Following the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s photojournalists and documentary photographers rushed to pick over what remained of the former empire. Agencies such as Sipa Press, Sygma, Gamma and Magnum – to name just a few – could be relied upon to produce an abundant supply of features that demonstrated the doleful shortcomings of Communist life. Scarcity, despair, poverty, blighted lives and disillusion were regular themes in bodies of work that were, above all else, serious.
Yet at the same time an altogether different approach – one cheerily dismissive of the protocols of documentary decorum – was adopted by certain ‘post-communists’ to address those same issues, but in a willfully provocative manner. ‘Glory Days’, the catalogue of a recent exhibition at Winterthur’s Fotomuseum, presents the work of one such example – Sergey Bratkov – as he engages with such conventionally ‘serious’ subjects as militarism, exploitation, political processes and addiction in photographs that are laced with a bitter and anarchic humour. Witness the (literally) bare-arsed cheek of the ‘Elections’ series – in which the photographer appears posting a ballot paper where it is unlikely to be counted. (On polling day during the ’97 elections he went a stage further and built a booth that housed a pair of modified plastic buttocks – visitors were invited to post papers up the backside). Equally irreverent are the blackly comic nightmares that comprise ‘Bedtime Stories’ – a series of macabre vignettes that recall children’s horror tales, and which also functioned as a comment on the perceived increase in underage crime figures.
Ukrainian Bratkov was born in industrial Kharkov where he attended art college before graduating in Industrial Electronics at one of the city’s polytechnic academies. Though his earliest solo shows date from the late 80’s, ‘Glory Days’ takes as a point of departure his work between 1994-97 as a member of the Fast Reaction Group – a collaboration with fellow Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov. Indeed the latter’s extraordinary, controversial and hard-hitting study of post-communist homelessness, Case Study, is described as a forerunner to many of Bratkov’s exercises in serial portraiture, Sailors and Kids amongst them. His worked has achieved international recognition and he has exhibited in the United States, Europe and South America. Since 2001 he has lived and worked in Moscow.
Bratkov’s photography eludes easy categorisation, and he often appears to work in order to actively avoid any semblance of a signature style. So, using equipment that ranges from toy cameras to a Sinar 6 x 9.7, he has produced series that embrace portraiture, staged tableaux, forms of street photography, panoramic pictures, and video. But it is perhaps through portraiture that he has most consistently addressed the social issues and stereotypes of post-communist society. In the aftermath of the Kursk submarine tragedy he photographed retired Sailors of the Ukrainian navy – their glory days very much behind them – dressed bathetically in caps and uniform vests. And in Secretaries bikini-clad models rehearsed the clichéd and worn-out poses of the ‘glamour’ industry in a glumly prosaic setting. And, most notoriously, in Kids Bratkov photographed heavily made-up children in putatively seductive roles. The work was so disturbing it was removed from display at a Cologne Art Fair; whilst in Russia he was summoned to appear before the State Duma’s Ethics Commission. The kids, it transpired, were dressed and ‘beautified’ by their parents, eager to make them attractive to owners of the newly-emergent child modeling agencies that opened during the 1990’s. Typically, Bratkov used guile, photography and provocation to address contemporary developments and the erosion of the certainties of Soviet life.
Glory Days by Sergey Bratkov
Essays by Thomas Seelig, Boris Buden & Bart de Baere