I am a photographer who takes pictures of people that seem beautiful and mysterious to me.
And that is all.
Forgive me if I speak personally… Sometimes, the work of a photographer steals in through the eye to settle in an armchair of the mind almost before one is aware it has entered. Once comfortably ensconced, the images take up residence and never leave. So it was for me with the work of Oleg Videnin. I first saw his photographs in an exhibition curated by Irina Tchmyreva and Evgeny Berezner for the Australian Centre for Photography. What immediately struck me then was the achingly gentle tonality of each image – there is no sharp contrast or dramatic chiaroscuro – light delicately caresses each subject to be caught in the velvety patina of the silver-gelatin print. Each print a unique, sensual artefact, something it is hard to grasp in the backlit translucence of a digital screen.
But these are portraits, and it is people who are their central concern. With few exceptions, each individual meets our gaze. Some seem a little melancholy, some mildly amused, most survey us with inscrutable intensity. We are used to the photographic pose. We all do it, knowingly presenting a performance of self that we have come to understand best transmutes in the alembic of the camera to the gilded image of who we wish to believe we are, how we think we should appear. Not so here. For all their frontal framing, few of the people in Oleg Videnin’s photographs suggest such a self-conscious arrangement of persona. These are not images that clamour for our attention, their subjects remain quietly assured of who they are… It is they who regard me from their world of shaded greys; a world I have never visited and yet feels so uncannily familiar. It is that intimate conversation of the eyes that beguiles me.
And so it is, each time I look at the portraits of Oleg Videnin: the paradoxical sense of intimacy and restraint, of recognition in the midst of that which is ultimately unknowable. For me, the mysterious potency of these photographs lies in the way they sensitise the imagination. Like a touch so light it hardly makes contact, they send a shiver of intense awareness through my being.
Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?
Oleg: I have been photographing since childhood – for city kids at the time, it was a very common hobby. I was about seven years old when my parents gave me my first camera: a simple Soviet-made Smena-8. A little later I got a twin-lens Lubitel, a cheap replica of a Rolleiflex [both cameras manufactured by Lomo]. What I was shooting then, I don’t remember anymore… No prints and films from that period have survived. I just loved everything – the feel of the camera, the image in the viewfinder, the sound of the shutter and, of course, the mysterious magic of image manifestation.
You have worked as a forest ranger, a theatre actor, and a journalist. Have those experiences helped to shape the way you take photographs?
It is true that I have worked in various fields and, of course, all experiences affect a person and his work in some way or another. But that is secondary to my deeper convictions. What is much more important is the kind of people one connects with, what one read in childhood and adolescence, the kind of movies one watched and music one listened to, the visual environment in which one grew up. While the Soviet era had its disadvantages, there was one indisputable plus – we were protected from poor-quality literature, cinema and music. I only read, watched and listened to the classics and this had a crucial formative effect on me. Today, I still draw on the world of my childhood and adolescence: it lies deep within me.
The internet was important in helping you establish your reputation. How did that shape your practice?
I do not think it did. I have always considered myself to be an artist (if you don’t use the word in its pretentious sense). I drew, I photographed, I acted in the student theatre, then I wrote a lot, sang, and photographed again.
But yes, in one way the internet affected me: it helped me find a mass audience. After all, before the internet, you could only show your photos to your family and friends. It was impossible for an unknown photographer to get published in photographic magazines, or organise an exhibition. As soon as the first Russian photo site appeared, I logged in. My registration number for this site, where a few years later there were millions of members, was 77.
I was lucky that, amid the plethora of enthusiastic and abusive comments to be found on these popular photo sites, I was noticed by the professional community and soon received invitations from several galleries.
Your portraits are made in and near your hometown.
Bryansk is typically Russian. It was originally just a small town in the Oryol province. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were only about ten thousand inhabitants lived here. But during my childhood, the population increased to almost half a million, and the city has now become a regional centre. Even so, given this expansion is only recent, the spirit of Bryansk continues much as it always was.
What makes it special for you?
It’s amazing to me, but I’m only interested in making pictures here in the town and surrounding villages. Even in neighbouring regions, I rarely find people who are really interesting to me in photographic terms. They seem to be exactly the same as here in Bryansk, but my camera mostly remains in its case. I cannot explain it…
Who are the people in your photographs?
Most are strangers that I meet on the street. I used to wander around on foot in search of subjects, but later I found it more productive to drive around, methodically circling the alleys and crossing the fields. I have learned how to find what I am looking for. Of course, I have also photographed people I know, but really what I want to do is find photographically interesting subjects that I do not know.
You have a distinctive style of portraiture – traditional, but precise and authentic. How do you go about making a portrait?
Many people think that I spend a long time talking with my subjects so that I can somehow ‘reveal their inner world’. This is not the case. Perhaps it is a personal idiosyncrasy, but I have long understood that, for me, talking with a person I want to photograph does not get them to open up. On the contrary, they tend to close down; they start ‘performing’ rather than being natural.
It takes me less than three minutes to make a shot, sometimes much less. People going about their business don’t have time for self-reflection and I do not seek to reveal their ‘inner world’. I am a photographer, nothing more. I need just the shortest time to create an image that will satisfy me. I guide the subject using my facial expressions, some words (later I cannot remember what because I am concentrating wholly on making the image). The picture made, I say “thank you” to the person and they continue on their way.
Your prints are beautifully made. The tone is subtle and quite dark. They have a particular mood.
I have always loved old photographs, especially those taken in large format, where the image is soft and moulded but with an abundance of detail. I don’t like hard, bright light. I love cloudy weather, when the light does not cut, but washes over surfaces.
And almost all your photographs are square format.
It was more than twenty years ago that I got a twin-lens camera and fell in love with the square format… I remember the exact moment…
A boy was walking home after school in a village on the outskirts of Bryansk. I stopped him and took two shots – in the first he was laughing, and in the second he was calmly looking at the camera. This second photograph was to become one of my best known, my calling card… and it was after making this photograph that I switched permanently to the square frame.
Another image that is widely known is the girl in the white dress…
It was evening. I was about twenty kilometres from the city, returning home from a shoot. This girl in a white dress was sitting at an empty bus stop waiting for a bus. I gave her a lift to the city and took this portrait on the way. Valentina said that she had been at a neighbouring village for a wedding, but when her parents went home, they forgot to take her with them.
In 2018, I tried to find Valentina again to take a photograph ‘ten years on’… Unfortunately, I found her in the cemetery; she had died in a car accident.
There is a photograph, also well known, that stands out as a little different from your other work, in two ways. The strong emotion portrayed and the use of flash light. I am thinking of the image of the women standing on a bridge, crying.
In 2007, I was walking around Astrakhan with two art school students. While we were walking, one of them burst into tears (it is not necessary for you to know the reason why) and I made this portrait. (And yes, it is the only one I have made using flash.) A few years later, a young film director from Moscow [Anton Kolomeets] was inspired by this photograph to make a feature film with the same name ‘Tonya is Crying on the Bridge of Lovers’ .
The Italian art critic Giuseppe Cicozzetti has likened your work to August Sander’s documentation of Weimar society. Do your portraits form a kind of ‘typology’?
Certainly not! Unlike Sander, I am not trying to make a typological survey of society, where there will be a cook, a soldier, a shopkeeper, a farmer, an engineer… I have no interest in the profession and status of a person in the frame.
What is it you seek to communicate through your portraits?
I am not a sociologist or a journalist. I am a photographer who takes pictures of people that seem beautiful and mysterious to me. And that is all. I never think about the fate of these people. This kind of thinking is not helpful to me as a photographer. I diligently avoid any attempt to dissect my work with the scalpel of logic. I am sure that if one did the analysis, one could probably find the who, what, why… But I do not want to know these things, because they would surely destroy the irrational, intuitive, subtle… In my opinion, rationality is destructive of creativity.
And I don’t do ‘projects’. That’s not for me. While I may gather work from my archive into a thematic group for a book or exhibition, that is always a retrospective selection. I do not purposefully set out to make a series on a particular topic; something intentionally planned, designed and implemented. That’s photography from the mind. I love photography from my heart.
So how do you decide what to photograph?
I just shoot what is close to me and what I love. A photographer, if free of editorial obligations or preconceived attitudes, broadcasts the ideas and feelings of which he is personally the bearer. It seems to me that I am trying to recapture my childhood and adolescence through photography. I want to preserve, at least on film, the final embers of the pre-digital era, when people had more time to talk, went to visit each other, met in parks and dance halls, and not virtually on the internet…
Over the twenty years that you have been photographing in Bryansk, what has changed?
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer people who are interesting to me in the photographic sense. I always strive to ensure that my photographs have a certain timeless quality. Yet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people in clothes without vulgar slogans that immediately date the scene. If you pay attention, looking at my portraits, it is not always easy to determine when they were taken – in the 2000s, 2010s, 1980s or even in the 1960s. It also seems to me that faces are changing. However, that might be my age. Perhaps my eyes are becoming less sharp…
What have you learned through making these pictures?
I have come to understand that one can find fulfillment in different ways. If the internet had not appeared when it did, I would probably have abandoned photography and discovered my vocation in something else: writing books, composing songs, drawing… who knows? But it happened as it happened, and I am happy about that.
I have also come to realise that believing in yourself works wonders. Don’t be swayed by praise or criticism of your work. You should go your own way, explore the unknown, however gropingly. Try to leave behind something whole and worthy. Do what seems right, and come what may.
Oleg Videnin was born in Bryansk, Russia, in 1963. In 1985, he graduated from Bryansk Technological Institute as a Forestry Engineer. He has worked as a forest ranger, actor, and journalist for newspapers, radio, and television. In the early days of Russian social media he became one of the top five photographers discussed online. In 2005, he joined the agency PHOTOGRAPHER.RU.
He has exhibited widely with more than twenty solo exhibitions around the world including Australia, France, Italy, Russia, Ukraine and USA. His work is represented in a number of important public and private collections including those of the Moscow Museum Contemporary Art, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Moscow), and the Museum of Photo Art (Kolomna). His work is published in four monographs including ‘The Return Route. Photographs by Oleg Videnin’ (2009), and ‘Girls from the Outskirts’ (2021). In 2011, the British filmmaker Christian Klinger released ‘The Russians’, a film about the photography of Oleg Videnin. He lives and works in Bryansk.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.