“It was an in-between period. (…) It was a moment when I realized the importance of what Benjamin said, ‘Dreams are transformed into kitsch. (…) Everything has turned gray.’ (…) It’s about nothing. Nothing,” Mikhailov commented on his work and the time of Perestroika. The negativity here is more than just the obvious negation of the official propaganda language: it is “falling into time”, the process of accelerating history – a new, unknown horizon whose colour is no longer red. At the same time, photography – not unlike the invisible radioactive cloud – is problematized here as a tool that annihilates the reality it depicts, carrying with it death and ultimate collapse. The affirmation of nothingness signifies not only the photographer’s acceptance of the disintegration of his world but also the acceleration of that process through the use of photography. However, nothingness and decay are not the end: they are different names for that which is unknown and yet to be described.
Mikhailov appears to imply that every era, every decade, has its own colour. He leads us from red (Red), the official colour of the Soviets' visual propaganda, through gray (Unfinished Dissertation), the colour of a low-contrast black-and-white print – often poorly developed, with technical imperfections – associated here with amnesia, short-term memory loss, or the inability to see colours, to blue (At Dusk), clearly identified with the post-imperial melancholy of a time after “the end of history”. In contrast to the historians who side with facts as a matter of principle, the photographer seems to be constantly intermediating between “facts” and “affects”, belonging to an ostensibly impossible space, a “zero point”. From this perspective, he talks about the “colour of History” rather than History itself.
Similar to Mikhailov’s work Evgeniy Pavlov’s Total Photography and, especially, Home Life Book are not only a record of everyday life of that epoch but also a philosophical meditation on memory, time and history, a form of a collective auto(photo)biography. It’s about the (long) end of a certain era, and the fleeting beginning of a new one, about the strange time and space “in-between”. So it’s also against historians, whose means often prove incapable of grasping the temporary character of experience, with the evasiveness of its endings and the unclarity of its beginnings. A paradox, an impossible place, a touch of the utopian – these are the spaces (and figures of experience) wherein Pavlov’s historic narratives are located.
What remains crucial for the Home Life Book and what is inscribed within the double logic that governs the book, is the figure of the “photographer's wife”. “The photographer's wife” is a distancing figure, a medium for alienating these very personal photographs from a “personal history” for the sake of a history which can be “ours”. A history which transforms the “I” into the “we”, and which transforms affect into a temporally distanced narrative. It places the subjective series of photos within a network of references created by the model and the companion, but also by someone who operates with a somewhat different set of linguistic references, rather than visual ones. “The photographer's wife” would thus take on an in-between position, she would belong to the “transitory” phase of history: lost somewhere between the personal and the historic, the affective and the narrative.
Discomfort appears when we turn towards the past, trying to understand the bonds between History and “our history”. When we start to speak about what once was, and discover that, as Deleuze put it, emotions do not speak the “I”. The extraordinary character of Home Life Book resides in the fact that it is situated in the very middle of these cuts and tensions that are difficult to reconcile, somewhere between the “I” and the “we”, between emotion and distance, between History and the attempt to escape it.
The text was first published on the occasion of Kharkiv Photo Forum in 2020
Cover image - Evgeniy Pavlov “Home Life Book”. 2014.
Images 1-4: provided by PinchukArtCentre © 2019. Photographed by Maksym Bilousov
Images 5-8: the reproductions of Evgeniy Pavlov “Home Life Book”. 2014.