Irina Сhmyreva. 2004
On Dashevsky, the Photographer
The setting is deep wells of courtyards, with pigeons making rounds in the squares of the sky, their tin-like wings giving an occasional glint. Behind the high fence enclosing a monastery, there is a militia school, and a stray ball coming from its sports ground never returns. There are communal appartments with kitchens smelling of onions and soap; there windows are as narrow as high-ceilinged rooms behind them. Somewhere in the maze of through-passages there are salt storehouses. All this is Solyanka of the mid-20th century, when it seemed that time came to a standstill. Or was it lost?

For a very long time photography in Russia used to be a form of inner emigration. On the surface one enjoyed success and everything appeared to go smooth but deep inside one felt rebellious and resisted the inertia. The then blunt-nosed vehicles that now look defenseless in the films by nostalgic film directors denoted, in reality, void and fear prompted by the memories of infancy that fell on the 1930s. Solyanka is close to everything that counts in Moscow, it’s close to both the Kremlin and Lubyanka, uptown and downtown Moscow. Where do photographer come from? Some are born in the provinces, when one is momentarily stunned by the sight of a visitor with a camera, its lens shining in the sun. Others become photographers in Moscow courtyards where a camera is an object of teenager’s pride. It so happened that a boy from Bolshoy Ivanovsky lane finished school with honors, dreaming of higher education in optomechanics. At his age, it was pardonable to indulge in fantasies, forgetting that his father had once been persecuted by the authorities, on the account of which he was not eligible. Nor was he eligible to take up architecture, another passion of his. So there came a summer of visits to various admission boards. He finally settled for hydraulics at the Moscow Civil Engineering Institute. That was in 1953. Guided by the noble old professors who had managed to survive despite their pre-revolutionary training, non-worker’s origins and professionalism, students there matured in the spirit of freedom. The period in history was such that nothing infringed on their liberty. The school rules implied that everyone answered for his or her own actions. There was a case when students staged a strike over some conflict. In short, they were naïve and unfrightened, and they really believed that fear was a thing of the past. At that time photography to Dashevsky meant applied photos he needed for his course and graduation project. The latter involved his work at the Bratsk Hydro construction site where a freshly-diplomated hydraulics engineer had to go through all rungs of the ladder from manual work to designing. Like everywhere else, the Bratsk Hydro construction brought together different people with diverse backgrounds and various talents. Among them, there were gifted amateur photographers, guitar-players and poets. In the 1960s, such polytechnics graduates, having been enrolled despite the “sins of their fathers”, and hardly ever having dreamed about taking up the humanities, turned into poets, artists, and writers. Unlike others, Dashevsky stuck to his profession. He returned to Moscow and continued to work as a hydraulics engineer, quite content to work at a research institute. His other interests included contemporary poetry and art, with the inevitable traditional “kitchen” disputes of artists and intellectuals, and his photography. He first showed serious interest in photography when he was in Bratsk after having seen works produced by other amateurs. Upon his return to Moscow, he joined the Innovator photo club set up by two prominent figures of the Russian photographic school Alexander Khlebnikov and Georgy Soshalsky in 1961. Without these two teachers Russia’s photography scene would have been entirely different. It would have been drier, harder, more simplistic and definitely less professional. Not nearly enough has of late been said about their contribution to the history of photography in Russia, but their role cannot be overestimated. Dashevsky joined the club in 1968, and the impact of that move still carries him on. On the verge of his seventieth birthday he decided to bring together everything he had done since that time.

Dashevsky Mikhail. Born in Moscow. Doctor of Science. A well-known wit, dangerously sharp-tongued. Photographer with several one-man shows in Russia, Germany and the US. Produced books of photographs, which is still a rare thing in Russia, especially for a non-professional photographer.

When looking at the photographic scene of the 20th century, one realizes that, occupationally, science and photography go hand in hand. In Europe, there is the Belgian Reind M. De Vries Foundation prize, which was founded to commemorate the amateur photographer who had made a great contribution to hydrology and other branches of natural science. His colleagues in the scientific community might well be surprised to learn that his name had left its mark in photography.

Photography as an activity seemed a natural extension for a scientist already in the 19th century. The name of Henry Fox Talbot, one of the founding fathers of photography, was well-known in botany, not to mention Karl Blossfeldt in the 20th century. Among photographers one can find astronomers, physicians, writers, and musicians. Photography as a creative activity or hobby gives food for thought and for intellectual games. Beginning with the 1920s, it is also “a notebook for every really modern man”: since the time of Walter Benjamin one can no longer treat a camera in the intellectual’s hands as a hobby, it is, rather, an implement such as a pen, notebook, typewriter, and, now, computer. It was only in Soviet Russia, when photography stood on a par with other amateur activities so as to “disarm” its impact on the viewer, that serious involvement of the scientist in photography could cause surprise. In saying this I go by remarks of the astonished viewers at the exhibition and perplexity of the journalists during the interview: “And at that, he’s a Doctor of Science!”

As a photo artist, Dashevsky developed at a time when most contemporaries didn’t treat photography as an independent form of art. In this, he upholds the 19th-century tradition when rich amateurs, intellectuals, lawyers, military officers, scientists, and industrialists tried to realize their school-time craving for some creative activity using an instrument that could bring them closer to the fine arts. Letter-writing and diaries were an alternative form of creative expression for those authors.

Dashevsky was born and developed as a photographer in the Soviet Union. This was the country where poetry by Joseph Brodsky, born to a photographer’s family, was banished for the definitiveness and sharpness of generalizing word-images. In his turn, Dashevsky belongs to the photographic culture where word and image comprise a single whole. A word uttered in the kitchen may be as important as a photograph taken for some personal motive. An uttered word may lead to producing a photograph, the driving force behind which may later again turn into words. The photographer embraced the verbal principle characteristic of the Soviet culture which inherited this approach from the intelligentsia’s worship of the great literature of the late 19th century. Dashevsky’s images were nurtured by the linguistic context and the range of subjects touched upon in private conversations. Photography in this context gives an outline of what cannot be put on paper with impunity. Against the background of the Soviet-time stagnation, photography as a form of return to the medieval attitude to image when it was treated as “the Bible for the illiterate”, turned into “literature” for the extremely perceptive audience, its sensibilities bordering on morbidity. This kind of photography serves as a visual language of communication for the malcontent who observe reality beyond the ideological scope of this reality. Such photography projects as visualization of what cannot be said or even seen in painting or in the official press.

Dashevsky’s artistic institution by far surpasses the most rational choice of the subject since the latter is not infrequently determined by the artist’s need to verbalize reality. This point is exemplified by Dashevsky’s exhibition representing old contact sheets (full-frame draft prints from negatives). The project implies restoration of the primary images before any attempts at cropping are made prior to printing. This was done not for the sake of censorship but as a preliminary work on composition of the shots to be shown at the Innovator club. The project thus stands as restoration of vision with a camera as with an eye, or, as restoration of a diary of impressions, to be later edited for printing.

In his attitude to reality, Dashevsky shows himself as a straight photography artist. To him, the reality itself gives more (retains more levels involved in story-telling) than framing of the reality (rigid structuring of the subjective based on the artist’s previous experience or anticipation). When backgrounds in his photographs are removed, and in the years past the artist used to do that for the “clarity of message”, the context disappears, thus, detracting from the text’s meaning.

Dashevsky became a photographer in the age of unofficial photography and he emerged as a photo artist through his association with the Innovator club. The age of unofficial photography was the time of cultural self-identification. At some point a creative personality arrived at the crossroads where he had to make a choice between official and unofficial art and that choice had to be final. Even in the artistic milieu those artists who could double were seen as magicians able to walk through walls. Among the photographers, such individuals could be encountered too, but very seldom, because the attitude to life and accentuation of the subject effected by the camera that followed the human eye would immediately give away “an unofficial artist.” The “official” and “unofficial” realms existed as two parallel worlds, and those confined to the “unofficial” sphere were free to work without any regards to censorship. The very subjects that artists and photographers got interested in signaled the impossibility for them to enter the sphere of official art. During the 1960s–1980s the Innovator club was the center where earnest artists developed their creativity and artistic skills under the guidance of the masters who followed the photographic tradition of the 1920s—1930s. Those new artists, who were intelligent as well as well-versed in the rules of the craft, laws of composition and light, and printing techniques, faced the choice, too. Some left the club to become officially recognized professionals. These could no longer stand working in obscurity or couldn’t rid themselves of the habit to see the “reality” in the prism of the Soviet ideology to which they had been accustomed since childhood. As Dashevsky put it, when one became a professional, “some internal sensor started working, telling which work will do and which will not.” Conversely, the unofficial status (non-professional in the then idiom) helped one preserve independence of vision and freedom in the choice of subjects, composition, and value judgments on the reality. This also entailed a specific attitude towards recognition, and the artist’s natural desire to see works published and appreciated was masked by a bravado of an underground artist. Concurrently, such artists set great store by the ability to be articulate. That ability to articulate one’s attitude towards a photo, characteristic of the old photographic school and forged in the disputes of the 1920s–1930s, was cultivated among the members of the Innovator and was handed down by the founders to the young novices.

As Dashevsky confessed, it was for this freedom of photography and exchange of views that he “nailed himself to the Innovator.”

When you are looking through this book you’ll be probably surprised by ordinariness of the photographs and the reality behind it. Ordinariness is the privilege of “amateurs” enchanted with reality, with its smell, pain, age, and light. They don’t go for effect for they don’t need to “sell” the image. Ordinariness is an attribute of a diary. When you look through a genuine diary you won’t find there any mention of some great historical events unless the author has been a direct participant, nor would you find there any pompous message for the coming generations. The Sunken Time by Dashevsky is an unedited diary. Shunning any editor even now, the author merely grouped the pages of his diary by subject.

The photos you see is that very unofficial photography that emerged during the thaw of the 1960s and its features make for a style. Collected in one project, these photos stand for the author’s complete message. It may not run to a novel, but it certainly contains a collection of tragic stories of the time.
Alexander Borshchagovsky. 1996
…Unsweetened
I recall a casual fleeting phrase from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita: “Are you a photographer? (...) Interesting work. Artistic work, in some ways.”

Well, it certainly is, but in what ways? What qualities should a photograph possess to be classified as art? There is only one way to answer this question, I presume, and it consists in taking a close look at a single image, being a deliberate (might as well be unplanned or hit-and-miss) production of the machine and human vision, intuition, an artistic insight into reality.

Tens or maybe hundreds of millions of lenses on Earth are constantly targeting everyday life, scratching its surface, producing drab, uninspired, flat likenesses of life, its formal copies. It is not true that every photograph is of interest, it is a delusion. When you are about to look at hundreds and hundreds of images, which have piled up in drawers and cardboard boxes, it is very tempting to get rid of most of them once and for all, but you are likely to resist out of concerns that have little to do with photography art.

It is unorthodox to say that the majority of photographs are veracious, although not equally important, true records of nature until the moment when the lens captures... a person, a model of sui generis kind. The presence of a poser, a person aware or at least suspicious of being captured, multiplies the amount of worthless photographic waste and proclaims the triumph of platitude and banality.

Cameras in the hands of tourists become a disaster, an instrument of torture—depressing columns of markedly cheerful people against cathedrals, palaces, fountains, famous monuments are like crowds of extras shot from dawn to dusk (and all night long thanks to more and more sophisticated devices).
A small, increasingly smart camera is a man’s servant and—in a sense—a thief. It seemingly accepts “for safekeeping” an important life material which it never gives back in full to our memory and our superior (because it not only records!) eye. The photographic film is entrusted with what must belong to our subjective, dynamic, changing inner life. We toy with the idea of helping our memory—we believe that a photographic document can relive the past in a vibrant and clear-cut form. But it doesn’t. It deprives us of our genuine sharpness of sight, our subjective vision (not merely a standard perception of color)—everything that is so important to art. We are lulled into a false sleep, we carelessly outsourced the inimitable process of nature perception to machines, even though live imagination will always remain its essence. What was lost in a fragment of life, in an eye-catching shot, what was not seen by the lens, has gone forever and will never gain depth. The moment of truth has passed, we settled for its likeness, gave credit to something painfully similar to the prototype and placed another simulacrum in a never-ending photo album. Faces, faces, faces... They flash by, while our eyes and heart remain impassive, not stricken by a whisper of Fate. Dozens of neat portraits will come and go, before you suddenly, unexpectedly hear the calling horn of Fate: in a long row of carefully selected faces you see the one that tells much more about the nation.

The text in a recent brochure to Dashevsky’s exhibition The Sunken Time (1964–1989) is overfilled with the hottest social topics. Although it states that “the photographs on display express the author’s take on the ordinary life of ordinary people” and that the exhibition is by no means a review of “seminal achievements of the evil empire”, it at the same time suggests that “his works showing the life of the Atlantis of socialism” may help to “grasp the reasons of social catastrophe which broke out on the sixth part of the world”.

I would like to protect the wonderful works by Mikhail Dashevsky from ephemeral populist compliments: fortunately, they contain much more of the eternal, of an unbiased person, not a manikin of the epoch, but rather a human being in a native environment. Of course, the flexible, trained muscle of associative thinking and a load of vivid visual stereotypes (which are sometimes accumulated against our will) may stimulate any journalese and most daring generalizations which only distract us from art. Thankfully, in his best works, Mikhail Dashevsky helps us to feel and conceive the difference between the formal photography and a work of photo art.

…Two faces emerge from the blackness of the background, two heads in a hidden mysterious move: an old woman and her granddaughter. I say “emerge”, but they seem to perpetually exist in this pitch-black darkness filled with indiscernible people, voices, glare of unseen eyes. This world is inhabited, although we see only two faces, and there was no need to highlight other figures or even arms and hands of these two. The corporal, physical integrity of the image, its validity are absolute, while all other details depend on our culture of perception: our imagination and gift for loving life in all its forms. It is needless to explain that there is some motion in both of them—the old woman and the girl. Despite the seeming stillness, they move; they are in a public place, but it is neither a doctor’s waiting room nor a park bench—they are within a spontaneous flow, a journey towards a simple worldly goal and the movement of generations, the flow of time itself. There is someone very close to them, unseen to us. Protected by her grandmother’s love, the girl looks at him with a primordial, placid interest which sadly would not arise in the old woman any more. She is deep in thoughts of the past, consumed by day-to-day worries of life, which, I think, are not mean or self-centered. She presents a combination of human dignity, strength, and some sort of ordinariness. The way she is ordinary is not dull or discouraging, it invokes respect and tenderness. How beautiful are the half-hidden eyes of the old woman, as if parched by the long joyless life; she can close her eyes only with an effort, by knitting her brow grooved with wrinkles. The sense of overall harmony is coupled with that special neatness which naturally embraces both moral and spiritual purity.

It is here that photography penetrates into art with its cohesive, integral, lucid imagery. The moment was captured—either by a precisely targeted lens or in motion—and the completeness of the message is such that I want to stick to what is already found and to guard it from other connotations. An image of love is bestowed on us, the full circle of life, generation, and family, a witness of the past and a glance into the future. The tragic side of life cast no shadow on them, no one hears the tocsin of foreboding, and yet, when looking at this peaceful mundane scene, we cannot be sure that they are protected from the shifts and changes of life, that they need no compassion or sympathy. The degree of psychological completeness and the vividness of their existence make us involved in their life. This could only be achieved by art, while simple illustrations or comments would be powerless.
Among the best works by Mikhail Dashevsky I would mention On the Uptown Platform Near Moscow (1968), Pechory Monastery (1977) with a twosome representing the eternal chaos of the Russian province—not only of the monastic one, but on a larger scale—the province with its need, despair, desire to live and be oneself; a portrait of a craftsman from Tver—Uncle Kolya (1978); a vibrant image taken at a deserted Cheboksary market in 1972—Felt Boots.

In the best of his works, Dashevsky’s relation to art rather than to craft is expressed in the constant quest for the picture’s poetic nature, which I would call a latent “chord”. He looks for the secret in nature itself and shows it unsweetened.

The iconic Russian North is easily recognizable in the photograph taken near Arkhangelsk in 1970. The horizon runs beyond the frame, the land first seems desolate, three horses came to water and hold a silent yet obvious conversation, three boats at the bank resonate with each other, the boats that were not intentionally set there, at three fishing huts, for beauty and harmony, but have belonged to owners of the huts, their labor, life, and scanty possessions since the dawn of time. Despite the stillness and peace, it is not a life free from worries and sorrows; asceticism is in every detail, and the quiet dialog of the animate with the inanimate never stops in expectation of the Man who might come and answer the impatient question of the wheeler.

Art lives here for at least one thing: the author himself couldn’t express in words the ups and downs of life captured by the camera. We could philosophize about the barrenness and misery of this forlorn shallow bank, link the reproachful accusations with important social issues, and go deep into the thicket of political speculations.

This would only steer us away from the eternity inherent in nature and its savagery, while here we already have a picturesque metaphor of nature, an image of its grandeur with no tricks or clowning, grandeur hidden deep inside, as nature itself bequeathed to us.

If Dashevsky was asked the question from La Dolce Vita—“Are you a photographer?”—the answer would be “no”. Because he is a famous engineer, a scientist. Photography is not what he does for a living, but his hobby, a costly one. And yet, it is his true passion.

I would add that photography is his vocation revealing those of his qualities that might remain unnoticed behind his witty skepticism—a delicate soul and fraternal commitment to people.

Irina Chmyreva. 2008
Moscow. Forty Years of Life and Observation of a City Dweller
The life of a megalopolis, its private story, hidden life, the combination of private and collective space, the talking through of the collective unconscious via individual reflection—what more a historian could want from material found in an archive. And what if the material is photography, and there is no need to search for it, it comes into one’s hands itself in the form of an album, with the author’s commentaries, with full data about him at the time of publication? It is possible that for the contemporary historian it becomes somehow uninteresting, everything is too obvious. Talked through. What should such a historian do—there’s nowhere to step aside, there is no time perspective—in order to see what is happening from afar. One can only wait. And the book can only wait for a historian from the future. But it is for this reason that many books are made—for the memory of descendants.

This book presents photographs by Mikhail Dashevsky made over a period of forty years, from 1962 to 2002.

Mikhail Dashevsky. A photographer, scientist, and simply a Muscovite. About himself he would certainly remember that for more than fifty years he was a Soviet citizen. He has been living in Moscow all his life, as has his family for several generations. And therefore he has been connected with this city more profoundly and for longer than the political system which was in the process of being built at his birth; and the system is no more, but he continues living in Moscow and is surprised by the number of changes which have taken place over these years in his native city, in his, a city dweller’s, way of life.

…The history of the 20th century does not seem finished after its termination. An epoch has passed and it is difficult to ask questions after it. Blank spaces, whole continents of the unknown are becoming even more numerous. One of them—the everyday life of Russia in the times of the USSR, seen from within, by the eyes of a man who lived that life.

The reason for the grievances of “ordinary Soviet people” against the West in those years, the reason for the conflict of the mass consciousness of the “Soviet people” with the external (situated on the other side of the Soviet border) world,—were the pictures of Soviet life published in the foreign mass media and reprinted in the USSR. Those photographs reflected the view of foreigners—strangers, who noticed everything uncommon, unusual for them in the life of a Soviet country. Images, torn out of context,—like citations, snatched from the middle of a phrase, without beginning or end; they reminded one of stories by medieval European travellers about distant lands, inhabited by incredible creatures who were living an unfamiliar kind of life. For a whole people to see itself as a “barbarian” alien land on its own planet was even more offensive in the century when man was searching for life on Mars.

But the image, created by the official Soviet media, also did not invoke feelings of credibility in those who the media called the “Soviet people”—the life on the inside flowed in different rhythms and on a different scale, with its own joys and sorrows, which were different from those of the state.

Was there a third way of representing real life in the USSR—not a foreign uncomprehendingly distant one and not the official propagandist one, but that reflecting the poetry of everyday life? In the science of history of the Middle Ages there is the Annales school which studies the everyday life of the past through minor records, letters, and business papers. That research allows one to imagine the needs and cares of people of the past, but does not let us come as near to them as photography does. The latter makes the history of the last one hundred and fifty years come closer to us, makes it more comprehensive than anything, which was before it. An encounter with a picture of a locality allows one to go there in one’s mind, with a photograph of a person’s face—to ask him questions in one’s mind, imagine his life history. And the Soviet period, the world’s “terra incognita” of the last century, thanks to photography, is becoming accessible, if we trust the one who shows us the light pictures. Mikhail Dashevsky is worthy of our trust.

Dashevsky, who participated in Moscow street life, having grown up in the very centre of this ancient city, photographed that which was part of his customary everyday life. He is inspired by the fullness of each moment of the city’s everyday life, by the architectural rhythms and scenes of everyday life, through which the symbols of the time show. Dashevsky, whose exhibitions in recent years in Russia and abroad are occurring more and more frequently, is called “the catcher” of the everyday, the poet of Moscow of the last mid-century.

Included in the new book are photographs made by the photographer during celebrations and momentous dates of Soviet history, but made “just before waking up”, sometimes in the morning just before the announcement of the events which had already taken place. His photographs capture that fragile immutability of the everyday, which was instantly destroyed, blown up by the rallies, demonstrations, revolutions of the beginning of the 1990s, and also to this day by any mass parading… The environment of the quiet life, like a mirror of water, calms after the disturbances, but has already changed—one cannot enter the same water twice. And only the mirror of photography, the works by Mikhail Dashevsky, leaves in our memory the shadows of existence, which creates the anomalies that we call History.

Fate: Catching up With Time

I have already had a chance to write about Mikhail Dashevsky’s photographs, and here is a new book, his recognisable images and a completely different mood, another part of his personal archive. It seems fathomless. This is the astounding ability of man to leave behind him in time a multitude of traces. The majority of us leave pale, not apparent traces of everyday life, requiring an attentive editor, who would find in them the grains of meaning to be remembered in the future. The ordinary man dreams that his children will become such attentive readers of his traces, but everyone knows that they are different, and, at best, one is lucky to have attentive grandchildren, interested in the unfamiliar past across a generation.

Sometimes it happens that the traces of a man manifest themselves whilst he is still alive, in society this is called “being in demand.” Rarely is a person lucky enough that the results of his work turn out to be immediately needed by those who surround him, it’s good if that happens decades later. And for some it is more important that his work be needed centuries later… But if the activity did not reveal itself earlier, then there are less chances of finding its traces in the future, when millions of new layers of new documents lie heavily on top of it. And anyway, to extend one’s necessity in history is so attractive, it means that there is memory “from generation to generation”, that time does not have power, that time will almost be conquered…

Looking at all that has been written about Mikhail Dashevsky, his commentaries to his own photos, his biography, one touches drama. Yes, the life of each person is a play, rarely a tragedy or comedy in their pure genre, more often a drama. But it is not in every life that its pattern is so expressive and defined, so that, without the help of a writer-jeweller, it can become the heritage of an interested viewer. In the case of Dashevsky the pattern of fate over seventy plus years has appeared fully. The life of this artist is like an illustration of the Chinese parable about a man who achieved success after half a century of painstaking work. Not with the transition of quantity into quality, but in connection with the change of the cosmic cycle: a new period had begun, turning out for him to be favourable, coinciding with the results of his efforts and bringing success. Dashevsky, himself, describes what happened to him: “…in 1953 I entered the Moscow Institute of Engineering and Construction (MIEC), from which I graduated in 1958. This was a time of changes: the death of Stalin, the execution of Beria, the 20th Party Congress with denunciations, the Youth Festival—everything was boiling and the authorities had no time for students… They rehabilitated my father (posthumously), but what remained is that I was a Jew as before. I turned to photography. After finishing MIEC I worked for a short time on the constructions of the Stalingrad and Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Stations, then for forty years in Moscow in the Scientific Research Institute in construction, as a scientific researcher. I roamed around the country on tourist hiking trips, sorted cabbages in vegetable bases… Became a Doctor of Science… The fall of Communism was a breath of fresh air, especially for the Jews… 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... After 1985 new winds began to blow... Slowly photographic life began to fall into place.”

Having begun to photograph at the beginning of the 1960s,—and from 1969 a member of one of the few photography clubs in the USSR, and in Moscow at that time practically the only one, Innovator, where it was possible to make one’s own experiments, not only with form, but with content as well,—Dashevsky has been taking photographs his whole life. The first solo exhibition took place only in 1994. This could be attributed to his long years of study and professional growth. But that was not the case. Dashevsky is a representative of that generation of people, born in the USSR, for which “may” and “may not” in relation to ancestry and nationality, which depended on the ideological directives of the moment, played a strong role. In that generation kind people were neither more nor less than in any other. As Bulgakov’s Woland says: “Well there you have it, they are people as people are… Well, careless… well, so what… and clemency sometimes beats in their hearts… ordinary people… in general, are like those before…” But to hold one’s own opinion about what was going on, about the history of which they were participants, intelligent conduct, which supposes a not-indifferent personal position, was becoming the merit of the few. To be more precise, the history of this period has brutally preserved few accounts. Or, historians at the very end of the 20th century, striving to analyse the most recent past faster, to sort everything out into black and white, published-preserved testimonies of the extremes of public life: of the absolute acceptance of state ideology and of absolute rejection (dissidence), of open struggle, having forgotten about Ovid, the melancholic archetype of the observer-contemporary, existing in all periods of history.

Now it’s conventional to criticize the 1990s severely, to scrutinize the mistakes of that time, to find in them evil design, similar to those irreverent children who blame their parents for their shortcomings. But the last two decades of the 20th century were a period of liberation, of freedom and of the lesson of responsibility, which, perhaps, has not been learnt by society to this day.

Peeping, or The Small Joys of a Little Man

Dashevsky began to photograph at the beginning of the 1960s. A few years after the death of Stalin. Today it may seem that it was a completely different epoch, free, easy in comparison to the one preceding. But over five or six years the psychology of man does not change. In the war years a man with a camera in the street stirred up, in principle, the vigilance of watchful citizens, ready to see a spy in anyone; the post-war years made it a customary scene, when a happy family was photographed on the “background of Pushkin” or the Kremlin, or when a photo-journalist was photographing in the street, though he was different from other citizens if not in equipment, then by the expression of confidence and concentration in the task. Dashevsky is different. If one glances in the direction the camera is facing—it isn’t clear what he is photographing: neither a woman with children, nor nearby beautiful girls; often the camera is pointed towards glass, shop windows, the centre of the street, in which, in the opinion of the average man, nothing is going on, everything is just as usual. And the question to the man with the camera arises: and what exactly are you doing here? Not from the side of the representatives of authority, for whom the humble engineer with a briefcase and camera did not have any interest, but from the side of the people hurrying along the streets, emerging for a second out of their thoughts, glancing back and noticing something strange: a man photographing nothing. If it had happened in Paris in the 1960s–1980s, then the public there had got used to and tired of the abundance of clicking shutters, everywhere photographers, tourists. Most likely, in Moscow the reaction of chance passers-by to Dashevsky can be compared to the reactions of Parisians of the 1920s, when portable narrow-film cameras had only just come into fashion, were unusual and as a new object attracted attention: what is this photographer shooting? Thus in the 1920s contrivances appeared, such as, the camera with a side lens, the camera disguised as a big lighter, or hidden in a book,—fantasy worked on the external form of the photographer’s tool. But in another country at a different time such work was totally inappropriate. Here the attentive passer-by, looking intently, would definitely have suspected a spy. And the technique of street photography in the Soviet Union from the 1950s took a different route: the photographer—a little man, just like all those around him, having melted into the crowd, photographed it, the crowd. As if peeping. Such are the small joys of a little man. As simple as that.

The Photographer: Artist? Philosopher?

Dashevsky considers his own photography as artistic. For him, educated in club discussions, there exists only one opposition: reportage—art photography. Reportage, in its newspaper-magazine Soviet form, is where the content dominates and the quality of the image is less important, complexity of composition is not welcome so as to not obscure the meaning. Everything else falls under the category of author’s photography, and, therefore, is art photography. Such is the opposition in the Soviet theory of photography. The collective, ideologically controlled message—this is reportage (photo-journalism), all the rest, being the author’s subjective message, may survive and be shown only in the territory of art. There much more is possible. Even more so because the style of art, in the years of those photographic discussions, was socialist realism, within which only lyrical poetry and the lyrical short story, being small shadow forms, could become a refuge for artists who hearkened not to the slogans of the party, but to the voice of their hearts.

Today everything is richer, theoretically more interesting. No one denies the author’s nature in photography, it is in photo-reportage and in other forms as well. Reportage is understood in the spirit of the French and American tradition of visual communication of an event; Soviet photo-reportage is understood in the history of photography as a separate genre. A phenomenon in itself. There is applied, advertising photography and there is art photography, and photography in contemporary art. And each of the types of photography has its own tasks, its own set of names of leaders, and its own figurative canons. Even artistic photography as a definition has become quite rare. Art photography is a complex independent type of contemporary art which is developed by photographers; photography which artists use as an instrument for the creation of works of contemporary art,—even these two movements, sometimes hard to differentiate, have diverged in the process of the specialisation (development) of photography. And documentary photography, which is not forgotten over time, develops and attracts the attention of both viewers and theoreticians. In it are working photographers, not one of whom it is possible to suspect of lacking his own author’s position. Each is a personality. And, if one were to use analogies, each of them is an artist who has chosen the documentary genre, like film directors who have chosen documentaries, like artists who work with everyday noises and sounds, like illustrators and writers. Looking at the specifics of the work of the documentary photographer, the closest occupations to it would be those of a film director and a non-fiction writer. All of them enter the space of the everyday, the environment which alters with the intrusion into it of a new body, but this alteration is subject to the laws of development of the environment itself, not dictated by those who document, who only strive to record the environment, its mood, problems, to find the laws governing it, scrutinizing everything from the closest possible distance.
Making such a classification, we, of course, say that Dashevsky is a documentary photographer. He, like a director and writer, tries to formulate his own observations. To give them form. And in this he is an artist. He works on a small scale, with separate shots, rarely with series, and in each shot creates, as in poetry, a diverse image. His photographs are of the streets and of street life also, but there is in them also light, form, his, the artist’s, mood.

In time, in the photograph, signs of the historical epoch when it was made show through. And this is a characteristic of photography in principle. It is similar to how photographs, printed from negatives, in the developing solution appear through the image, in the same way the photograph-image “ripens” with meaning over the years. If it is destined to be preserved and seen.

A Photograph: Many Truths

What is in Dashevsky’s photographs? Streets, people, the city. Sometimes portraits, interiors. He tells small stories. For the photographer his shots are like small elegies, which depict not so much historical anecdotes,—everyday life is too petty, it’s not every day that Pushkin and Derzhavin walk through the streets,—but the states of “non-quiescence” of the habitual environment. For the author these elegies are the process and subject of poetic and intellectual “small delights” (Dashevsky’s words). That which unfolds in front of his camera directs itself and in some unknown (some would say “magic”) way illustrates the principles of Philosophy and History proper. As if small mathematical sums, in which the theory of large numbers, in any case, is reflected.

Dashevsky’s photography may to the viewer, seeing it for the first time, seem to be outwardly of little importance. It, the whole body of photographs made by the photographer, begins to work as a large mass, gradually grasping the viewer’s attention. Or it works through memory. I happened to see how foreigners, living in Russia as students twenty to thirty years ago, held back their tears whilst looking at his photographs, because they saw in them more and deeper than his fellow countrymen, who were born years after the time when he had photographed the lilac blooming on the boulevard or the hunched figures of drunkards waiting for the opening of a shop.

It is said that a photograph holds many truths. Change the context and it begins to work in a different way. Attach a different title to a reportage shot, and it, instead of being a defence of its hero, will become a denunciation. It’s not like that with art photography (let’s call it subjective in order to avoid the terminological hierarchy of half a century ago). In such photography there is so much of the author’s impression that, maybe, it does not convey the historical “authentic” truth—there are too few informative factual details,—but it will fully communicate the feeling of the epoch, because feeling is something strictly subjective and poetic.

Dashevsky’s photography is an expression of the mood of the contemporary of an event, who is experiencing not only the (probable) importance of the historic moment, but also his own age, the weather, the time of the year, the discord or happiness in a family, everything that allows other people to understand him,—subjective photography, in this way of reading, is precise and easily understood without commentaries. Commentaries, on the contrary, only distract from communing with it.

Small Elegies

What are Dashevsky’s photographs as regards form? Most likely, for all that, small elegies. The elegy is poetic reflection, as a rule, sad in mood. In Dashevsky’s sadness, as in embroidery, the beads are of different colours. Here there are national peculiarities and the thoughts of an intelligent man about the time in which he lives, and the feeling of a little man in a big city and big state, in the cosmos, primarily, social. Life in it is like the flight of a meteorite, a grain of sand on a cosmic scale. But the entire culture of the Old World is directed towards honouring the little man, serving the cult of his significance and dignity. Within these boundaries the Russian classics of the end of the 19th century are so esteemed, especially Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, because he managed to overcome the national and cultural characteristics of the little man and make the feelings of the everyday poetically lucid everywhere. I shall not contend that Dashevsky’s photography is as cosmic in the elegiac mood as Chekhov’s works. But the fact that it works in the European space, united by a common cultural memory, and in the East-European space where the common history of the last century also has welded all together for long years,—is obvious to me.

The Theory of Corpuscular Light

When talking about photography one constantly refers to the theme of light. And what is it if not the writings of subtle matter? Dashevsky’s photography is modest not only in its subject matter, but in the beauty of lighting, and thus can be even more profoundly scientific than it may seem at first.

Since one’s school days everyone remembers that light is a wave and there is another theory about its corpuscular structure. Light is twofold. Thinking about it as a wave nature, reflected in a photograph, you immediately recall the effective compositions of the 1920s’ Modernists, with their diagonal stripes of light and shadow. The art of the epoch of the all-European (cultural) revolutions and Russian (political) revolution, in the forms of abstraction, continually turned towards the newest scientific theories. And many were interested in light, as well as, by the way, in sound, electromagnetic radiation, the structure of matter. The wave is impressive in the image: originating from the image of a sea wave, from childhood impressions of an undulating wave of liquid, its pattern was transposed correspondingly onto light waves, giving them colour. But how should corpuscles (photons) be depicted? They are everywhere, dispersed, extinguish and grow, become active… in waves, but how should their presence be shown? Light is everywhere. Not in the highest phase of its manifestation, but in greyness, half-light-half-shadow. A strange detail, but the Master asked Woland to be sent to an eternity of twilight, neither night nor day, but endless time, filled with dull light. When you look at Dashevsky’s photographs you see this grey… light. Signifying timelessness and eternity. As were envisaged the system and youth, onto which the apogee of the system fell.

Stoicism and Romanticism

What is it like being an intelligent being? Isn’t there heroism in living daily in the knowledge that life is finite? How much does it require, what store of irony and self-composure should there be in order, looking around, to love life and continue living?

It is said that, the generation, to which Dashevsky belongs, the generation of the 1960s,—are romantics. But, as well, they are stoics who gave birth to the so-called severe style in painting and literature. They, possessing the scepticism of inhabitants of a developed imperial system, were the dreamers about the space, about the future, romantics who found a liking for the little joys of everyday life.

Dashevsky’s photographs are also about this. To be more precise, their mood and musicality of composition are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of his generation. Personal political criticism and admiration of the old city, the delight in beautiful women (their beauty is different to today’s glossy magazines, but no less perfect), the modest joys of a city-dweller in the rare moments of union with nature, the change of seasons in the city, noticeable only at the moments of obvious onset: blossoming, rain, snow. Stoicism as the mood of living in an empire and romanticism as the state of the soul. This definition is applicable to all of the author’s photography of the 1960s–1980s, but in those years there was also the mood of revolutionary heroism and tumultuous emotional outbursts. The latter are not typical of Dashevsky. But the alloy of the extreme points of the quiet heroism of the opposition to the big life,—stoicism and romanticism,—this is about him.

The Linguistic Aspects of Photography

Photography is a language. With its own laws, analogous to linguistic ones. Syntax, morphology. Orthography and punctuation change with time; that which seemed to be the correct form twenty years ago, in our day irritates as being archaic. The findings of forty years ago, on the contrary, seem to be the chic of stylisation. Through Dashevsky’s photographs one can learn what was considered “bon ton” in the Moscow photographic circles in the years when the photographs were made. Because the artist was always a pious “innovator” (member of the Innovator photo club), for him working on form is extremely important. This club was the place where the tasks of photography, the formal structure of the frame, composition, and printing were discussed seriously. Work was carried out on the precision of expression. Innovator is sometimes called the forge of personnel of Moscow photography of the second half of the 20th century. Both the innovatorians and those who were far from this circle found themselves anyway to be in one sphere of the creative tasks in photography of the 1970s–1980s, amongst which form, rather than content, was the more discussed problem. Owing to the already established canons of the photographic language and knowledge of the canons in their own circle, the content was read quickly, like a new novel. The innovatorians can be compared with philologists, members of a literary group.

Freethinking, allowed in the photo club, in literature contemporary to it would have been declared to be dissidence—because of the precision of expression. But in photography it remained possible. The form of photography, seeming simple, frank, accessible, like any visual language (whether it be the fine arts or architecture) requires preparation for the perception of the message, not on the level of the subject matter or emotions, but of the content.

Irony, Grotesque, Silence

Earlier we already talked about Dashevsky’s particular ironic relationship to his choice of subject matter. If one were to talk about genre photography (within the framework of understanding genre in the traditions of the classical fine arts), Dashevsky is not so much the philosophizer, as the mocker. A slightly shaky camera, repetitions, rhythms, converging towards the centre of the frame, like towards a cubist rupture, shifted somewhere to one side from perfect geometry, it seems the artist is hesitating, is torn between different states which overwhelm him simultaneously, here there is both raucous laughter and tears. And this is all done with reserve, within himself, because street photography does not allow for the figure of the photographer to be bent double from laughter, wiping his face with his sleeve.
The further the photographer goes away from the streets into the yards, to the windows of the old houses of Solyanka, where he was born, the more reserved become the emotions, the calmer. The closer Dashevsky is to his heroes, the closer he is acquainted with them, the more serious are the portraits, the more taciturn, the stricter are the compositions.

The mask of the ironic observer, the intonation of mirth are thrown to one side, the irony proves to be social. A tête-à-tête with his reminiscences in Bely Gorod. Dashevsky is no longer joking, in these places there are other melodies.

From the streets to the yards, from the external to the internal, a spiralling movement towards the centre of old Moscow. Calmer. Stricter. More accurate. More intense.

Moscow, Which is No More

That Moscow, in Dashevsky’s photographs, is no more. It was there, just yesterday. Much, especially from the symbols of the 1990s—the first years of the new millennium, still seems familiar. A few years hence and the advertising billboards, the shape of the streetlights, the length of skirts, the height of heels, the grimaces of teenagers will for the viewer become signals which cause nostalgia, as the old yards in Dashevsky’s photographs now do.

Bressonism and Moscow Aspects

Seven years ago in Moscow in photographic circles the dependence of Russian photography on the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson was being seriously discussed. The great Frenchman really came here, met people, showed his photographs. Of course, the idea of the “decisive moment” in photography, illustrated by the Parisian photos by Cartier-Bresson, profoundly affected the souls of all those for whom photography was an instrument of recording space-time. The quantity of figures, jumping over puddles, reflected in the water, in the pictures of Soviet photographers of the 1970s reached a critical mass. But, one has to note, that Bresson’s own works made in the USSR practically were not included in the final versions of the portfolios, edited by the master himself at the end of his life. Bresson’s books, published as a result of trips to the Soviet Union, have bibliographic value. For those who live in this country the publications also hold historical value, as testimonies of the external appearance of fellow citizens and cities, factories and collective farms, as the visual stereotype of “Soviet life” and as the set of techniques of the photographer himself, which saved him when the subject did not want to become a masterpiece, novel in form.

Muscovites have more “bressonism” in their Moscow photographs than has Cartier-Bresson himself. Because they were interested in interpreting the new idea, in creating variations of the Parisian’s one photograph which they had seen (or maybe, only heard about). For them “bressonism” was not a comfortable habitual cliché helping to solve the official tasks of a commissioned shoot, which one cannot botch. At the beginning new trends appeared in club photography, and only later, gradually, they did penetrate into official photography. In the photography of the Soviet period “bressonism” also meant the striving towards contemporary European and, wider, world street photography. The tracking of life’s moments was becoming a new approach, contrary to the staged photo-reportage practised by photo-journalists of the central Soviet agencies (mainly, TASS). Besides Bresson one can name Doisneau, Kertesz, the Capa brothers, McCullin, Berry and other western photographers as the sources of Moscow “bressonism”—those who came to photograph in the Soviet Union, and whose few albums were published in the Soviet publishing houses, whose shots slipped into the photographic magazines available in the USSR.

Looking today at Dashevsky’s photographs, you see in them more names with whom the photographer held dialogues, than were known to him when the photos were taken. This is because the space of photography is an integrated whole, and, the artist, living in a different system, including the aesthetic one in relationship to photography, remains nevertheless the instrument of his time, which expresses itself—intuitively—through him.

The Uncaught Time of the Recent Past

A photograph is a delicate thing. It gets wet, gets too dry, buckles, fades, is lost, torn. Looking at photos is a favourite pastime, but even this requires preparation. Not to speak of making photographs: shooting, printing. Especially so, if one is talking about of the “old”, film photography, which possesses the magic of the materials, the process, something invisible which later appears and acquires meaning. Even the preservation of photographs requires knowledge. Writing about it is a difficult and thankless task, there always remains more unsaid, than defined.

However, photography has a saving form. When the photograph is included in a book there is the chance that it will be preserved. Photography and printed publications, photography and the book are the favourite themes of contemporary researchers. The photographic revolution is compared to Guttenberg’s invention, an epoch-making breakthrough for the whole of the western (including Russian) civilisation. A photograph itself becomes a reality, which acquires the form of a reproduction in a book. The book reproduction of the photograph saves this reality for history. The uncaught time of the recent past, the photographic reflections of Moscow everyday life become impressions forever only in a book.

The portrait on the Background of the Generation

Mikhail Dashevsky’s archive is, it seems, fathomless. Certainly new books, new projects will appear. Thanks to this publication the portrait of the artist has become more manifest, more distinct. Few photographers of his age can present history with such an edited version of itself. A book is like an official gala portrait. On the background of its photographic generation.
Alexander Fursov. 2011
Complete Impartiality. Reserved for Automatic Security Cameras
Out of his eighty years Mikhail Dashevsky has photographed for almost half a century. For about forty out of these fifty he has been closely connected with the Moscow photo club Innovator and all this time committed to a single inexhaustible subject that can be labeled as kitchen-sink documentary photography.

The enormous body of work produced over decades crystallized into two series: The Sunken Time and The Ordinary. Moscow. The first one took the form of an exhibition and a same-name album which won the first place in the international competition for the Best Photography Book of Eastern and Central Europe in Bratislava in 2006. The second will be published as a book too, eventually. Strictly speaking, any family photo might be attributed to this genre. Dashevsky’s creative background differs from the plain amateur chronicles not only by the scope of subjects and themes, but also by the artistic impact.

There is some contradictory duality in photography. A photograph is both a document and an art work. A perfect illustration to this duality are photographs by Dashevsky. It may seem that this quality of photography has been talked round over and over again. However, the claims for objectivity and complete impartiality of documentary photography still persist in magazines (and now also in the Internet). Complete impartiality is the domain of automatic security cameras, while in the hands of a passionate person the camera becomes a tool of evocation of one’s perspective on the world, even if the artistic expression is not sought for. The very selection of the subject matter in the chaos of the world is definitely a creative act, and when we turn our gaze from one photograph to another we bend to the author’s will—“Look here!”

Dashevsky captures our transient life in a thoughtful and purposeful manner. The viewer is not presented with impersonal visual information, but receives an invitation to look at the world through the eyes of the photographer and to see the image that was in his mind at the moment of shutter release. Photographs by Mikhail Aronovich attract diverse public and are interpreted accordingly—what people see depends on their own experience and the ability to accept that of others. This gives way to various interpretations.

“Dashevsky! Why are you so hateful to our motherland?” I stumbled across this desperate cry in the guest book for The Sunken Time exhibition. The reaction is sadly typical: first, the person couldn’t perceive the obvious compassion in Dashevsky’s works; second, the critical attitude to certain sides of life was by default extended to our motherland as a whole and third, the author of the comment apparently considers that he and Dashevsky have different motherlands. One question raises three. Let’s look at them.

Speaking of the third (in the Soviet terminology—the fifth item), everything is rather simple. Born in the USSR, Dashevsky has lived here for his entire life and dedicated so much time and effort to this country—he served both photography and science (Mikhail Aronovich, by the way, is a doctor of engineering sciences)—that it would be ridiculous to doubt his commitment. Whether the Jew Dashevsky loves Russia or not is a rhetorical question. In fact, we love not those who gave us something, but rather those who we contributed to. Anyway, the author of the mentioned comment in the guest book could be just an exception to the rule.

Things are more complex with the other two questions. A cursory glance at selected works by Dashevsky may suggest that we deal with ordinary chernukha which we saw more than enough in the first post-perestroika years. Candid photographs captured on the side streets of Moscow, neither posed nor ideologically retouched, stand in sharp contrast with the former Soviet photojournalism and mainstream glamorous photography of our time. Attention of the documentary photographer is naturally focused on these images of life which are customary for the locals and promise no treat for the eye—it would be hardly possible to cover the theme without them. Is there a slightest hint in these photographs at the author’s intent to show his subjects in a bad light or to humiliate them? Is it possible to suspect the photographer of savoring Russian poverty and wretchedness? Absolutely not, unless your views on time and country are perverse. His compassion to the so-called “common people” is, on the other hand, obvious.

For Dashevsky people are not an impersonal crowd in the street. He sees individuals, personalities, characters. Say, Uncle Kolya.

In no way this man resembles a happy citizen from a propaganda poster, but is familiar to everyone who lived in a Russian village—a typical peasant, lean and sinewy, hard-working, one of those who fed our huge country through all the tough years literally for nothing—he got no wealth, no support from the government. For years he plowed and sowed in conditions of risky farming and political repressions, but survived; he didn’t drink himself to death, didn’t turn embittered, didn’t go wrong and, despite the inhuman treatment, preserved human dignity. There lies his heroism. Look closer at the portrait. Is it possible to doubt author’s sincere sympathy for the depicted man? This photograph—as a memento of Russia and its people—hangs in the office of Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who worked in Moscow at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. A true recognition, isn’t it?
Life is evaluated through comparison. If we assume that life could be much worse, the photographs by Dashevsky sound like a bitter hymn to our shared fate. If our life is compared with that of developed nations, the works acquire a tone of harsh criticism. What prevails? The first is in tune with the second. But what these works don’t convey is either arrogance or indifference of a successful man to his less fortunate fellow citizens.

A closer examination of Dashevsky’s images of everyday life in Moscow makes it fairly clear that these photographs could only be taken by a man fully involved in this world. It is an outward gaze at us and our life, a gaze intense yet kind. It is a gaze that makes us straighten up and check the buttons. Under this gaze one naturally wants to become a better person. What if this was the photographer’s intention?

It is unlikely that Dashevsky ever had a didactic mission in view. His work primarily appeals to his peers. They need no explanation—everything is precisely documented and relatable. Author’s captions to images are aimed at the young and the foreigners.

The time inevitably sinks in memory. Despite the laws of physics, heavy memories of hard times stay afloat longer—but they finally sink too. Dry-as-dust archival documents preserve the time for historians; art resurrects the past for others. Notably the art of photography. Photography does wonders—it extends the depicted time. As the years go by, a fleeting moment which slipped through the shutter blinds and got captured on film may turn into a whole decade. An ordinary story or a tiny detail becomes a thousand times more meaningful and gains the power of recalling entire epochs from the depth of the memory. The time rises to surface.

Mikhail Dashevsky appreciated the future value of the mundane; otherwise, he would have never captured these countless moments, details, and images. At the start of this collection there was no hope for exhibiting his photographs or printing a book. Yet he photographed, developed, and maintained his priceless archive. Was he a prophet? I don’t think so. A dreamer? More likely, just as almost every other member of Innovator at that time. Now, he made it to personal exhibitions, books, recognition—he lived to be eighty.

Mikhail Dashevsky’s photographs keep important chunks of time from irreversible oblivion. For the older generation they give a means to rewind the tape and feel the time anew, recall and analyze their mistakes. For the young—an opportunity to look into the recent past of their parents and gain a slightly better insight into their fate and fortunes, become more tolerant to them. A study of Dashevsky’s photographs gives everyone a chance to understand something important about themselves and their country.