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29 June 2013

Nikolai Bakharev, Relationship

Nikolai Bakharev’s cycle Relationship dates from the late 1980s to early 1990s. What were at first sight the usual ‘beach’ shots by which many photographers like Bakharev made a living in the Soviet period, providing souvenir snaps for holidaymakers, have now become classics of Russian photography, the portrait of a historical era at the moment of disintegration.

As people cast off their clothes on holiday they also abandoned the social determinacy of Soviet citizens who were raised and lived as cogs in a system that neutralised individuality, including gender differences, to the utmost degree.

These undressed people posing for a street photographer spontaneously show their desire for togetherness. It is probably no coincidence that the majority are group portraits. Curiously enough, men often lie across women’s knees, rather than the other way around. In fact, socialism as a social epidemic affected and deformed Soviet men, above all. Without the possibility to earn a living commensurate with their qualifications and endeavours, men unable to take responsibility for a wife and children were frequently reduced to infantilism or the bottle.

The situation only changed in the early 1990s, with the onset of ‘wild capitalism’, when we see the awakened macho instinct in young men reflected in Bakharev’s photographs. His series Relationship is a powerful psychological and ethnographical portrait of the Russian provinces. Apparent in these images are signs of degradation, as the consequence of a transformation in identity of the social system. At one and the same time the photographs of Nikolai Bakharev are filled with the unique warmth and wide-open emotionality characteristic only of vulnerable people that have lost their way in life.

In a country where sexuality and the naked body were censored from the mid-1930s onwards, Bakharev’s works became a significant part of unofficial culture in general, and unofficial photography in particular.

Olga Sviblova

Exhibition produced by the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow.

Artist presented by Olga Sviblova for the Discovery Award. 

Exhibition venue: Atelier de Mécanique, Parc des Ateliers, Rencontres d’Arles 2013.