The Birth of the Author in Bulgarian Photography
Ass. Prof. at the Faculty of Journalism, Sofia University
There are certain aesthetic grounds that allow the photographers of the 80's to be considered a truly new generation in contemporary Bulgarian photography. With the exception of some photographers striving for their own artistic identity, for decades previous generations had been "filling in" the iconographic prototypes of the official ideology. These prototypes have been withdrawn from the practice of the Soviet reportage since 1917, they have passed the cultural and geopolitical routes of modernism and communist Europe, finally freezing within a cliché, which established at least three tendencies in Bulgarian photography (as well as in the arts in general) up to the 80's:
Alienation first: escape into the marginalia
It belongs to Jordan Yordanov and is indicative of the approach of alienation itself. The road is the matrix of his photographs. Photography begins since the moment you take the camera and leave your own territory (no right to turn back, just like the political emigrants, who escaped from the socialist camp). This is hardly a pretentious metaphor; Yordanov's journeys do not happen in the depths of his soul, but go out, wandering through physical and social space. They lead him to abandoned villages and done-for pubs, to border regions and local feasts, to madhouses and gypsy camps... His works resemble delicately poetized area explorations, searching for a pure "anthropologic material", strong enough to block the mechanisms of modern reflections. This doesn't mean that Yordanov is telling myths by means of pictures. His photographic journeys rather organize some kind of a social striptease, in which his personages undress the marks of their cultural integrity - they are nowhere and nobody, totally lost in their miserable surrounding, or elevated above it with the magic causelessness of Marc Chagall's heroes.
Alienation second: a visit to the second identity
Usually the invited one is Ivo Hadjimishev. He discovers the alienation in the faces of Bulgarian culture. His portraits are classical - somewhere between Karsch and Newman, if a point of intersection exists at all in their approaches, regardless any psychoanalytical exercises. It is a simple hypothesis: in the same way as, during the communist times, each respectable writer had a "text for the locker", each respectable artist had his "identity for the locker" - a second identity, which resisted to the public standards acceptable for his first identity. Thus, Hadjimishev, with the care of a "belle époque" studio photographer, and assuming the function of a "magic assistant", gives the artist the chance to reveal himself in front of the camera. He builds "paper scene" - on the border between public and private, where first and second identity meet. This encounter gives a psychological scope to the portraits, which is rapidly growing into a cultural one. Hadjimishev's heroes are simultaneously heroes on their own - writers "write down" on their own faces, artists "paint"... The cheese in the mousetrap? It's in the second identity of Hadjimishev himself, which is diversely related to the present day intellectual elite as well as going far back to the traces of the family memory. This identification is turned into a photographic approach, which takes the social time apart, reducing it to a biographical one, and taking the historical moment back to "personal stories" - as though his portraits fill up a "family album" of new Bulgarian culture. Thus, from one photograph to another, from one face to another, he succeeded in "reanimating" the personal authority, in broadening the shortened horizons of public image of the time, so that the first identity becomes insufficient. Barthes says: "In France, one is not an actor if one has not his portrait taken at the Studio Harcourt". In the 80's Bulgaria, if an artist has never been photographed by Ivo Hadjimishev, there is nothing more to be added to what is known about him anyway. Today Ivo Hadjimishev, like in the 80's, continues his search for new territories for independent and free photojournalism. His interest in Bulgarian culture is directed not only to its faces but also to its memorials and religious diversity.
Alienation third: the psychological object
What should you do with the advertisements nobody will ever ask you to make? For example, you can take them to pieces exploring their initial working mechanism, while dark funeral processions of USSR party leaders are marching down on the TV screen. The mechanism has been created in the toy workshops of Dadaists and surrealists, and in the 80's (probably till nowadays) it was called a psychological automatism. Thanks to it, the inner state, fears and complexes are objectified, they obtain shape and colour, crawling out to the visible reality. Georgi Neykov, with a measured psychoanalytical irony, organized them in an aesthetic performance with no clear message. Ads, deprived from their function and meaning by somebody; dreams, which you remember perfectly well but you are still not able to retell... The style is obsessive, the content - evasive; "paradoxically, style is the only thing, through which photography could be accepted as a language" says Barthes. Intently, Neykov's photography speaks its own language. Imagination, emancipated from the "principle of reality", inflates the meanings of objects like balloons, until they turn into "pure" visual signs, which finally burst. Among them, the human body, almost always undressed, is deprived of any privileges. It is simply an object among objects. To pretend that we are personalities with their own will and right of choice, is definitely not ? worthier occupation than to speculate what would happen if we weren't such. In the 80's, Neykov was passionately reading philosophy - the motives about disintegration of personality, about nothingness; hence, the "impossible personality" is not only reflection on the nature of photography or society of that time, but also a reference to Sartre, a vault from words to images. Today - for ten years actually - Georgi Neykov lives in the USA. He is working in Hollywood, collecting photographs, curating exhibitions, shooting palms, rockers' and travesties' parties. All of them objects in which the mechanism of psychological automatism is still ticking.
Alienation fourth: images of the images
Cinema always remembers its "original sin" - photography. In the 80's Emil Christov rose a wave of filmmakers, mostly cinematographers, who rolled back cultural time of cinematography, until it froze into a still photograph. This approach has its grounds in Wim Wenders' photographs, insisting that film is a motion, story, fiction only on its surface - underneath, it is simply a way of viewing things, a professional voyeurism. Christov's works play the "view-in-view" game: cinematographically interpreted pieces of reality. The process results in unmasking the innocence of the look, revealing its prejudices. Moreover, the look itself is a prejudice you can get rid of either by closing your eyes or by focusing in the inside of yourself, which is actually the same. At this point, Christov's unexpectedly purified and semantically lightened visions change aesthetic discourse to an ethical one, thus interfering with the "economy of guilt". Your resistance against what you see mercilessly leads you to your own identity and the best way to escape from the unbearable vision is to shoot right between your eyes. Of course, such kind of a placard drama does not come up in any of Christov's photographs. There is only a subdued pressure, which turns into a social message only in a few portraits. Self-identification is revealed there as a role from a traditional film repertoire, as a mask, as a gag of behaviour; the less you trust yourself, the more efforts you put in... Portrait is an image of the image; ethical discourse turns back to the aesthetic one - the only one, which (at least according to Christov) is worthy of speaking for the Other one. Today Emil Christov is probably the most famous Bulgarian cinematographer. He rarely indulges in photography, but quite often proclaims intentions in doing it.
Alienation fifth: the metaphysical consolation
Men's backs in the photographs of Garo Keshishjan do not look like human ones but rather resemble stones, pedestals, from which someone has removed the monument. Name, biography, success are only details, by means of which we try to postpone facing the metaphysical. It doesn't work with Keshishjan. He treats photo camera as an ear, through which you can listen closely (in the meaning of Heidegger) to the voice of human existence (Keshishjan himself has named one of his photo series "An Endless Voice"). Wherever he starts from - faces looking like old geographical maps or cultural minorities, peeled off walls or object compositions - by means of plastic and exploiting despotism of matter, he succeeds in deriving an obsessive and quite a bothering sense - the one of the very existence itself. In his photographs, Keshishjan does not tell stories about existence but pulls it out directly from people and things, like the gnawed skeleton of the enormous fish, pulled out from the sea by Heminghway's old man. The problem has a much larger context, this time far away from Heidegger - existence cannot be captured neither in a word or a metaphor, nor within language itself. "Speaking" of existence is much simpler for the photographic images-traces, because of their own ontological relation with it. I am not aware if Keshishjan is dreaming of lions, but I remember well that he was taking pictures of prisoners, shortly resting in-between crumbling of stones, as if he had seen them in his inmost dreams. The real relief from the drama of existence is to lose oneself in sensing it. Today Garo Keshishjan works for the Varna City Theatre, meanwhile making passport photographs, which doesn't contradict his fame of being one of the greatest Bulgarian photographers.
Alienation sixth: auto-aggression
Alienation seventh: a withdrawal to the shrouds
Images in which, somewhere, the life-size outlines of a naked female body can be perceived, charging a dose of eroticism in the chaos of sensations. An effort can be sensed; something has happened but it is hard to say what exactly it was. Erotic and esoteric become synonymous. Takor Kyurdyan had read, and "read" is a very week expression, Michel Tournier's "Veronique's Shrouds": "Veronique used large sheets of photo paper, which in the beginning she exposed to daylight at rest... Then she flooded poor Hector in a developing liquid. She made him lay down and pose, while being all wet. The only thing left was to dip the paper into acid fixer... and walk the model to the bathroom." Kyurdyan allots the role of Hector to a very young and beautiful girl, whose body-on-paper should develop to its utmost, to the very absurd, to the idea of the photographic image as "a mask of death". Barthes defines the poetical form of haiku as "writing for the sake of writing". Kyurdyan's work can be defined in the same way: a trace is equal in its meaning to its own materiality; a trace is reproducing the inscrutability of conception as a border to each meaning. The photographer is walking on it, observing the lightness of his steps, as though he is walking on ice, frightened by their heaviness. Ultimately, this is simply a refusal to portray, a striving to let the traces you leave in culture to be traces of a withdrawal. It is a technological dissident-ism. Today Takor Kyurdyan rests in peace under his own shroud, and his work represents the largest and the most accomplished vanguard project in the history of Bulgarian photography.
Alienation eighth: visual emigration
Photography gives you the chance to turn into a foreigner without emigrating, reversing (according to Susan Sontag) one of its basic strategies - the one of assuming or unassuming reality in front of the camera. Anthony Georgiev achieves this effect in the traditional key of postmodern aesthetics - by means of chance and quotation. Shooting is exploited as an act cutting off the genealogical relation between personages and objects; its non-identification is turned into aim and style. The break is both in course of a personal life story and of a social ideological story. Simply fragments of the world, often rich in events, complicatedly composed or psychologically intense, fragments you couldn't possibly include in any puzzle. Visually told stories with no exit, no "before", no "after", no "up" - especially with no "up", leading to the "acceptance of the fact that chance is worthy enough of determining our destiny", if we quote Freud. By the way, these stories lead to Freud himself: an exchange of subdued or symbolized libido energy is carrying out, something like "sex between strangers". Georgiev quotes on any level - on the level of photographic approach, of literature fiction, of vanguard and contra-cultural trends, of philosophical gag, on the level of his own art... The only authentic experience in his works is the resistance to authenticity. For Georgiev, Blum's warning of the "horror of finding out that you are just a copy, a repetition" is a source of happiness in the ethical sense of the category, a way to be relieved of the burden of responsibility, prescribed by a social system you have never accepted. Today Anthony Georgiev, an emigrant in Denmark for a long time, is perpetually on the move, travelling all over the world including to Bulgaria - with his Danish passport, as a foreigner. He writes articles and prose and rarely takes photographs for his own pleasure or as an illustration to his own texts. It would be quite unjust to claim that "birth of the author" in Bulgarian photography in the 80's reduces to the eight authors presented here - but it would have been even more unjust to add anybody else to their company.