The era of glasnost changed the course of history in 1980’s Russia because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of maximal publicity, openness, and transparency in the activities of all government institutions in the Soviet Union. This changed the face of photography as well as it encouraged Russian photographers to use the medium to reveal the truths behind the government’s socialist ideologies.
As ArtDaily writes:
During the Khrushchev’s cultural thaw, nonconformist art and literary movements, involving such figures and activities as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky and samizdat, had a great impact on the evolution of Russian photography in the 1970s, and laid the foundation for a new generation of photographers during glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s. Photographers in the exhibition challenged the government‐prescribed optimistic style of socialist realism by photographing forbidden topics, and like other unofficial artists, they risked personal safety in pursuit for individual expression and freedom. In the 1970s, Boris Mikhailov, a pioneer of Russian conceptual photography, used the medium to reflect skepticism about both approved photography and the false realities it presented. By hand-coloring black-and‐white prints in the Sots Art series, Mikhailov skillfully exploited the well‐known inventory of socialist realist clichés. In 1976 Boris Smelov’s exhibition was cancelled due to censorship and accusation over the mystical and obscure quality of his cityscapes.
During the pompous climate of the Brezhnev era of stagnation, Yuri Rybchinsky photographed with gritty realism a forced labor colony for young people (1978) exposing the painful aspects of its society. Nikolai Bakharev’s posed group portraits of families, friends or lovers, most of them barely dressed and taken either at a park picnic or at apartments, exploring the underlying morals of a Soviet province, while Vladimir Kuprianov took anonymous portraits from the provinces and printed them on crumpled paper in his “Mid‐Russian Landscape” series (1988). More generally, Alexander Lapin and Gennady Bodrov documented the deterioration of the Soviet system, poverty, and alienation. Alexey Titarenko’s photomontages from “Nomenklatura of Signs” (1986‐1989) critiqued the Communist regime as an oppressive system that converted citizens into mere signs. Using his body as model, Andrey Chezhin’s “Black Square” series (1988) is both a self‐portrait and homage to Malevich. By contrast, Igor Moukhin chose the emerging generation of Moskovites as his subject in his famous “Young People” (1985‐1989) series. Taken together, the photographs in the exhibition chronicle an exciting time of change and signaled the end of the Soviet empire.
“Underground: Russian Photography 1970s-1980s” is on view until March 24, 2012 at Nailya Alexander Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, Suite 704, New York, NY 10022. Gallery hours are 11 AM – 6 PM, Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment. Visit Nailya Alexander Gallery for more information.