Igor Mukhin on documenting the particular underground youth culture of Soviet Russia

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“Russian artists who convey ‘real life’ stand in conflict along with Russian power. ” Over the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, Mukhin reflects on photography since defiance in 1980s Moscow

This 30 days marks the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, and Igor Mukhin’s photographs fittingly depict the mutating culture across a lot more than three decades in the exhibition Générations: From the URSS to the New Russia, 1985-2021 , presently on show at Gentilly’s Maison Doisneau until nine January. The work is segmented into political periods – Gorbachev, Yeltsin, endless Putin – which situate the particular images within the country’s good socio-economic agitation. Through observational details, Mukhin reveals how the populace’s relationship to general public space has evolved with time, from Russia’s colossal ancient monuments to shifting iconography.

Mukhin (born in 1961) has been exposed to the photographic moderate through cultural happenings in mid-80s Moscow: notably an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs – which piqued an interest in depicting what happened in the streets – along with a book fair with global publishers, where vitrines associated with photography books awakened your pet to visual practices that will flourished elsewhere. His own debut spotlit Moscow’s underground stone scene in the 80s: the rowdy and playful counterculture, which saw youthful groupings smoking and slouching plus clasping at one another in stylish attire or various states of undress. The little, tight-knit community fascinated younger Mukhin. When he noticed The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, he wondered: could this individual transmit that same energy through photography?  

To test was no low-stakes practice. With the watchful eye associated with power always looming, the whole scene was confined towards the shadows. People called one another from telephone booths instead of home phones for anxiety about surveillance; public space has been too hazardous for leisurely hangouts . With many ethnic activities illegal, everything happened “unofficially”. A camera-wielding Mukhin didn’t want to be confused with the KGB or a government risk.

© Igor Mukhin.

© Igor Mukhin.

But simultaneously, events held even in personal spaces were high-risk, and having a record of them was even more dangerous. If Mukhin was arrested, his progresses of film chronicled everything forbidden, from music events to drug consumption. Their photos were printed within samizdat, (literally translation to ‘self-published’), a makeshift file format to evade official Soviet censorship . “There’s continuity between poets, like [Anna] Akhmatova and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky, and rock musicians, ” Mukhin says on the Zoom call from Moscow, by way of publisher Oliver Bergger as translator. “It’s the same circumstances of creating within a tradition whose power structures discourage or prevent art types. Russian artists who express ‘real life’ stand incompatible with Russian power. ”

Later, Mukhin switched their focus to street photography, often tinged with an underhanded sense of absurdist wit. He had a canny partnership to crowds and group dynamics, creating ensemble portraiture of disparate people inside plain sight. He has been attentive to the contrast among old world and ” new world ” within the same frame, like the juxtaposition of a Soviet building behind a modern-looking business person, or a Western brand of smoking advertised aloft from a trio of women in conventional gown traversing a crosswalk. Discernment being paramount, Mukhin would time the shutter to produce when people were walking in front of watching guards.

© Igor Mukhin.

In 1991, when the USSR fell, it became more difficult to photograph in the street. People took it as a type of aggression. So Mukhin paused, pivoting to photographing ancient monuments. He restarted street photography in the mid-1990s, feeling it had been important to take the temperature from the culture through encounters with ordinary people. While other photographers were chronicling the battle in Chechnya, he wished to capture what the effect of the war was doing to urban denizens at home; how the feeling of catastrophe affected the day-to-day.

Mukhin’s pictures tacitly demystify Russian clichés –  the ones exported by means of folkloric literary tropes or bombastic political caricature – by virtue of merely showcasing anonymous people in daily life. He notes that Europeans interpret his street photos as “documentary, ” whereas Russians deemed their images “too artistic” for press use (and actually his work has been small published on his home turf). Mukhin himself refuses to qualify his career, which has used different directions, from performer portraits to cataloguing ceremonial affairs.  

© Igor Mukhin.

His book Resistance – which encapsulates twenty years associated with demonstrations across the entire political spectrum, from communism to fascism –  “shows not sympathy nor antipathy” along with any particular cause. Placing them together highlights what society broadly encompasses. “Today, there’s no right to political engagement, ” Mukhin says of his native nation —  within photography, or perhaps. His aim is to be detailed, to have a birds-eye view, rather than a point of view.

Still, when banal gestures –  like listening to punk music – turn out to be politicized because they can’t be performed openly,   cataloguing these types of discreet transgressions becomes a meaningful gesture. “The earliest images I made when I had been young, I wasn’t aware of them as political, ” he says. “The readership was small, so that lack of reach was not politically effective. ” But when expressing oneself openly isn’t an option, the respond of doing it anyway is really a bold act, irregardless associated with activist intention.


Générations: From the USSR to the New Russia, 1985-2021 is on show at Maison Doisneau until 09 January

© Igor Mukhin.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist plus translator based in Paris. The girl words have been published within the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, as well as others.

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