The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.Susan Sontag
In her seminal book ‘On Photography’ (1977) Susan Sontag made the above distinction between painting and photography. On a purely mechanical level it describes the way that a painter must build up an image with many strokes of the brush, while a photographer records the light reflected from a subject so that it can be preserved. Beneath this is a more philosophical question of what it is that we are seeing. The quotation suggests that a painter is shaping an image through his or her own perception, while a photographer captures, in some sense, a reality. One is characterised as subjective the other as objective.
And yet, from its earliest days, photography has involved levels of construction, from the simple act of selective framing (what is shown and what is excluded) to the need for early landscape images to be constructed from several negatives if the sky and land were both to be visible. Painters too, especially before the advent of photography, often aimed at a sense of realism, even when the subject was mythological. As I have discussed before in these articles, photography is always to some degree subjective. Photographers wish to show us what they perceive, and visual perception is a complex blend of optical data and mental reconstruction.
The challenge of thinking about subjectivity and objectivity, about constructing and disclosing, is made more complex when the images created by a photographer borrow from the visual lexicon of fine art. In the work of the Siberian artist Alisa Sibirskaya what is seen in the image is a photograph of a tableaux that is itself a construction, an image that is further elaborated in post-production. These pictures are surely not paintings – there is not a drop of paint in the image. But are they photographs? This is just one of the issues that Alisa Sibirskaya discusses in our conversation.
When did you first begin making photographs?
I think this is how it happens: we begin doing something radically new not when life is quiet and calm, but in turbulence, when one just needs to grab something to stay afloat. It was the most hopelessly decadent period of my life. To escape, I could just as easily have taken up embroidery, or rock climbing, or using drugs… but the stars aligned, and I picked up a Canon 6D that I found quietly sitting on a shelf. It seemed to have more buttons than a SpaceX Starship, but I managed to find the power button. And with it I rebooted my life.
That was six years ago.
This series of interviews is looking at the work of photographers who reference, borrow from, or emulate aspects of Art History. How would you describe your relationship with that history and how does it manifest itself in the creative works we are discussing here?
Indeed, my work is connected in many ways with the world of classical art – first and foremost with oil painting. Of course, painting is much more subjective than photography, which remains inexorably objective. Perspective, a certain skin colour, the shape of a body, they are all recorded just as they are. The challenge is to find ways to break free of this objectivity.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Curiosity’ 2020 from the series ‘Take Me to the Netherlands’
[Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Acta Diurna’ [chronicles of everyday life] 2018 from the series ‘Take Me to the Netherlands’
Painting is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The narratives and symbols in classical art are timeless, they do not diminish or cease to excite. For example, in the series ‘Take Me to the Netherlands’ I explore the way Dutch Masters such as Johannes Vermeer constructed their images, the quality and density of the light, the interplay of gesture and still life. Today, we can continue to explore and reinterpret these qualities and, through them, seek and find new meanings. But for me, painting is, above all, a way of learning about light.
We recognise the works of each of the Old Masters by their unique way of depicting light. We can always distinguish the light of Rembrandt from the light of Rubens, and the light of both is different again from that of Caravaggio. And of course, to make a photograph is to ‘draw with light’. The way one uses light in a photograph defines it. My greatest ambition is to master the art of light and learn to control it the way the great artists of the past were able to do. For me, light is magic.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Alena in Roses’ 2020
[Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Narcissus’ 2021
This is also true of the Pre-Raphaelites who sought, in the mid-nineteenth century, to rediscover the qualities of fifteenth-century Italian painting.
For me, the manner in which those artists worked is one of the most mysterious and difficult to capture. The plots are dramatic and light at the same time. There are no pronounced shadows, yet the images are deep and voluminous. The characters are realistically natural yet, at the same time, poetically sublime. I am impressed by their innovative ideas: their use of colour, fresh tones and detail; their abandoning of the studio to return to the open air, to nature; their use of friends and relatives as models. I think it is an interesting challenge for any photographer to put oneself in similar conditions and try to recreate one’s own version of that great era.
You come from Siberia and now work in Barcelona. How have these two different places shaped your work?
I think we are largely shaped by the place we were born and grew up, and I am no exception. I was born in Siberia, where winter lasts nine months a year, in a small town where the nearest city has only two museums, one of which is closed. I think it was precisely because of this lack of light, colour, and cultural experience that, from early childhood, I tended to invent imaginary worlds around me. It is this ability to invent that I now use to create photographs. My characters live in their own worlds with their own habits, environment, and rules.
When I go back home each summer I add new works to a series that returns to my origins, recreating the dreams and fairy tales of my childhood. These works are inspired by Russian folklore: stories of the prophetic bird Gamayun; Bayun the cat, whose voice lulls you to sleep before he robs you; and the wolf, a frequent character in lullabies, who comes into the house at night and carries away into the forest any child who is not asleep.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Bayun’ 2020 from the series ‘Russian Folktales’
[Upper Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Gamayun’ 2020 from the series ‘Russian Folktales’
[Lower Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Lullaby’ 2020 from the series ‘Russian Folktales’
Compared to that, Barcelona must have been a very different experience.
Barcelona never fails to inspire. I have lived here for three years, studying at the Institute of Photographic Studies of Catalonia. It is a city that continues to fill me with wonder: the whimsical architecture, the little art shops, a photographic gallery around every corner… it always reminds me that art can be strong and necessary.
In Siberia I learned how to wait and be attentive to the slightest change. Spain is a country of dynamic activity. The two places are very different but, in me, each has found its place. They inspire and enrich me. I can’t imagine myself without one of them or being somewhere else.
What kind of stories are you depicting in your images?
My photographs are a diary. They do not talk about mermaids, centaurs or maids from the Dutch Golden Age, they talk about my life. Everything that appears in the images has a specific – albeit metaphorical – relationship to what I am experiencing in my life. Art is a form of sublimation.
Creativity is a way to experience, reflect, rethink… and through which to understand what is happening to you and around you, without getting hurt. Through it one can release and channel energy in ways that are positive and not destructive.
Art is both personal and universal. It is open to everyone and yet it can be understood in a thousand different ways. I recognise that people do not interpret my photographs exactly as I do. Each person is free to imagine their own meaning and will do so on the basis of their cultural, professional, social, emotional background.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Adam’ 2020 from the series ‘Genesis’
[Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Eve’ 2020 from the series ‘Genesis’
Who are the people in your images?
I never work with professional models. Most of the people in my photographs are my friends, relatives or acquaintances, sometimes they are complete strangers. I might see an interesting face on the street, at a concert, or the supermarket checkout – I approach saying “Wait, don’t leave. Give me your phone number. I need you!”
That sounds a little risky. How do people respond?
Surprisingly, no-one so far has ever refused me or been scared by the request. And, being a pathological introvert myself, photography has definitely expanded my circle of friends and acquaintances!
Can you talk me through the stages of making an image.
I would say that the process of creating a photograph consists of three stages, each of which can lead the story in one direction or another and turn everything upside down.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Ana’ 2019 from the series ‘Take Me to the Netherlands’
[Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Sophia the Wise’ 2020 from the series ‘Russian Folktales’
The first stage is preparatory. It begins unexpectedly. I might be brushing my teeth or making tea and an idea falls into my mind. From that moment, it begins to torment me: “Take my picture!” the idea demands, “Take a picture of me!” Being a dutiful photographer, I obey. How to give this idea a physical form? I find a location, the people, the props, all the elements necessary to give the concept form and dimension. I make small sketches, but they are just a starting point, they are never just slavishly reproduced.
And the second stage?
The shoot. Here my higher education comes to my rescue – I studied drama for seven years, everything from Russian psychological realism to the modern experimental theatre-as-laboratory. I never simply ask people to raise their left leg or turn their right side. We talk for a long time, until everyone is comfortable in their character and immersed in the story they will portray. I only begin to photograph when I see that they are no longer posing, but have begun to live the character.
What about children? It must be hard to give them theatrical direction.
I don’t work with children very often, but when I do, I must abandon my desire for control. It is best to give them complete freedom and just watch how the story begins to develop. Children are much more relaxed than adults; they become totally absorbed in playing and stop noticing the camera. They are not constrained by the convention of being photographed – it is normal for them to turn their back to the camera. They are not concerned with what looks good. They simply exist in the time and space available. One is left wondering at just how precisely they get into one’s idea, without ever being told what it is!
And the final stage after shooting…?
The third stage is the post-production. This is the only one of the three stages when I am ‘not present’. I sit down at the graphics tablet and turn myself off for many, many hours. I think this is similar to the method of automatic writing practised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when people turned off rational control and allowed the unconscious to flow.
Overall, it is a composite technique: a synthesis of painting, photography, theatrical improvisation and harnessing the unconscious. The results can be quite unexpected.
[Left] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Anatomical Theatre Without Spectators’ 2019 from the series ‘Difficulties in Adaptation’
[Right] © Alisa Sibirskaya ‘Ballad’ 2020
There are a lot of elements in many of your images: figures, objects, flowers, drapes, architecture and so on. How much is in the primary image and how much is added in post-production?
Normally I have zero budget. I have to improvise. For example, my hats are made from empty cookie boxes, the mermaid’s tail was constructed from scraps of cloth stuck down with a glue gun. I do not have set decorators, costume designers and make-up artists… But, to my endless gratitude, people find me and offer all kinds of help and materials. I try to have as much as possible of the set, costumes and props at the shoot. This helps the people in front of the camera to enter into the context of the story we are telling. But, what I cannot get in advance is added to the image later, in post-production.
What is the strangest response you have had to your work?
Probably the strangest thing is when people tell me that what I do is not photography. I think for such people photography is reportage, documentary, and landscape. For them, anything beyond that is redefined as digital art. They have a right to their opinion, but I strongly disagree. My tools are light and a camera. I consider myself to be a photographer one-hundred per cent.
Support to Ukrainians who are fighting for peace and dignity.
Support to Russians and Belarusians who are fighting for democracy and freedom.
Be kind to each other. Stop war.
Alisa Sibirskaya was born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, USSR, in 1989. She studied music from the age of seven and, from the age of sixteen, theatre – initially at the Gymnasium for Gifted Teenagers and, later, the Krasnoyarsk State Academy of Music and Theatre, Russia. She subsequently studied photography at the Catalan Institute of Photographic Art in Barcelona, Spain, graduating in 2021. Her work has featured in a number of international group exhibitions including presentations at Contemporary Istanbul, Turkey; Brescia Photo Festival, Italy; Barcelona Gallery Weekend; and Fine Art Igualada, Spain. Her debut solo exhibition was presented in Barcelona in 2021, and she won the prize for emerging talent at the LUX Awards, Spain, in the same year. She lives and works between Siberia and Catalunya.
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the July 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Art and Photography.