in Poland (in the castle of Poznan), in the Czech Republic (Prague gallery “Zagradnik”). As part of the Contemporary Russian Photography project, several works were shown in the official program of the FotoFest International Biennale in Houston (Texas, USA).