At first, photography in Belarus, as elsewhere in the world, remained the domain of well-off and technology-savvy amateurs. However, the photographic process gradually became less complicated and costly. As a result, on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries not only rich aristocrats but also some relatively well-to-do city dwellers could already afford to open their own photographic studios. For them, it was a new way to make business. Rather than entertaining themselves with photography, they lived from it. Most members of this newly-emerged “guild” of photographic craftsmen never crossed the boundaries of handicraft. Some, however, developed into fully-fledged artists. Moses Nappelbaum, sometimes called Rembrandt of the Soviet photography, is one of them.
Moses Nappelbaum. A self portrait
Moses Nappelbaum was born in Minsk in 1869. There he started working in a photo studio at the age of 14. After work, Moses roamed the streets of Minsk and studied the pictures exhibited in the shopping windows of local studios. He wanted to learn from other masters, but soon discovered that most of the photos were quite tasteless. Young Moses wanted to do photography in a different way. Perhaps, it was during one of such walks that he came across the idea to get rid of artificial backgrounds and objects in the picture and work with skilfully applied light and shadows instead.
In 1910 Moses Nappelbaum moved to St Petersburg. It was a turbulent revolutionary time in the collapsing Russian Empire. He made his name by capturing many prominent (and also controversial) personalities with his camera. The rules of the time prescribed at least three sources of light for a correct exposition. Moses Nappelbaum, however, began using a single source of light in order to focus on the face of his models, leaving irrelevant details in deep shadows. It was a very similar style to that of Rembrandt paintings. By doing so, Nappelbaum strived to convey the inner world, character and even professional background of his models. For example, the portrait of the prominent ballet dancer Galina Ulanova is so much different from conventional set-up studio photographs of the time.
Galina Ulanova Anna Akhmatova
Looking at these delicate photographs, one can hardly imagine that it was Moses Nappelbaum who created the iconic portraits of leaders of the Bolshevik revolution. For example, he made the well-known photograph of Vladimir Lenin, which haunted all Soviet school classrooms for many decades.
Another example is Nappelbaum’s portrait of Dzerzhinsky (also a native of Belarus, by the way), the founder of the Cheka and mastermind of the revolutionary terror and bloody repressions in Communist Russia. This photo of Dzerzhinsky is still found on the walls of many KGB offices of the country. However, today one can’t help noticing that Nappelbaum skilfully managed to show the eerie look of Dzerzhinsky’s cunning eyes.
Vladimir Lenin Felix Dzerzhinsky
Nappelbaum began his work as a typically decadent artist, but finished his career as a renowned master of Soviet photography (his regalia even include the title of the Honourable Artist of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic).
For example, his portrait of a Soviet military officer, created in 1949, shortly after the Soviet triumph in World War II, shows a true winner. At the same time, this photo is quite different from typical ceremonial portraits of Soviet officers, as it has the flavour of the Tsarist military culture. Only the officer’s insignia remind us that this photo was taken almost half a century after the old pre-revolutionary Russia had plunged into oblivion.
Of course, it would be rather far-fetched to call Moses Nappelbaum a Belarusian photographer. After all, he created his most prominent works in Russia; his models were people who definitely belonged to Russian (or, alternatively, Soviet) culture. Nonetheless, Moses Nappelbaum was rooted in Belarus. Minsk was his artistic cradle; this is where he decided to become a photographer, and this is where his style began to take shape. At the end of his career, he wrote a book, entitled “From Trade to Art”, which describes his way of dealing with photography. In case of Moses Nappelbaum, the title speaks for itself.
The Soviet era was not the best time to practice photography or any other type of art. Most photographers could not let their talent run wild and had to put up with ideological restraints. Pursuing a non-conventional style could be seen as potentially suspicious and dangerous. The artist who obviously deviated from the doctrine of “Social realism” would have to live with the fact that his/her works would never be exhibited in public. In fact, it was the best idea to store them in a well-hidden corner of the workshop, at least for the author’s own sake.
This was the case of Siarhiej Višnieŭski (1909–1992), a photo artist, who worked in the town of Dokšycy. In the 1920s and 1930s Belarus was divided in two parts between Poland and the Soviet Union. Siarhiej Višnieŭski lived in the western part of the land which was under Polish control. As a boy, he became fascinated with the frescos in local Catholic churches. Under their impression, he painted several pictures, which were exhibited in a local hotel as a decoration. The local patron of art aristocrat Slatvinski noticed the pictures of Višnieŭski and proposed to finance the young man’s education in Viĺnia (Vilnius). Siarhiej Višnieŭski studied art at Viĺnia University, where he received advices from Jan Bulhak, another prominent Belarus-born photographer that we have written about in the first part of this article.
In 1939 Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As a result, most of the Belarusian territory was reunited under the Communist rule. The estate of Slatvinski was robbed and the owner sent to Gulag. His son was later executed by Soviet partisans. After the war, Dokšycy was a ruin. Of its 4,000 buildings no more than two hundred survived; three thousand people of the town were murdered by the Nazis or killed in fighting. Višnieŭski returned to Dokšycy and set up a small photo studio, which let him earn his daily bread as well as let off some of his artistic steam.
The authorities did not prevent Višnieŭski from pursuing his photographic trade. Nevertheless, he was suspiciously watched over as somebody who was noticeably “non-Soviet”. However, the attitude of Dokšycy people towards Visheuski was completely different. For them, he was a local wizard who captured the lives of entire generations on his camera. Numerous families in the Dokšycy region still preserve his pictures as ancestral treasures.
Siarhiej Višnieŭski also had aspirations as an artist. In his paintings he applied the same manner as in his photos. He strived to characterize his models by capturing a special expression on their faces, or noticing a twist of their heads. The result was a fusion of photography and painting. It may sound amazing, but stylistically the works of Višnieŭski are similar to that of American symbolist portraitists, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler or Romaine Brooks. He could have hardly had a chance to study American art; it is much more likely that Višnieŭski sensed the spirit of the time and reflected it in his photography-influenced paintings:
The economy of the USSR slowly recovered after the war. Soviet-made handheld cameras were becoming more affordable to the masses.
Numerous new photo amateurs began to unite in photography clubs, one of the few kinds of relatively independent civil activity tolerated by the state. These amateur clubs, in their turn, nurtured many photo professionals. One such example is a photo club “Minsk”, founded in 1960. His present chairman, Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia, is a representative of the after-war generation of Belarusian photographers.
Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia was born in 1936 in Kazan, the main city of Tatarstan, an autonomous region in Russia. However, his family roots were in Belarus. He was raised as a typical “war child”, often having nothing else to eat than potato peels. After World War II, his family returned to Belarus. Jaŭhien, who then was 12, ran away from home and went to Moscow, where he joined a swarm of street kids. Some weeks later he was placed in an orphanage and finally sent off to his parents in Minsk. There, Jaŭhien took an interest in photography. He already had a “Kodak” camera which some soldier brought as a ‘war trophy’ from Germany. Photography sneaked into his life and stayed with Jaŭhien for good. He served in Soviet troops deployed in eastern Germany and began to earn his first roubles by making photo albums for his army comrades. Back in Minsk, Jaŭhien began to work as a part-time photo correspondent for newspapers “Znamya Junosti” (‘Banner of Youth’) and “Golas Radzimy” (‘Voice of Motherland’, the publication aimed at Belarusians living abroad). His main profession was engineering. However, in the mid-1970s Jaŭhien discovered that his photographic hobby demanded more time than his main job, which he decided to quit. He also quit the Communist party after he was assigned to make a photo reportage about the party congress in Minsk. Jaŭhien was repelled by the scuffling and mud-swinging which, as he witnessed, was concealed behind the pretty façade of the party’s propaganda.
The photos of Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia are black and white emotions of random people he encountered.
With his photographic reports from the first protest actions of the opposition against the emerging regime of Aĺiaksandr Lukašenka in the mid-90s, Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia signalled the new era in Belarusian press photography. So many times similar pictures would appear in print in the next decade…
Anatoĺ Kĺiaščuk, born in 1957 in a small village in central Belarus, is one of the most outstanding contemporary press photographers of the country. He represents a similar tradition to that of Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia, but belongs to a younger, post-war generation. Since 1993 he has been working for a major daily Belarusian-language newspaper “Zviazda”. Anatoĺ often accompanies his journalistic photo contributions with short essay-like texts. Anatoĺ Klaščuk is also the author of the best-selling photo album “Under the Sky of Belarus”. Every time a season shift (the first snow, or garden bloom, or a major flood on the rivers) promises exciting opportunities for a photographer, Anatol Klaščuk starts his car and goes to a remote part of Belarus in order to hunt for new pictures. His photos are meditative and full of natural patterns, often pinned by a bright detail.
For many years Anatoĺ Kĺiaščuk has been following the lives of children affected by the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. His project, supported by the UN, resulted into numerous publications and exhibitions.
A recent part of his project is called “Chernobyl. 20 Years After”. Anatoĺ Kĺiaščuk visited the children (now young adults) which he met 20 years ago, while they were treated.
If Jaŭhien Kaziuĺia and Anatol Klaščuk are typical press photographers with a heart for an artistic shot, then Ihar Saŭčanka is a pure photo artist without any addiction to current reporting. Instead, he is much more interested in constructing parallel reality with his works.
Ihar Saŭčanka was born in Minsk in 1962, and worked as an engineer. He first began to make photographs in 1989. Just one year after Ihar was awarded a Prize by Kodak-Pathe Foundation at Salon International de la Recherche Photographique, Royan, France. In 1991 his first solo exhibition was opened in Galleri Index/ Fotograficentrum, Stockholm. In 1997 Ihar Saŭčanka abandoned photography and dedicated himself to mixed media projects and professional scuba diving. However, in 2006 he resumed his photographic experiments.
“Experiments” is perhaps the most suitable word to describe Saŭčanka’s photography. For example, the series “About Happiness” strive to re-enact random glimpses of the Soviet collective memory; at the same time, there is a slightly mystical feeling to these pictures, as if one peeked into someone else’s dreams:
Another series, “Alphabet of Gestures” presents the fragmented glimpses of life:
The photos from the series “Mysteria-1” create an uneasy feeling of deconstruction. This is a space which melts away. Some figures vanish, other ones are scratched out:
Ihar’s photograph titled “The Darkness’ and the Light’s Mutual Penetration; a Structure of the Process” offers a purely visual experience without any distinguishable objects in sight.
Unlike one century ago, today photography rarely becomes a main profession since the very start of one’s career. Instead, it usually begins as a hobby and grows more and more serious with time. Zianon Paźniak, the exiled opposition leader, was one of the few people who helped to “awaken” the Belarusian population from the Soviet lethargy in the late 80’s. He also helped to discover the horrible truth about the crimes of the Soviet regime. Many know Paźniak as a democratic, but also nationalistic and conservative leader, whose principles, although, disliked by many, have always been hard as steel. However, there is another, soft and creative side to his personality people usually know less about.
Paźniak is a passionate photographer. He sticks to his hobby since his youth years. Unlike in the turbulent 90’s, when his life was all politics, today Paźniak is living in exile. Without opportunities to be an active politician, he rediscovers himself as an artist. “Gloria Patria”, the book of photographs and verses by Zianon Paźniak, is certainly worth a closer look. His poems are minimalist, reminding of haiku, and so are his photos. There are almost no people, just nature or architecture. Light breeze brushes against cornflower fields; sunrays caress old pavement bricks. Paźniak’s photos of Minsk have an additional historic value. He created them in the 60’s and 70’s, before many of the cityscapes he had photographed were demolished to give way to the new, concrete-clad Minsk of the late Soviet era.
Another book by Paźniak is called “Daroha” (‘the Road’). It is a combination of his pre-exile Belarus-made photos and of new photographic challenges he faced in New York.
Unlike Belarus, which is still inhabited with memories and angels.
New York, as seen through Paźniak’s lense, is a city of people. However, there is nothing glamorous about them. One can’t help the feeling that Zianon pities these hustling and bustling folks who populate the deep craters between the concrete slabs of skyscrapers. Belarusian photos by Paźniak are idyllic, almost surreal; his American pictures are, on the contrary, acutely realistic:
The revolution in digital photography boosted the field of photo in Belarus. The youngest generation of Belarusian photographers is already taking shape. One of the most interesting members of this new wave of photographers is Andrej Ĺiankievič. Born in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna (Grodno) in 1981, Ĺiankievič came to Minsk, where he studied economics.
However, Andrej preferred a photo camera to charts with financial data. In 2002 he began working with the Minsk-based tradition-rich weekly newspaper Nasha Niva and quickly made a name with his photo reports. His photos were published in major Russian media (Ogonyok, Моskovskiy komsomolets, Izvestia), in Poland (Gazeta Wyborcza), and in USA (the New York Times printed his photo from opposition protests in Minsk on the front page in March 2006).
He also went on a prestigious 9-month stipend from World Press Photo in Armenia, where he created a series of photographs about Yezids, a little-known highland minority.
After his Armenia experience, Andrej Ĺiankievič began to expand his photographic outreach from press photo to sub-philosophic photographic narratives. This resulted into several projects; for example, a series about a lesbian family from Minsk titled “He Has Female Name”:
Another project of Andrej Ĺiankievič addressed the pagan culture in Belarus, which survived until today:
Andrej Ĺiankievič had personal exhibitions in Belarus, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Norway and Poland. However, this did not prevent him from being beaten to blood and arrested by police during an opposition rally on March 25, 2008 in Minsk.
Today, Andrej has basically left the field of press photography and pursues projects which can be described as photographic essays. One of his most recent series consists of portraits of prominent members of ethnic Belarusian community living in Eastern Poland. The photos by Ĺiankievič are literally bathing in darkness, with an occasional splash of light bringing up an important fragment of his picture to the viewer:
The most award-winning and truly iconic picture Andrej Ĺiankievič has created so far is that of a devoted communist woman running with a red flag through the center of Minsk on a misty morning. The picture serves as a metaphor to the present-day Belarus, the country with a looming Soviet past and uncertain future:
Most recently, the picture has won the 1st place in the nomination “People in the News” during the first major independent exhibition Press Photo Belarus 2010. The exhibition promises to turn into a great platform for Belarusian press journalists to test their skills and present them to the public outside their usual media audience.
Viktar Dračoŭ (born in 1957, now working Agence France-Presse) has harvested the most prizes during the exhibition, including the grand prix. The jury especially valued his photos from the radiation-contaminated areas in the south of Belarus:
Julija Daraškievič, photo correspondent of Nasha Niva, is a young journalist with vast experience.
She also received special attention during Press Photo Belarus 2010. Julija was one of the first young ladies to tap into the tough and often dangerous sphere of photo reporting in Belarus:
One photo of hers was even turned into a stencil by an anonymous Belarusian street artist:
Julija Daraškievič represents an interesting trend. The field of photo reporting, which used to be a purely male domain in Belarus, today is being besieged by aspiring female photo correspondents - despite regular crackdowns on journalists. The young ladies eagerly thrust themselves into the most dangerous situations in order to get a better shot. At the same time, they tend to have a slightly different perspective of the events, often dwelling on psychological aspects of their objects. This is an exciting development which may influence the future style of Belarusian photography in the ways, never experienced before.
by Ales Kudrytski for the ODB
For additional information:
The website of Ihar Saŭčanka:
The website of Andrej Ĺiankievič:
Photo blog of Julija Daraškievič on Nasha Niva:
exhibition Press Photo Belarus 2010
Photoscope, a web magazine about Belarusian photography:
Znyata, the main Belarusian photoportal