Photography as a Means of Artistic Expression
The Global Women Media news agency regularly publishes useful expert articles about leading professionals in various fields. Vadim Gushchin is one of the website’s permanent experts. He can share many interesting stories about photography and his unique knowledge in that field. In his new interview, the expert answered questions about his creative path, his main artistic projects, and the uniqueness of his original style.
Russian contemporary artist and photographer, honorary member of the Union of Photo Artists of Russia, curator of the Faculty of Photography of the Institute for the Humanities and Information Technologies (IGUMO)
Vadim Gushchin is a world-famous contemporary artist and photographer. His works are kept in American and European museums, Moscow museums, and private collections in different countries. During his artistic career, the artist has carried out several dozens of his personal exhibitions in Russia and abroad.
Today, Vadim Gushchin not only continues his artistic practice but also actively shares his experience and knowledge. He is the curator of the Faculty of Photography at the Institute for the Humanities and Information Technologies (IGUMO) and a lecturer at the Institute of Supplementary Education at IGUMO.
– How did your path in photography begin?
– I started doing photography in my childhood, as a pioneer. I have always been interested in creativity. However, I did not go to any extracurricular classes except for drawing. For a long time, I took photographs only as an amateur. Already in my teenage years, I could take pretty decent photos, develop them, and print them on my own. At that time, I was more interested in the technical side than the artistic one.
I got my first education at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. I as trained there as an engineer. I was really fascinated by photography in those very student years. Later, when I served in the army as a lieutenant, I had enough spare time and a stable salary. That’s why I allowed myself to take photography more seriously. Two years later, when I returned to Moscow, I already had a selection of images and some creative experience.
Despite the fact that I worked in Moscow only as an engineer for the first time, I knew for sure that I wanted to devote my life to photography.
At that time, our country was going through the perestroika period. That time was interesting thanks to information barriers gradually coming down. That was a nice opportunity for me to learn more about the experience of Western photographers and get acquainted with their work. Moreover, many discussion clubs were opening in Moscow. True masters of photography came there and shared their knowledge openly. Of course, I attended these lectures with great interest. I even joined the Novator photographic club, which was then considered one of the leading amateur photographic clubs in Moscow and had very serious requirements for its members.
In 1990, I decided to undergo professional training in the field of photography. In a year and a half, I completed a course in modern photography at the Free Academy founded by Ilya Piganov and Leonid Ogarev at the People’s University of the Arts also known as ZNUI. I was lucky enough to attend a full course of lectures and meet Aleksandr Slyusarev, Vladimir Kupriyanov, Andrey Bezukladnikov, and other leading figures in photography of that time. These people have gone down in the history of photography today.
During our studies, we communicated a lot with renowned masters, created projects, and participated in group exhibitions. I am grateful for that experience and those people.
Thanks to the experience of studying at the Free Academy, I realized my own artistic ambitions. After graduating from it, I started working independently and doing my own copyright projects.
The publication of my photo series in the Sovetskoe Foto magazine was a turning point for me. That was the only major thematic periodical in the country. It seemed almost impossible for a beginner to be published in it. I was very lucky: my work was noticed by the well-known photographer Valery Stigneev. He wrote the text and offered it to the editor. The photo was accepted and my artistic path started gaining momentum after that.
In 1993, I took part in an international project for the first time. It was called ‘In Search of the Father’. As it turned out, it involved 84 leading photographers from worldwide. In 1995, I was invited to a festival in Germany. At that time, my works were already included in an exhibition of Russian photography. I had participated in Russian projects and interest in me as an author was growing. In the 2000s, I was invited to the Houston Festival in the USA. Collectors started buying my works and museums in various countries started exhibiting my projects.
As a photographer, I was conquering new heights. However, I had to work as an applied photographer simultaneously with that. I shot theatrical productions, commercials, reproductions of paintings, and sculptures and created several photo books and catalogues.
At that time, I collaborated a lot with different artists. That also had a big impact on my work. For example, we interacted a lot with great artists of the 1960s. For example, those included Vladimir Nemukhin, for whom I photographed a sculpture. We were friends with him and we talked a lot about art.
In 2001, I started teaching. That activity still remains part of a larger creative process for me.
– You have an unusual photographic style. How would you describe it?
– Critics call it post-conceptual still life. That is partially true because, when I started my first creative experiments, I did produce conceptual works. However, today, I have moved away from my former style of working in those years. I gradually shifted my focus to the figurative abstraction. I still adhere to this genre today.
I mainly work in still life, which is largely determined by some traits of my character. I like to work alone. That is why still life is ideal for me: it requires no outside interference, models, big studios, or special lighting.
I came to this movement spontaneously but naturally. It fascinated me! At the same time, I have never tried to imitate anyone else. Critics often draw parallels between my style and a German artistic movement called the ‘New Objectivity’. That is probably why my works were popular in Germany. I was often invited to German exhibitions as a photographer.
In 2010, I felt I had exhausted the black and white style in my work. At that moment, I turned to colour photography, which was a completely new direction for me.
Together with my style, I was very much influenced by painters with whom I communicated a lot. I showed them my first colour photos and they shared their opinions and advice with me.
At the same time, I also turned to the legacy of Russian art, especially the Russian avant-garde. I tried to continue the geometrical traditions of the followers of Kazimir Malevich (artists of the 1920s and the 1960s) in my works. I still follow this idea to a certain extent while using modern digital techniques.
I cannot say for sure what I will do next and how my works will develop. However, at the moment, I am very interested in my current activities.
– When talking about still life, we most often think about images of fruit or flowers. You have turned to the image of a book. Why did it attract you?
– Still life emerged at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Caravaggio is considered the first artist of that genre. He painted a vase of fruit. Probably that’s why many people associate still life mainly with that image.
Later, when the genre started developing further, artists began to use a variety of subjects. They created still lifes with flowers and academic ones. Vanitas, which is an allegorical still life with the skull in the centre of composition as a symbol of the transience of human life, was very popular. Book still lifes were also quite widespread. We can say that my photos adhere to the genre quite well. However, in the 1990s, I photographed many things including fruit and vegetables and offered my own perspective on these objects.
The peculiarity of my still life works lies in not what I shoot but in how I do that. For me, colour is more interesting than the object’s shape.
Artists who paint traditional still life paintings try to tell the viewer something through the objects and their symbolic or real meaning. My point of view is not really common for still lifes. It is called ‘bird's eye perspective’. The objects in my pictures represent a form into which colour is poured. For example, the piece of book in my photograph is recognisable only when you look closely at the texture, the details of the object. If you look at the work from a distance, it will be perceived as something abstract.
Moreover, I believe that the book is quite an acute topic today. Paper publications are gradually disappearing from our everyday lives. Increasingly many people prefer reading books on electronic devices. I believe that the aesthetic function of books will come to the fore in some time. The book’s value will be determined by how it is designed, whether it is pleasant to touch it and its pages are designed well. The informative function will become secondary: one can find information easily and conveniently on the net.
This process of changing the function of the book has already started. I find it interesting to observe and work with that message. I consider a book as a piece of art worthy of being captured in the picture.
– Why did you switch from black and white photography to working in colour?
– I can’t say that colour photographs are better or more complex than black and white ones. They just work differently. At a certain momen, I wanted to turn to these very methods. Colour allows you to add an extra dimension to a photo.
When turning to the visual arts in different countries, we can see that each culture has its own set of colours. Spanish painters, for example, often use a combination of green and purple. Pablo Picasso, as a subtle colourist, reflected that well in his works. The ‘Russian palette’, in my opinion, can be observed in its entirety in Wassily Kandinsky’s works.
I work with colour very carefully. As a rule, viewers can see only one colour or a combination of two contrasting or similar colours in my works. I do not use complex schemes. That is also a reference to our cultural heritage. When looking at orthodox icons, we can see that there is not a big variation in colour. Their palettes are monochrome and restrained.
– What professional projects of yours do you consider the most significant ones?
– First of all, those very ‘Pages of the Army Diary’ published in the Sovetskoe Foto magazine. That series gave start to my path as an independent and recognised author. Later, 20 years after the magazine was closed, the ‘Pages of the Army Diary’ project was exhibited at the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography.
This is the work that inspired me greatly. It showed that I could do something valuable and interesting to an audience.
Then I had many exhibition projects. It is difficult to single out separate works. My most memorable ones are probably ‘Fruits of the Earth’ and ‘My Things’. Those projects were exhibited at the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Germany.
In 2004, my series of photos titled ‘Bread’ became very popular. At that time, I photographed the bread loaves I bought at the Eliseevsky grocery store. I presented them not only as food but also as real pieces of sculpture. Today, I hardly have any copies of those photos left. They have all been sold off to private collectors or allocated to museums. I was invited to exhibitions in the USA and Denmark with that series of works. It has also been exhibited in Moscow several times.
If considering my current style of works, I would emphasize ‘Coloured Envelopes’ and ‘Circle of Reading’ from among others. They are relevant and recognizable and that is very important to me as an artist. Although many contemporary photographers also work with books, our shots look different. I hope that my original style is truly unique. At least, the art critics agree with that.
– Are you more of a photographer or an artist?
– I consider myself more of an artist than a photographer. I am interested in artistic issues related to the relationship between colour and shape, inner creative concepts, and philosophical questions. I use photography as a medium for making an artistic statement.
Sometimes people ask me about why I don’t paint. Some critics and colleagues who note my sense of colour say that I could have become a good painter. However, I chose photography consciously. For me, it is the best way to capture what I do as an artist as accurately as possible.
Photography is unique thanks to its dual nature: it can be a piece of art on the one hand and a document on the other. The more information a picture carries, the more valuable is its documentary nature. In this regard, colour is also important.
I do not edit the colours of my images with photographic editors. That’s why I consider my pictures to be documents. I find it very important to make my photos tied to reality.
If an artist’s work is tied to time and place and reflects accurately the world or space around him or her, then his or her work is relevant. In other words, when taking colour photographs, I am capturing the colour of our time. It is my creative credo and a way of making a creative statement about the present.
In general, all my activities tell people about me in one way or another. By looking at my photographs, one can understand what kind of person I am. For example, I had an exhibition called ‘Inventory of a Private Library’. The books in the photos told the viewer a lot about me: what country and time I’m from, what interests me, how old I am, and what literary and cultural preferences I have.
I like the documentary nature of photography. At the same time, I’m very interested in the aesthetic appreciation of the works. I want my photos to be liked. I want them to provoke ideas in people’s minds and catch their eye. I like to present familiar objects in the new light.
– What can you say about photo mastery? What kind of person can be considered a master of photography?
– In my opinion, any artist (including photographers) must be a mature person in the first turn. He or she must have his or her own vision and life experience making it possible to draw conclusions and make statements. Before sharing something with an audience, one needs to enrich oneself. One should go through something or learn something and only then unify or transform the experience and express it through work.
At the same time, I do not believe that the maturity of an artist’s personality is directly determined by his or her age. Mikhail Lermontov started to write his first poems at the age of 14. Those were serious literary works that fascinate the reader to this day. The history of art knows many such examples.
An author’s maturity lies not in the age but in the inner fulfilment, in the ability to offer something of value to an audience.
In one of my interviews, I once compared an artist to a ‘factory for processing impressions’. To give impressions to the viewer, artists have to experience them first. That’s why artists should not limit themselves to their narrow interests. They should keep watching, listening, and learning new things constantly.
Mastery is the second important aspect for an artist. I believe we can define a master as someone who is good at his or her craft. In photography, that is about knowing how to operate a camera, set up light, work with colour, and many other nuances. Photography is a serious profession requiring good education and long training.
We can compare mastering an artist’s craft to learning a foreign language. To be able to express thoughts clearly, a person constantly increases his or her vocabulary, learns to form sentences, and improves his or her grammar. The higher level of linguistic knowledge the person has, the more likely it is that his or her interlocutors will understand him or her correctly. The same happens in art.
– Today, anyone can take a photo using a phone. Has that changed the role of photography? What is the function of photography today?
– I conducted a seminar with students just today where we discussed the function of early 19th-century photography. I would draw an analogy with our time. When photography first appeared as a way to document the world, people started using it immediately for a variety of purposes. Already in the 19th century, photographs were used for documenting facts during military events and various significant events. Photography was applied in forensics, science, architecture, and many other industries. Photography has retained all those functions to this day.
However, it has become much easier to take pictures today. Everyone has a camera right in their phone. We can say that another very important function has appeared in addition to the existing ones: communication.
Nowadays, people communicate using not only words but also pictures. This shows that photography is becoming increasingly important. It has already become something without which we can’t imagine everyday life.
According to the art philosopher Vilém Flusser, there are two milestones in human history that have greatly influenced the development of society: the invention of linear writing and the emergence of photography. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this means of creativity and communication. I can hardly recall people who don’t capture important or simply enjoyable moments in their life.
I personally consider photography as a serious art form, which is original and unique. It allows us to make powerful statements in both creative and documentary genres. Many artists realised that already in the 20th century. Some of them have even shifted from painting to photography. Aleksandr Rodchenko, for example, is a powerful photographer who started out as a painter.
– What inspires you? Probably, mostly books?
– I read a lot of literature not only in Russian but also in English and German in my youth and adult years. I have my own favourite authors and, of course, books inspire me a lot. However, today, I almost don’t read fiction books. I mostly switched to spiritual texts and writings of holy fathers. Although religious books are not reflected directly in my works, I consider myself a religious man and it certainly shapes my view of the world.
Whatever I do, I constantly question myself whether it is consistent with the inner compass set by spiritual literature and teachings.
However, that does not mean that I reject secular culture. For example, I draw much inspiration from the art of music. My favourite composers are Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev. I love painting, especially classical modernism, the works by artists of the 1920s and 1930s, and the works by Wassily Kandinsky.
As for photography, I like studying documentary photographs. I often go to museums and even more often visit professional photography websites. I do that both for teaching and for my own development. I strive to find new emotions and impressions. I never stop discovering new things and that motivates me.
In general, I would characterise inspiration as a rather relative thing. It can be dangerous to rely on it. When an artist doesn’t create anything for a long time and waits for inspiration, he or she can simply ‘rust out’.
I believe that inspiration comes while you are working. Many artists have followed this principle. For example, the American writer John Steinbeck rented an office where he went to write his books. Like a typical office clerk, he worked from 8 am to 5 pm.
My schedule is now arranged in such a way that I have time to make art only at the weekend. I don’t have time to catch inspiration. Every weekend, I go to my studio outside the city and I take pictures irrespective of what mood I have. Bringing yourself to work is a very good method that leads to great results.
Inspiration is always a reciprocal process. One mustn’t wait for it to come. One must go towards it. To do so, one just needs to start doing one’s work.
Photos by Andrey Abramov, Pavel Ivanov. Some photos are taken from Vadim Gushchin’s personal archive
Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov