Mikhail Dashevsky, 2018
Documentary Impressionism as a Photographic Approach to the Psychology of Life

What eventually delights us in art is the precisely captured,

genuine, in other words, striking likeness of real life, both psychological and objective.

Thomas Mann to Henry Hatfield. Letters. 1951


The issue of identifying photography’s place among the arts has long since troubled the aesthetician as well as the photo critic, appraiser of both art photography and us, its humble aficionados. “What are we, anyway? That is the question.” Or something along those lines. Nonetheless, there exist unifying criteria that may be applied to distinguish any work of art from the myriad other products of human activity. Of note here is the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work in the 1930s proved seminal to determining and classifying such qualities. By postulating his theory of art as catharsis, he was able to transcend the one-sidedness of explanations focusing on art either as a special approach to perceiving reality, or as a set of techniques, or as an appeal to the subconscious. His notion of catharsis as the core aesthetic reaction produced through the creation or contemplation of a work of art unified the positive aspects of the mentioned theories.
According to Vygotsky, the essence of an aesthetic reaction lies in the collision occurring between subconscious emotions induced by the artwork’s content (for the creator these are induced by reality) and those emotions induced by its form. Such a collision precipitates an outburst of nervous energy, enlightenment, or, as the Greeks called it, catharsis. Thus, attitude formation, a sort of delayed reaction, results from the catharsis, i.e. an emotional and nervous discharge followed by enlightenment. This process is what engenders true art, as opposed to cheap excuses for such, and an attitude informing future behavior of the creator and the viewer.
As a method of visually recording factual events on photosensitive surfaces using light, photography is so diverse in its purposes and applications that to pose the question “Is photography art?” would be ill-phrased: “At what point does photography become art?” is to me a far more appropriate formulation. So how does the object of our scrutiny—the photographic image—come into existence? Well, three stages are generally discerned: first, the actual taking of the shot, the fixation of a certain moment in timespace; second, the darkroom work, where the initial result is considered, selected, and, to an extent, altered. There is also a third stage: the image as perceived by the author or viewer, that is, the fixed psychological result. It follows from this that in the photograph-as-art these three stages of aesthetic appreciation must adhere to the objective standards of art in general, that is, involve a clash between content, which works to create a subconscious stream of emotion, and form, which modifies said emotions through conscious techniques. From this struggle erupts catharsis (purification), the photographic image is instated as art, and an attitude is formed in the society.
Evidently, this approach implies a fundamental distinction between the documentary image and a work of art. If reality is aesthetically engaged with, if emotional impressions are fashioned into shape, and catharsis occurs—then a photograph may be considered a work of art. If, however, the process involves simply the fixation of reality, the result is nothing more than factual documentation. So it is crucial to set apart here the effect a work of art has on a person, and the excitement we may experience by gazing at artless old photographs or historic images.
Very little difference thus exists between our approach to evaluating photography in terms of art, and Vygotsky’s general concepts as laid out and applied to paintings, music, etc. Equivalently, art photography is a method of sensory exploration materialized through a specific form, this process manifests in the underlying opposition between the form and the content that is catharsis. The resulting mental discharge, flash of enlightenment, an attitude, all serve as a delayed reaction, or as a potent emotional impulse for the future. The adoption of this view enables one to actually differentiate between photographic art and the countless photographs made for informational or entertainment purposes and aggressively disseminated by mass media on a daily basis.
In conclusion it is worth mentioning that much of the literature concerned with photography as art is written by scholars whose expertise lies not in photography per se, but in other art forms, mainly cinema. Such people tend to regard photography as “still paintings”, primary materials, a precursor for film, adverts, stage sets, etc. In doing so, they divest it of its idiosyncratic nature, reducing its role to that of a preliminary stage, a building block for “deeper”, more “significant” art forms such as cinema. This is why the Russian State Institute of Cinematography includes only one year of photography in its curriculum—a visual rundown for first-year undergraduates. Be that as it may, it is my view that the truth of the matter is strikingly different. A nonfictional “slice of life” captured on photograph may have a truly lasting, virtually indefinite effect on the viewer, that very delayed reaction from Vygotsky’s theory. It is always possible to return to the photograph and revive the experiences associated with it. Cinema, on the other hand, even the documentary variety, is a phenomenon of contingency, as the rapid succession of frames precludes any attempt to focus on a single image. Imagine, for instance, that in order to appreciate Tolstoy’s description of the meeting between Natasha Rostova and Andrey Bolkonsky, one would necessarily have to read War and Peace in its entirety, cover to cover! Therein lies the difference between photography and cinema… And this is to say nothing of the various practices that employ photography as an improvised element, as stock material for performances, installations, video art, and all kinds of contemporary arts.

II. Defining the “genre” in art photography

As the reader may have gathered, I am no professional, even less so an art historian. My conjectures thus amount to nothing more than amateurish prattle, they are the verbal manifestation of photographic impulses that incite me to create my works, works that some may find interesting.
To me, genre in its broader sense denotes any depiction of human life beyond its immediate official circumstances, that is, the life of the everyday. Animal life (lions, deer, dogs, cats, zoo life, etc.) may also serve as the object of genre photography, but only insofar as the image evokes a comparison with the life of human beings—in terms of situations or relationships. A flock of birds is not genre, neither is the fertilization of ant eggs; the sad eyes of a dog, however, is undoubtedly genre. Nor can genre be ascribed to a cityscape devoid of psychological aspects since it lacks an individual psychological perspective—that of the humans within the image, not outside of it. Furthermore, official coverage of a sporting event, a public rally, a theatrical play is by no means genre, as the events depicted are predetermined and do not signify the everyday. Yet an event occurring within the framework of such happenings that is not determined by its logic may well be in a genre of its own—say, behind-the scenes encounters, athletes post-tournament, etc. Naturally, staged “instances” like Alpert’s Combat or Doisneau’s The Kiss are by all accounts not art at all: they are forgeries and propaganda churned out by photographers all over the world, past and present. Designed for the sole purpose of riling enthusiasm through visual means, these “photographic steroids” do not pertain to the field of my inquiry.
Having defined genre photography as a whole, I would now move on to the kinds of images I find most appealing within it. I tend to identify this type as shots that eschew the event, eschew “action”, in favor of capturing the internal state of people or the world they live in. It is my view that an action-filled event, like a group of famous people on the podium, is not capable of really staying with the viewer. If, however, one is compelled to hang a certain photograph up on their wall and live a long and happy life with it, that level of intimacy with life is the object of genre in my understanding. This is not psychological genre, as psychology need not exist within the shot itself, in which case it must be present in the author or the viewer. In short, the image must present a visual assessment of the psychological reaction. A shot like that is my kind of genre. For it is the unmeditated, not the preconceived psychological effect that for me constitutes the Bresson’s famous decisive moment.
What lessons might be culled from these extensive ruminations? For one, it is the attitude that counts, not the intention. With the right mindset, “pictures” will spring up on their own, no script or literature needed. Literature must be of the heart, not the text. And another thing: reading the right books is all very good, but also look—look around, look at nature, look at people, the simpler kind, without the pretense and razzamatazz of any scene, go to an exhibition, preferably not modernist (the taller the talk, the lesser the view behind it, apologies to all the ADEPTS out there). It will come from there, almost on its own, that photograph you can hang up on your wall and get a kick out of every morning. No more. But no less, either. Needless to say, an image like that can never be reproduced by the author himself or any other photographer—the plagiarism will inevitably seep through.
I term this approach to photography documentary impressionism, given the key role of the actual “impression”. In that sense, I am an “impressionist”—for without the engagement, without the “hook”, the shot is not worth taking. To be sure, I will shoot everything, but during selection I invariably find that only the moments that “hooked” me will make for good pieces. For instance, I cannot force the “hook” in still lifes. I must resign myself to an undying envy for those who can.

III. Art photography and chronotope

Chronotope is an intrinsic connection between space and time. The concept of chronotope denies the existence of abstract discrete points and proclaims real and ever-lasting events. A. A. Ukhtomsky. Dominance. Articles of Various Years. 1887–1939
Chronotope in literature is essential for genre. It is safe to assume that chronotope defines genre and its variations; it should be also said that the fundamental principle of chronotope in literature is time. Chronotope as a formal and semantic category frames (to a significant extent) a character in a literary work; the character is always essentially chronotipical.
…The development of real historical chronotope in literature was difficult and spasmodic: it focused on certain aspects of chronotope available in the given historical circumstances, and only specific forms of artistic representation of real chronotope were elaborated... M. M. Bakhtin. Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. Essays on Historical Poetics. 1937–1938
Replace “literature” with “documentary impressionism in photography” and you get photography in a given historic time and space, i.e. chronotope.

IV. Photographer in Digital Gadget Era

Photographer’s aspiration to take a unique photo is not that easy to fulfill considering the advance of technology in photography—new cameras, iPhones, smartphones, and other gadgets are becoming increasingly accessible.
What makes a meaningful photograph is the photographer’s distinct view on life and translation of this view into a perfect composition—unique as well. The entire process must not last more than an instant, or the moment will be gone, leaving only a staged scene reproducible by any other person with a camera. The notion of documentary impressionism mentioned above incorporates both these prerequisites: impressionism (“impressure”) suggests a deeply personal effect, while documentary refers to a genuine unstaged composition coming up right at the moment of shooting. To create a candid image, photographer should forgo directing. Of course, it is unwise to resort to only one shot if the photographed object is intact; to the contrary, take as many shots as possible. But stop the shooting once you are discovered. The posed nature will eventually come out, and a photograph, once staged, loses its documentary value. This is just an outline to express the general idea of uniqueness of real candid photography. There are options, of course. Say, shooting people in the rain or snow. Take as much shots as you like, nobody pays attention to you, while it keeps raining or snowing. The selection afterwards is what matters and it is up to no one else but you.

V. My approach to candid (street) photography

My photography may not be staged in its depiction of street or indoor life, yet it is by no means reportage. I tend not to focus on story-oriented, multifaceted events, like, say, demonstrations. The reason I love fine-art photography is that the entire arsenal of figures, color, light, composition, along with all the other photographic bells and whistles I owe to my time at Innovator, comes attached to the reality that inspires me artistically. All this I will internalize and emotionalize, yet such consistent stories will still come out as “separate pictures” in and of themselves, with the overarching project forming a single whole. I have two published albums: 1962—1992: The Sunken Time, and 1962—2002: The Everyday. While the latter is essentially the 90s in Moscow, the former also reflects the Soviet times, the time of work trips and expeditions, so in a sense it is a much broader overview of the USSR as a country. There is also a third album, Moscow Palimpsest, and its predecessor, as I would say now, “the ground-zero album”—Seen by the Old House. Photographs from the latter, a mini-palimpsest published in 2000, were later included in the bigger palimpsest. They are nakladushki in my own slang—images achieved through double exposure of primed film. The featured works include photographs made in both color and black and white. That’s how the exhibition Native Retro. Moscow Photo Saga came about—as a selection of photographs from all three albums.
The photographs from The Sunken Time are very much Innovatorian in approach and effect. As a result, the main focus is not on the emotional state but rather on some central object, face, or situation. Works from The Everyday and especially nakladushki from the third album are what interests me most right now. They represent an attempt at conveying the psychology of life and environment, and what they may lack in action they make up for in various tasty details. While I was compiling my first album, I would edit out the extra details, crop like crazy. Then a friend of mine tells me: “Are you mad? Look at all the stuff you’re throwing away!” I looked, and yes, I had gone a little mad. That’s how I started compiling my second album… Sure, there are close-ups in there as well. The second album is much more “Moscow” in its view on life. I myself am from Solyanka Street, born and raised, hence the “small motherland” theme. Another theme is the “double life”, when two lives collide in one image, one affects the other, the resulting impression constituting something new entirely. For example, behind the glass windows of steklyashka cafe, near Yauzskie Vorota, life is bubbling: people are having rest after work, they have set down their briefcases and are eating sausages, while the waiters scurry along elsewhere… The reflection from the window presents a different life: Yauzskie Vorota, a mansion with columns, a church (see photo no. 086 on pages 116–117 Vol. I—editor’s note). I’m a total sucker for superpositions like that. But such reflections are scarce, and life is most diverse indeed. Then, a stroke of good fortune. Boris Gusev, a friend of mine, took me to this stunningly beautiful blind alley in Kiselny Tupik near the editorial office of Teatralnaya Zhizn magazine. As we squeezed our way through two weathered and crumbling walls, we found ourselves in a closed-off courtyard with a mansard, a porch and steps, and people living there. I would shoot here in winter and summer, until it finally hit me. What I needed to do was use a whole length of film on the courtyard, then reload the same film back into my camera as a fresh roll and shoot various episodes from real life. It was like the film came “primed” with the courtyard. To watch Life flowing through that very courtyard—what absolute bliss! Unfortunately, only three-four worthy shots ever come from a single film roll—the rest is wasted. The image must come together, after all! Furthermore, certain associations must spring forth from it—and they can’t be crude or simplistic, either.
To this end, I have put together the slideshow Native Retro. The film offers up a selection of images from the above mentioned albums, to the accompaniment of Petr Todorovsky and Sergey Nikitin’s guitar improvisation based on music by Nino Rota, as well as Juan Tizol’s Caravan performed by Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
All the images you have seen are bona fide street photography, unstaged photography, that is. Plain and simple. There is nothing here beyond that, aside from two images: one is with the interesting shadow thrown onto the floor by the door, with my daughter seated intentionally for composition’s sake; the other shows a pile of dishes in a communal apartment kitchen, the young woman there seated on the windowsill also for the sake of composition.
After that, it is up to the world to supply my intent with events that will make me shudderingly press the button. Out in the field, you may realize that you have wasted the first half of your film on trash, and that part is now useless. Suddenly, as only a few frames remain, subject matter starts bursting at you from every corner. You stand in horror—you’re running out of film! And say you take three rolls, and get nothing on two and a half. Only half a roll of film left, and all the great shots coming at you in a single barrage.
That’s pretty much how these things happen. I would often shoot people of my own type, and be most positively inclined towards them. But the “positivity” surrounding them seemed a bit excessive to me. Those were “my people”: a man selling valenki in Cheboksary amid barren stalls housing nothing but three eggs, however—now that’s what I call entourage. That’s where the conflict (wrong word) between form and content, between reaction and “picture”, arises. Then again, you end up with a clean, beautiful glimpse of tragedy coming to pass. The emotional effect on the viewer is much stronger in that case. It is one thing to simply record the dreadful, another to document it artistically, as the effect evoked in you will transfer onto the viewer, where it remains as an idea or attitude…
Unlike the professional, the amateur is not ready when given a professional shoot. He is emotional. Aside from emotions, such work must involve not simply what pops into someone’s head, but also a nice, professional coverage of certain events, something that is often hard to get right. The work may also involve a truly rigid editorial assignment, but that is a separate thing, one we will not consider. Inevitably, an editor, no matter how “decent”, will dictate their own certain agenda. They exert an influence. It happens over time. Take some of the guys from our club, amazing photographers. At some point, they’d go press, and not just any old gazette, mind you: proper “loose leash” stuff, like magazines. This wasn’t your “morning’s headlines—evening’s punchlines” approach, you were given a week or so for each story, but then editorial agenda comes into play. The editor will want the “good” images, ones in color… And the photographer will deliver in terms of light, color, everything, yet lack in engagement, fail to tug at the heart. It would seem as though assignment jobs preclude certain trajectories, thus spelling an end to the “reverent photographer.”
Another example is the truly major independent photographer Vladimir Syomin. I’ve been told that he would receive his 70 ruble salary, bring 40 rolls back from each trip, and not one of his images would ever see the light of print. Yet he would stoutly go on shooting his 40 rolls, only to have them rejected again and again. Be that as it may, he was only paid for the images that made it to print. A great man who refused to surrender an inch of his artistry. When censorship croaked, everyone saw the images he had made. And yet—how many years of hopelessness to stalwartly endure! To be a professional and not buckle is akin to being nailed in place with no hope in life of ever being freed. An amateur like myself had another alternative, however. I would earn my money working at my favorite job, and spend it on my favorite pastime, photography. No supervisors to tell me what to do. Unfortunately, mine is not your typical case.
“Successful” professionals have a different problem on their hands: like a surgeon who cannot empathize with each patient, a correspondent cannot always go “soul digging”, they have an editorial assignment along with a thousand other things to keep their head busy. There is an expression, not mine but one I take heart to: “the photo correspondent is off on a safari.” We, however, are not. There you have the difference between a correspondent and an amateur. Say you go on a work trip inspired by the new novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You arrive at a village and start taking photos. You don’t go frantically asking around for Matryona’s home, or “something of the type”, etc. All you need is Matryona’s home firmly entrenched in your soul, so when the moment comes, you jolt, and it happens. The trick is to feel that jolt.
In conclusion, a few words about my favorite pictures. A shot I love immensely is Night Café (see photo no. 087 on page 118 Vol I.—editor’s note). Here is how it happened. I was walking up to a friends’ house one evening, and I see the fogged up glass windows, the people… What would the Mikhail Aaronovitch Dashevsky you see today do without a camera handy? He would think: “Damn! What a view! Oh, what a view!” And be on his way. What does he do around age twenty-seven, though? He whips around and gets on Bus 24 headed back for his dear Solyanka, finds his camera, loads it up with 400 units of NP27 film, grabs his rickety wooden tripod, heads back, sets it all up, and shoots away! The film jams up and rips, of course, but I got the shot! As I developed the final slide from that ripped segment, I knew the rest simply weren’t as good. This is that final image, the rest are hopelessly frayed. There you have it! I was nuts back then: to throw everything to the wind, eyes ablaze, rush there and back, only to discover that last shot was my favorite.
There’s luck involved as well. Luck is when you’re riding past Arbat Square and see the monument to Gogol with a bag over its head. The monument is under renovation, and the bag is to protect it from pigeons. You spend the evening praying for them to have kept the bag on, and arrive at Arbat around eleven the next day. It’s all still there, and you get a shot of Gogol, the bag, and a plaque underneath reading “To Gogol from the Soviet State.” Utter bliss! You call the photo Face of the Russian Satire (see photo no. 194 on page 68 Volu. II—editor’s note). Luck? Sure, but a stroke of the kind you were ready for. Gogol with a bag over his head—the connotations were yours to grab. And it’s not as though all you were thinking was: “How best to expose the regime… Put a bag over Gogol’s head, maybe?” It doesn’t work that way, life isn’t something to be contrived.

Another thing you need and I don’t have was practiced by Innovatorian Anatoly Erin. Erin was a difficult person, harsh even, but absolutely meticulous. If at one point he was into, say, color filters, he’d go all the way. Lenses—all the way as well. Moreover, he would educate others so they could put that knowledge to good use. Be meticulous! I, however, am not. Many shots have been wasted due to my lack of such attitude. Erin had it, and so does Syomin.
It’s good to have the perfect optics and camera for the job. But the condition is far from necessary. Take this shot—Tatyana in a kitchen (see photograph no. 025 on page 41 Vol I—editor’s note). It was made in this cramped communal appartment kitchen filled with dishes and complete with a sink, soap-dish, film left to dry on a clothes-line, and so on. I was enchanted, but without a human there was no shot. I called the daughter of my ex-university mate who lived in the flat and sat her down on the windowsill. The picture is one of only two staged shots from my albums. It was made on a Zenith camera with a MIR-10 lens, with me leaning against the doorframe, and the exposure being set to maybe half a second. What became clear later was that I used to photograph using film with sensitivity of at least ISO 400, but its graininess was like that of film with ISO 32. This film was Type 17 for “gun cameras”, which had been stolen from certain places. It was on large spools and we cut it into portions, sharing it with friends. We developed it in diluted developer and there was practically no grain. We also used to print using “a point source of light”, which is a bulb for a spectrophotometer. The diameter of the light source is 4 mm and everything comes out in sharp focus, every speck of dust. Then for you retouching becomes “a true sport.” That is, you do not simply paint over some white specks, but you take a magnifying glass and, competing with yourself, start fishing out the white dots (there were no computers with Photoshop back then, everything was done “by hand”, with a brush...). After that glass really looked like glass, iron—iron, trees became woody and everything began living its own life. That was the way—MIR-10, Zenith, Type-17 and everything else. However, these are mere technicalities. The essence is completely different. It should not be “a safari.” There should be empathy with kindred spirits. You must read books and be observant. And in fact, how can I put it, do not be “a niggard.” You have to shoot from a pure heart, but a niggard’s heart is not pure. He only takes never gives. Here is Boris Slutsky’s poem, which says it all:
One must think, not smile.
Read difficult books.
Must strive—and stumble,
Follow your own views first.
Everyday trivial cares
In gaining fame and money
Belong not to
The meaning of life.