Photographic theology /Aleksander Kitaev/

"Rakurs", by Alexander Kitaev, is a photograph with a wonderful collectors' history. It was purchased by the Russian Museum to be displayed in its Modern Art section, not at all devoted to photographs. Another was bought recently by a well known photographer Fritz von der Schulenberg who previously never bought a single pho-tograph to hang in his home. Kitaev's nudes, in the form of a calendar, decorate the offices of well-to-do businesses and the living rooms of the socialites. To discover why Kitaev is so requested, Anna Tolstova met with a number of experts and spent a long time over tea with the photographer himself, pouring over the famous nudes in the studio where the photographs were taken.


The Modern Art section of the Russian Museum is like a draft board: from our current pool of artistic can-didates, plagued, so to speak, by rickets and other defects, it selects only the healthiest and the most robust to serve. Not bothering with "pure photography", it maintains a section for conceptual photography, acting as a "technical intermediary" for projects by contemporary artists. Nevertheless, the head of the section, Alexander Borovsky, sees in Kitaev's "pure photography'^ the work of an almost conceptual artist. "He relates reflexively both to the object and to the film, and to what is between the object and the lens. This very space between the object and the lens is the most important thing, and this is what he is concerned with capturing." The nudes were chosen from all of Kitaev's photo cycles for didactic reasons. "We can describe them by the Brechtian term "Showing the Show" Kitaev is always displaying: if a woman is showing her beauty, then he shows how the photograph shows that woman's beauty. In other words, despite the mediation of the photographic process, he preserves the sensuality of the original. To some degree, he even increases this sensuality."
Kitaev's nudes also stand out for Ma¬rina Gisich, a successful Petersburg gallery owner: "It is set apart by a kind of special lyricism, an ungra-spable subtlety that comes from being from and of Petersburg. They are always identifiable by their lines and the exquisite perspective and lighting. It doesn't matter at all which woman you see before you — whether she is young or old or what kind of figure she has - Kitaev always manages to underline her individual beauty, not defined by any canon and not dependent on time. Not of a model or a particular type, Kitaev's is a beauty comparable to the fragrance of grass or, perhaps, the clouds below us. In this beauty, there is a magical mystery. What he creates is not erotica, but something of an entirely different dimension, something of the highest order. His nudes are not a reflection of the material world, but simply art extolling beauty."
Fritz von der Schulenberg first saw Kitaev's "Perspective" in the personal collection of Marina Gisich and immediately asked to meet this "uniquemaster". "The photograph called 'Rakurs' by Kitaev, which is known in the Petersburg vernacular as 'Kitaev's Bum', impressed me with its play of light and shadows. It is a unique work. You can look at it again and again and every time you will see something new. The perspective can be, for example, either that of dawn or dusk. Everyone makes their own associations. The most remarkable thing about 'Kitaev's Butt' is that it can be anything but, at the same time, remain a part of a woman's body. When in April 2003 I met Kitaev for the first time, he didn't have a ready print of this work. I had to order a copy for myself and then wait until August. Looking at this nude with a fresh eye, I was as impressed as I had been when I saw it for the first time. My life and Kitaev's have followed different paths: I have been mostly commercial photography, but he took the opportunity to become a true artist, the type of person who can refuse to take a commission if he doesn't feel right about it. I am considered to have accomplished a lot in this area, but Sasha ... Sasha, as they say in Italian - e' un ar-tista - he is a free artist and this... this is an entirely different idea."
In Russian photography, the nude genre has seen some difficult times. During the puritanical USSR just like there was no sex, there were almost no nudes: the old school, from the pre-Revolutionary picot-realists to Ale-xander Grinberg, disappeared when, in the 1930s, nude photographs were made illegal and hypocritically labeled as pornography. Today, even the eyes of professional photographers have been ruined by the view of nudes through an advertising lens, so what was an illegal genre has now taken on a vile, commercial flavor.
- So why did Alexander Kitaev, mainly famous for his photographs of the city, decide to photograph nudes?
- The nude genre always went in parallel with portraiture. Every artist, in the process of artistic education, studies anatomy. The moment came when I realized that I had to at least understand anatomy visually if I was going to take portraits. That's how the series began. In the beginning, it didn't have a particularly artistic character, but was more like a simple exercise, working with lighting.
- Do you consider yourself to be a pictorealist? Like those artists who create complicated devices so that the lighting and presentation in the photograph make it look more like a painting?
-1 live in a period of colossal expansion of the photographer's lexicon. I'm not a stranger to the history of my profession and photographic art in general, which is why derive great pleasure from being able to use every available method. It turns out that I'm a post modernist: I'm reinventing anything that has already been invented, I just absorb this or that stylistic technique through the prism of who I am and the time in which I live. Pictorials photography is the closest to the nude genre for me - it is exactly this style that took the nude genre from the realm of pornography into the realm of art.
In fact, Kitaev's work with nudes began even earlier, since he began photographing Petersburg's statues. Covered with goose bumps of snow, nymphs truly looked like Petersburg photographers' models suffering in the cold.
- I always loved - and still love - to photograph sculptures. Now I photograph them less often, because I have the opportunity to work with nudes. But, it's obvious that some of the aesthetic ideal come from sculpture. However, the status of the nude model in fine art - from white-marble antiquity to the sensuous odalisques of Matisse - isn't the same as it is in photography, where the nude genre is the most controversial. First of all, the man with the camera has the label "pornographer" attached to him (though voyeurism is the very nature of photography). Second, unlike a painter, who is free to turn the real, imperfect model for his work into his own conception of the ideal, a photographer, regardless of whether he wants to or not, has to work with what there is.
-Is it difficult to find the ideal model?
-Yes. You always have to hide or cover something while, conversely, showing what's important. This process is interesting, but it is always awkward. Any flaw or something that it not quite so and you are no longer free. Some-times the opposite happens; sometimes the body is so ideal that it doesn't matter how you view it ... then some other difficulties are quick to come out. But, generally, in every model I am able to see just what I want to see.
To some degree, the naked body is an experimental laboratory for every artist, where strict selection of forms takes place. Kitaev's nudes are the most exquisitely refined. He is ruthlessly selective - only the best shots and the best prints. While taking photographs Kitaev experiments with light, as well as with developing methods and he does the same even with the paper used for the prints. One of his innovations was to print photographs on paper that he had first crumpled in his hands — gently transferring them onto the thousands of small surfaces that the folded edges created. As a result, every print, both in terms of tone and the nature of the paper resembles a unique print created by an old German engraver. The erotic excitement associated with the seductive form of the female body, is no less important than the delight taken in the finished project itself.
With his nudes Kitaev's playes a game of likeness. It was already this way in his first series, "Deserted Beach". Snatched fragments of the body, reminiscent of sand dunes, simply recorded by the photographer/ amateur geologist: "I wasn't the first to realize that the landscape of the human body strongly resembles that in nature. Looking carefully at the lines and forms, the light and shadow of fragments of the human body, I strive to include in the shot only what is in line with my idea - to show through the resemblance in forms that everything that the earth has to offer." The magic of these photographs is in the special developing techniques: the negative is placed on glass matted by sanding, while the matt yellow-tinted paper gives the print a grainy texture. That very body - it doesn't matter from what perspective he is presenting the model, from canonical or avant-garde - is perceived as if it is trying to become something else.
The title of the series "The Architecture of the Body" is entirely frank. That the idealized form of the hu-man figure is the basis of all classical art, particularly of architecture, is standard content of any textbook of aesthetics. Kitaev's architecture is Petersburg's architecture: calm, ponderous, of granite and of sound construction - like the pillars supporting a bridge or a classical portico. The body in its entirety never appears in the frame; it is formed and brought together as a form of block construction, a clear, dark symbol on a white page. "I was entirely captivated by beauty and perfection - without any defect! - the figure of a young woman sitting in front of me. Her silhouette, as if it was carved in ebony and bathed in soft light, was so like a sculpture that all I could do was capture the beauty, give some light direction and to extract from this space the most expressive fragments ... People say that the perspective is that of a pure Petersburger. The Petersburg perspective, as is well-known, is formed under the influence of the harmony and perfection of architectural ensembles."
In the series "Metamorphoses", Kitaev moved even farther away from the corporeal. The main device is photographing the silhouette of a backlit model behind a white screen, so that the figure of the model can barely be made out, appearing as a smoky-gray hieroglyphic silhouette, as if it was drawn on paper in Chinese ink in a world of endless, glowing sketches. The main idea is metaphysical: the embodiment of, the search for the flesh. The fragile figure with one arm behind her back generates just one association - an angel that has come down to earth. This cycle, like none of the others, openly and directly proclaims the very nature of photography — the art of light. Light gives us vision, and art is one of the methods we use to clear and sharpen our eye. Thus, by dissolving the naked human body in a pool of light, Kitaev arrives to his own - photographic - theology.

by Anna Tolstova