Interview with Misha Maslennikov
A mandatory question, how did you start with photography?
This question could be answered simply: accidentally, spontaneously, unintentionally… However, the road to photography, in my case, was long and winding. Rich in applied arts and fine arts education, as well as in theological and pastoral education at the St. Tikhon’s University, I always set out on long journeys to remote and isolated villages, northern monasteries and Taiga in search of the meaning of my future life. My awareness of my own path temporally transformed with enviable consistency, and at the moment when I was 40, I got my first amateur camera in my hands. As the results of the film developed, my destiny to be a documentary photographer was fulfilled inevitably.
Is the black and white in your work an aesthetic choice or is there more to it?
I prefer to use analogue technology in my work. Black and white film developing and printing is currently available both in the home and in quality laboratories, unlike colour processes. But that’s just the technical side of things. In black and white photography I see a parallel reading of reality, where momentarily recorded reality becomes an iconic image that reflects the true depth and essence of things. Without in any way diminishing the value of colour photography, my preference remains in the area of stochastic silver halide formatting.
How do you construct your work? How do you choose what to photograph?
On the one hand, as a perfectionist, I approach every job, especially the creative ones, with a great deal of thoroughness, as those around me would have you believe. It all starts with an idea and a thought about the forthcoming journey, a virtual acquaintance with the existing material on the chosen theme, a study of the features and the traditional lifestyle of the people I will meet and the subsequent correction of the storyline on the ground. Of course as an independent photographer I choose the topic of the upcoming shoot myself. Sometimes I am invited by people who seem to me to be particularly sensitive to their local history and contemporary life, which in turn is of great importance to them and can also become History. I guess they see this revelation and I hope sincerity in my work. As a rule, my choices are extremely delicate, however, I never cease to be amazed at the gifts of fate. After all, what I had planned well in advance of a trip, even spontaneously, can change dramatically on the spot. And in this sense, the end result inexorably turns into a mystical experience. Therefore, already on the other side of the answer to the question, I must always be prepared to encounter something extraordinary, unplanned. In short, ready to meet the miracle.
Do you pre meditate your pictures or photograph intuitively?
In my mind, the entire photographic process can be divided into three equal parts. As a person, I would like to believe, I have good judgement, I am aware of the short time available for me to create complete and complete projects. Therefore, at the initial stage, of course, I plan and prepare for the shoot. Thoughts of the forthcoming trip almost completely absorb and level out other matters of everyday life in my current life situation.
Another legitimate thing is that the moment I get on location and pull out my camera, all prior fuss evaporates somewhere. The brain goes off, leaving only space for vital factors, like avoiding tripping — sometimes looking under your feet… The heart goes into full gear during filming. And it beats in time with what’s in front of my eyes and in my camera’s viewfinder. All that is natural, unfeigned, realistic and documentary is reflected in the frame and stays on the film. Everything superfluous, unimportant is eliminated. I can consider myself an intuitive photographer to the extent that I don’t press the shutter too many times. I save frames on film.
In the final phase of project development, when selecting subjects worthy of display, both senses and intuition come into play. Where intuition is responsible for quality and beauty, and reason for the content, the idea, the message.
What part of the photographic process interests you the most?
Intermediate. I’ve always been drawn to the road. The road that leads far, far away. Conventionally, you could say, to a future shoot. I don’t know what lies ahead, but the excitement, the mood and the willingness to meet something extraordinary emotionally is far more important to me than just finding the perfect situation or shot. When I get home, it’s going to be a while before I can develop the film and see the footage. And that time also fills my life with a special feeling, a foretaste of a possible miracle which I think is about to happen. Finally, the story itself, already in prints, photographs that refresh my memory and are complemented by the narration from my field notebook entries and notes. With these stories of people I live and will live for a long time to come and reflect on the photographic process as an important, in this period, and not a meaningless existence.
Is philosophy important in your work?
As I’ve said before, what’s more important than thinking in my work is feeling. That’s why philosophy and attitudes in life take second place. A momentary reaction, a lived experience of being involved in an event, the desire for an undistorted reproduction of what you are witnessing… Of course I have my own vision and understanding, or rather my own interpretation of reality. But we are not able to reformat our consciousness at lightning speed when confronted with something that does not fit into the usual canons of our perception of reality. How then not to distort the present you are witnessing? Is there enough time and experience to present a material that tolerates no other reading than that which is emitted and narrated by the characters of the images themselves? If there is a philosophy in my practice, it is only as an auxiliary function in the final stage of the final assembly of the project. What would guide me in this process? “Two things in the world fill my soul with sacred awe — the starry sky overhead and the moral law within us.” — So said the great philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Who have been your influences?
I’m afraid this list will be too long. Because I was originally trained as an artist and then as a theologian, and in a very abbreviated way, I have to mention Mikhail Vrubel and Pavel Florensky. However, if I come closer to the subject matter of this interview, I will try to single out a number of names which were particularly important for my photographic vision and formation. The curator of my first solo exhibition was the eminent Pictorialist photographer Georgy Kolosov. He was the first known photographer to appreciate my work and give me a start in my photographic life. Also, at the initial stage, thanks to personal acquaintance and lively communication, Vladimir Sokolayev, Valery Shchekoldin, Alexander Shchemliaev, Vladimir Syomin and Alexander Sliussarev have influenced my approach to aesthetics and semantic content of visuals. I was once lucky enough to meet Josef Koudelka when he visited Moscow. Previously his works, notably the Gypsy Cycle, have made an indelible impression on me. Perhaps I would like to single out another representative of the Czech school of photography, who has also opened the door to documentaries. Jindřich Štreit. The closest person to me from the Baltic school of photography is Romualdas Rakauskas. And as much as I would not like to name and cite other famous and respected names of my contemporaries, whom I sincerely love and admire, I will focus on two photographers whose visual language and work content is in unison with my current understanding of photodocumentary work. Number one is Marco Pesaresi, an Italian photographer with a piercing destiny and poetic legacy. And as I attach particular importance to the female gaze in the visual arts, number two in my pantheon of documentary photographers is the Frenchwoman Lise Sarfati. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. I keep discovering new names and keep my eyes watered by looking at photographs by previously known authors. It’s a whole World.
Do you feel that your work is political?
I think it’s just not possible. Judge for yourself. My constant photographic credo is documentary. Unlike reportage that captures a momentary event, which can be interpreted in editorial ways with any politicized label, be it positive for one side or negative for the other, my series of works reflect timeless storylines. They are usually long-term projects about the lives of ordinary people without any ideological overtones. Traditional routines, stable everyday relationships, natural joys and sorrows, attributed in images and imprinted in centuries of history. And I hope that they will remain so in History with a capital letter. However, I try to add narrative to the visuals, where the text merely deciphers the salient features of the subject matter covered. A delicate, or should I say careful, treatment of the text is the key to a truthful story with heartfelt content. In this sense, I am guided by a rather convincing dictum of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who was also fond of photography and had an excellent grasp of it. “The image must speak for itself. The ideal here would be total silence. Any commentary overwhelms and distorts the image. But people, as a rule, are not satisfied with the image alone: they need text, commentary, discourse. However, there is also a reciprocal relationship between image and text. They are in constant interaction. At first it’s rejection, mutual exclusion, then comes a kind of companionship.”
To summarize, I would like to note that for me personally, as a human being, the intuitionism of Nikolay Lossky and the cosmopolitanism of Maximilian Voloshin are closer. Proceeding from this, my picture does not accept any political position, apart from the fact that it was made by a Russian photographer by birth.
interviewed and recorded
translation into English