Valery Katsuba

Currently on show at the Shanghai Center of Photography is Valery Katsuba: Russian Romantic Realism. The major exhibition selects 38 masterpieces in the creative career of Belarus-born photographer Valery Katsuba, covering more than 10 major series of his works. Xiaohui Tang reports. 

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your solo exhibition in Shanghai Center of Photography. The exhibition is entitled Russian Romantic Realism. Could you please briefly share your feel or personal understanding of this title?

Thank you so much for congratulating me. The exhibition “Russian Romantic Realism”, made by the Shanghai Center of Photography and curated by Karen Smith, strongly impressed me and all of us who took part in its preparation from the Russian side:  Anna Nova Gallery, Sara Vinitz Foundation and Andrei Bartenev (the concept of the catalogue). I haven’t seen it yet in person – it’s hard to get a visa to China right now. I was welcoming the Chinese audience from Madrid where I live. We only saw photographs of the exposition, which I published on social media and received unanimous comments from friends and colleagues from Russia and Mexico, France and Chile, Spain and other countries that the exhibition is excellently done.

The title “Valery Katsuba: Russian Romantic Realism” was suggested by the Shanghai Center of Photography and I find it well thought out.  Over the word “realism” with regard to my own art I have long pondered. Only there was a question of what realism? Friends were offering “magic”, meaning my passion for Latin America. But Latin American realism, e.g. Gabriel Márquez, is somehow different. So, I was waiting for things to work out, and then it happened – in Shanghai.

Anyone who is interested in my work and art in general, I would recommend reading the article written by Karen Smith for the exhibition. This is an accurate, deep, and poetic study of me, that is, my work, in the “historical flow of time”, as Karen writes. And another precise definition, which I have been waiting for a long time, is written by her: “Valery, has produced a number of “visual novels” in the medium of photography, as if he was writing personal epics”. And my appreciation is here for Karen, who seems to have been following my work for a long time. Although, I believe, I was discovered   by her only two years ago, at your Photo Shanghai fair, where the Anna Nova gallery in St. Petersburg brought my works. There our acquaintance took place.

“Russian”. Of course, Russian and Soviet cultures had a great influence on me. I grew up in a Belarusian village in Soviet times and I have absorbed all the beautiful things that could be seen on television, mostly from Moscow, listened to and read. Then I moved to St. Petersburg – the mainstay of the classical tradition in art and lived there for almost 30 years. Therefore, it is “Russian”. 

“Romantic”. You can also say “poetic”. I have been trying to discern poetry in life and in works of art since long time. And I was founding it in both. And here is the answer to the third word in the title – “realism” – this is about the moments in our lives photographed, comprehended in a literary way and put into my “epic”. My photos almost always have a narration. Also “realism” because, of course, in my youth the contemporary art in the country that I saw was social realism, in which I also was able to distinguish an exalted leitmotif and it has remained as a vivid impression in my memory. 

© Valery Katsuba, 100 Years On. Painting session. Workshop of Professor Vladimir Pesikov. Academy of Fine Arts. Saint Petersburg., 2013. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

We all know that Russia has a great literary and film tradition, and many aesthetic tastes have a profound influence on Chinese audiences. What works of Russia art have had an indelible influence on you during your growth and career? Does this influence show up in your work?

Yes, of course: Russian and world literature, cinema, ballet, and, including, photography. I used to spend late evenings revising for relaxation and peace, for example, the Soviet fairy-tale film “The Snow Maiden” (directed by Pavel Kadochnikov, 1969) based on the play by Alexander Ostrovsky. This is a great literary work about   love, life. The film was made in the Russian style and for me it was an example of how in the classical, even folk, traditions you can create fascinating epic, f or which there are no specific time or territorial boundaries. Also I would like to mention the thoughtful folk-modern films of Sergei Parajanov. And I often reviewed the film “Hamlet” by Grigory Kozintsev (1964). For me it was like a textbook for visualizing a literary work too. Every shot in it is a true masterpiece.

Many talented films were made in the Soviet era. And all of them were a kind of a manual for me. After all, I only graduated from one Academy – the Maritime Academy and English and Spanish courses. So, these films, just like the literary works of Chekhov, Pushkin and Cervantes “Don Quixote”, were my universities in art. I have often reread the authors mentioned.  I am attracted to Chekhov because of the way he turns an average conversation, for example, between a Russian landowner and his French tutor one evening, into a piece of art. An ordinary conversation in Chekhov’s narration says a lot about the personality of his characters. His detached manner is very attractive. As if in an invisible presence, he records the conversations of the characters, while simultaneously “photographing” the atmosphere and landscapes around them. His characters manifest themselves without the opinion and insistence of the author. It’s like there’s no author, because the author is Chekhov.

Back in my early years, I liked to read the folklore poems of Belarusians Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolos (“Guslar”, “Symon-Music”), walking in the open spaces around my village. Folk art was also interesting for me, Portuguese, for example, their statuettes in houses and churches. There is a lot of touching in them.  The paintings that attracted my attention, I mean, my   “manuals”, were Spanish and Italian masters like El Greco (the portrait of “Caballero with his hand on his chest”,  for example) or the work of Giovanni Moroni. Their painting is also a kind of narration. From the Soviet masters – Alexander Deineka. Then Robert Lepage’s play “The Other Side of the Moon”. After watching it in Santiago de Chile, I was reassured that art can inspire. Of the ballets, first of all, Sergei Diaghilev’s” Russian Seasons ” – my “textbooks” on plastic art and how to combine different genres of art to create one epoch-making work. Then I got acquainted with the photographs of Karl Bulla. These were pictures of athletes of St. Petersburg at the beginning of the XX century and I was enchanted by the faces portrayed. I thought about them for a long time and at the same time about what I had studied before  by myself – cinema, literature, poetry and plastic art. I realized that by choosing the characters, the plot, the natural or architectural landscapes for them, you can create a narration, and I started to do it. The fact is that I used to write stories and I do it now, and when I discovered photography, I realized that I could compose my epos with it, for which my endless gratitude is to her.

© Valery Katsuba, 100 Years On. Painting session with a horse. Battle painting pavilion of Professor Vladimir Zagonek. Academy of Fine Arts. Saint Petersburg., 2014. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

This exhibition presents classic works from your most important pieces. I wonder which works are of special significance to you? Could you share some insights with us?

I would not single out any specific work. There are photos that have served as the beginning of picture stories, such as, say, “Lunch in the Cherry Orchard”. 

Back then, in the summer of 2000, I just wanted to make a carefully planned portrait of my friends and me to remember our happy times in a picturesque garden on the banks of the Oredezh River. However, my friend who helped me, Zhenya Sorokin, after we saw the result, suggested: “Why don’t you make portraits of each of your friends separately for this photo, Valery?”. At that moment I thought that this photo alone was already like a story and only over time I realized that I needed to supplement it. So the project “Seasons of the year. My friends” began. 

I started the project “Far Away from Home” in Thailand. I thought that back in Thailand I finished the story of a sailor who broke up with a loved one and then left home and  went wandering. I took a series of 8 photos and thought that the project was completed. However, my dear friend Yuri Vinogradov, after seeing it, said: “Now you need to keep the story and film it in the snow, in the deserts…”. 

I was even a bit angry with him at the time, imagining how much work there was still to do. But he was certainly right and the “Far Away from Home” needed to be continued. So I did. 

I did the same in the very beginning of the project “Morning”, first I thought of it as a diptych – my portrait and a portrait of Anna Shpakova, having decided that everything is filmed and clear already. The diptych was the beginning of the whole new story “Morning”. I really wanted to make portraits of some of my wonderful friends, so I came up with  “Morning” and filmed in the morning light dignity, tenderness and strength, sensuality and eroticism of my heroes  – everything that I liked about them.

In Mexico, where I went after an exhibition at the Royal Academy in Madrid, I decided to film at the Mexican Academy of San Carlos (the sister academy of Madrid) and there I photographed a Winged Caballero, whom I met in the main historical square of Zocalo, the capital of the country. Aztec-bodybuilder Mauricio, as he was called, posed in the square for tourists, revealing huge black wings from traditional Indian cultures.

Several weeks later I showed this photograph to the Mexican art critic Jose Springer, who in turn showed it to the director of the National Museum of San Carlos, Carmen Gaítan. I was straight away  offered an exhibition at the San Carlos Museum. And, thanks to the interest in the new project and the support of Sarah Vinitz, it was opened at the museum in Mexico City in 2018. The Winged Caballero was the beginning of a new story “The Model: Classic and Contemporary”. 

It’s all on one side. On the other, Karen Smith and Liu Huang Shing found some “lost” pictures, such as a birch tree in early spring in a Belarusian village that I had known since childhood, and included them in the exhibition. And I have special sympathies for these “forgotten” and open SCoP photos too. 

© Valery Katsuba, Far Away from Home. The Beginning. Winter. Russia., 2004-2014. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

There are a lot of human bodies in your photographs. Why do you focus on this special subject? And why do you want to give it sculptural beauty?

To answer this question, I would like to quote three wonderful people who gave short and precise definitions of my series with dancers and athletes. Their words explain a lot to me too. Writer Andrew Solomon said that “within each of those beautiful bodies, he finds a beating heart.”, that is personality and feelings. That’s how I explain it. And I will add to the words of Solomon that the heroes of my photos are people who are devoted to their work. Only trained figures, without the desire to improve in their work will not be able to make a photo attractive.

Antonio Bonet, a prominent Spanish art critic who, unfortunately, left us a year ago, wrote: “when Valery’s camera captures ballerinas and dancers in front of Goya’s paintings or copies of antique sculptures in the halls of the Academy of San Fernando, it establishes a connection between art and life.” Karen Smith said the following: “Through the powerful lines of these elegant bodies, the photos speak out the desire for perfection, as well as the yearning for brilliance, beauty and purity that peoples share in common”.  I have ventured to cite these quotations here, since they precisely answer the question above.

I started photographing athletes and ballerinas next to ancient sculptures or copies of them because I was interested in the same leitmotif of timelessness in the works of ancient masters. Fascinated by their works, their appeal to us for more than two thousand years, I decided to conduct a kind of artistic research – whether there are those among us who could be worthy models of ancient sculptors and how much our canons and our attitude to the image of the human figure have changed since then. The answer to this question, I think, you will find in my works and, in particular, in “Athlete against the background of “Fight of the Gods with the Giants”.

Further, other observations led me to these photographs, for example, when studying the paintings of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, Mannerism, the works of El Greco, Diego Velasquez and, of course, Michelangelo. In some of their works, they compose stories, depicting, as you say, “a lot of human bodies”, telling also about dramatic events, resorting to allegories and creating a visual epic? This technique in art is close to me and understandable. In the painting of Socialist realism, in this way, the story is mostly about the way to the great times. I realized how I would like to keep a record of my time. And in fact, the athletes and dancers in my works tell a story about themselves and about their time. Having said that, of course, some of them are young and certainly attractive both in their physical form and the inner concentration typical of dancers and athletes.

© Valery Katsuba, Phiscultura. Gymnast and Victoria Samothrace at the Art Academy (2). St. Petersburg., 2008. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

In addition to accurately capturing the beauty of the human body, your creations are often filled with elaborate sets that remind people of dramas or theatre. What is your typical shooting process? What was the most difficult and interesting part of it?

When I start working on a project, I start either from the people I meet, whom I want to photograph, or from the places I see, or from the story I want to tell. Whether I’m walking along the sea, in the city, or sitting on a hill, I’m watching, looking at what’s around me. Sometimes I even get tired of it.

For example, when I was in the Bay of All Saints in Salvador in Brazil, I noticed that the clouds in the sky changed in an endless sequence and watching them could not be boring at all. But it is difficult to photograph these smooth changes. And it is easier, in my opinion, to describe it in the literature. And I wrote about it in a story about Brazil. These changes and the beauty of the bay could only be photographed by inviting the characters, inventing a plot, making a story and through it showing the remarkable changes and at the same time the constancy of All Saints Bay. When the story develops against the background of the Bay and the important character eventually becomes the Bay. The most difficult and interesting is the communication and the choice of characters, places and storyline. I love working with my characters, especially when they become like-minded, as it was, for example, on the set of the project “Far Away from Home” in the jungle, snow and deserts, when suddenly all my new friends, non-professional models, both in Latin America, and in Egypt, and in Portugal, were carried away by the idea and worked enthusiastically.

© Valery Katsuba, The Model: Classic and Contemporary. Ballerina and Goya paintings, Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. Madrid., 2016. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

Sometimes your work has a certain amount of illusion and fiction, and sometimes it is more documentary. For you, is photography more like a storytelling tool or a mirror that reflects reality?

For me, the photos I take are certainly a way to tell stories that can be documentary, like, say, a series of portraits of my friends in the Seasons. My friends.” I have a lot of respect for reportage photography and I love it. And sometimes I photograph moments, without any preliminary preparation, for example, the look of a passer-by or a passer-by, the sky before the rain and the wind in the branches of trees. Then I look at these pictures and think that a couple of my friends would be standing on the embankment against the background of the wind in the branches of the trees, or someone would be dancing a break dance, dressed in such a way that it echoes the color of the sky before the rain and would dance in that part of the embankment where there are no passers-by at all and where a ray of sunlight looks out through the dark clouds.

And in the end, I am choosing for myself staged, artistic photos, because I can tell with it more, like, for example, the photo “Lunch in the Cherry Orchard”. It so happened that in 2000, Yuri Vinogradov and I rented a dacha on the Oredezh River, on the other side of which stood the estate of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, which connected the place with the history of Russian culture. There was a picturesque garden, in which we set a large table. Amazing July sky, my birthday. We prepared everything for the photo, asked our friends to dress elegantly in the country style. And it was a dinner and a birthday party, and conversations, and bathing afterwards. And, of course, friends. There is a documentary in it, built – up or romantic.

© Valery Katsuba, Air Flight Series. Air Flight. Red Ribbons I. Moscow., 2010. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography

In general, where do your creative passion and inspirations come from? In your opinion, what is the greatest charm of photography?

I believe that I have already answered this question. Thank you for your interest in my work and success at the Photo Shanghai Fair, such a significant event to me now. My appreciation and gratitude to you and Liu Heung Shing, Karen Smith, all the staff of the brilliant Shanghai Center of Photography, Anna Barinova and the staff of the St. Petersburg Anna Nova Gallery, Andrey Bartenev and the Sarah Vinitz Foundation.

© Valery Katsuba, Far Away from Home. Saying Good-Bye. Russia., 2004-2014. Courtesy of Anna Nova Gallery (Saint Petersburg) and Shanghai Center of Photography