Igor Manko: “We Tried to create works that would make you stop in front of them and think for a while”


Alina Sanduliak

Igor Manko, “Selfportriat”, 1992. Image courtesy of the author.

We are continuing to publish the series of materials dedicated to the development of the Kharkiv School of Photography in the 80’s, which we started with the interview with Misha Pedan – one of the members of the Gosprom group. Alina Sanduliak, an art expert / historian, has prepared an interview with another member of the group, Igor Manko, about the circumstances of the emergence of the group, its aesthetic aspirations, historic situation of the period and the creative work of the author in general.

— Igor, you are regarded as one of the second generation of the Kharkiv School of Photography. When did you get into the company of Kharkiv photographers?

— I took pictures ever since I was a kid, but when I turned 18 and got my first “grown-up” Kiev-15 camera, I felt like I wanted to take artistic photos. Back then, I studied at Kharkiv University and at the same time started attending one of the city’s photo clubs, which was the only way to get some kind of artistic photography education at the Soviet times. It was at the club that I met Andrey Avdeenko and Leonid Pesin. There was an insightful story connected with the latter. Once, the head of the photo club, while looking through Pesin’s works, made a passionate speech on how we should be careful with our anti-Soviet topics. He said that there was one Oleg Maliovany in Kharkiv (that was the first time I heard the name) and that it was important not to get in trouble like he did. And, someone asked him: “Is there a way to see his works? Just in order not to repeat his unjustifiable ideological mistake?” The reply was: “Don’t worry guys, there is no way you could repeat Maliovany.” That was how my photography education began. Much later I found out that the head of the photo club was the person that turned in the “Vremia” group to the ideological guardians. Still, But I got to meet the “Vremia” group photographers in person later, in the mid-80s.

— How did that happen?

—Coffee shops were popular meeting spots in Kharkiv and all kinds of artistic bohema including photographers would gather there. Moving from one location to another, along the so-called Bermuda triangle, one could meet old friends or make new ones. There was a place at Garshina street, which was fancied by photographers; there they shared their new works and discussed them. This was where our group of the younger generation of photographers formed because we actively communicated with each other.

— How did the idea of creating the “Gosprom” group emerge? Vremia had its “blow theory”, but what was your theory or manifest? As far as I know, you were in an ideological confrontation with the “Vremia” group…

Volodymyr Starko, 1983-1984, gelatin silver print. MOKSOP’s collection.

— The confrontation was aesthetical, not ideological. The style of Vremia artists presupposed manipulations with a photograph: overlaying slide frames, hand-colouring and collaging. To make that “blow”, (which was aesthetic to a bigger extent), happen, it was important to stun or to show something unusual. And that really worked. Volodymyr Starko recalled that when he attended one of the first slideshows of Boris Mikhailov’s overlays in a campus cellar-cafe, the so-called Buchenwald, shown to the Pink Floyd music, he felt as if he was struck over the head. That’s how powerful the impression was.

Our generation was different, and we saw no point in repeating someone else’s “blows”. We avoided any kind of manipulations with the images, and worked with photography as it was. Luckily for us, perestroika had already begun, and taking photos in the streets didn’t draw unwanted attention from the ideological guardians.

We didn’t have a solid aesthetics that would be clearly worded on paper, still, the common direction appeared thanks to non-stop communication and mutual influence. First of all, it was striving for documental authenticity, getting back to realism, I dare say, and documenting the collapse of the Soviet reality (“The End of La Belle Epoque”, as Misha Pedan named his book of photos taken at that time). Technically it was achieved by closing down the aperture to the possible minimum when shooting and using a point light source when printing; for maximum sharpness and depth of field all over the image.

Within this general line, Pesin and Starko leaned toward bitingly critical anti-soviet statements, while Boris Redko was more drawn to the ironic demonstration of the absurdity of the life around. I aimed at creating works by looking at which no one would be able to say which of the objects exactly had captured the photographer’s eye and which of them are background. I mean an image where all of the objects are of equal value, where everything is of importance. For me and Gennadiy Maslov the main negative criterion in photography was “too head-on”. This was the rejection of the “blow theory”. We tried to create works that would make you stop in front of them and think for a while.

Igor Manko, from Scnenes series, 1983-1986, gelatin silver print. MOKSOP’s collection.

— Which exhibitions did the group take part in at that time?

— There were two big exhibitions in the Palace of Students, namely F-87 and F-88. All Kharkiv photographers took part in them. There were attempts to close each of these exhibitions. But that was the time of perestroika and glasnost, which made everyone enjoy a bit more freedom, so we would go as far as write to progressive newspapers in Moscow reporting that there were attempts to illegally ban the exhibitions. There was even a reporter that came from Moscow, and I guess something got into perestroika press.

Misha Pedan, from The End of la Belle Époque series, 1987, gelatin silver print. MOKSOP’s collection.

Besides, the group produced lots of smaller exhibitions everywhere it could: in the Opera House, in the People’s Arts Centre and the House of Technics. We also participated in photo seminars in Nida, Lithuania, and an avant-garde art festival in Riga.

— For historical accuracy, could you please, list the members of the Gosprom group?

— The first name of the group was Kontakt or Kontakty and it was me and Maslov who came up with the idea of creating a group in 1985 if I’m not mistaken. Maslov had a photo studio at one of the so called Houses of Culture (traditional Soviet institutions for cultural events) where we all used to meet. The group at that time included me, Maslov, Redko, Starko, then Pedan, Pesin and Melnik. It took the group about a year to form. Then Maslov, who was a military interpreter, had to go to Africa for work, and his place in the photo lab was taken by Starko. He ran an exhibition in the same House of Culture, but it was right away closed with a scandal, and Starko got fired.

Later Pedan got a job in the photo studio at the Palace of Students (the Palace of Students of the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute — ed. note) and we started gathering at that place.

Pedan and Pesin suggested that we rename the group (either of them thinks that it was his idea to do so) so that it would contain a reference to Kharkiv. That was how the group got its name, Gosprom. And under that name, we took part in Kharkiv exhibitions ever since. At one of them, Sergiy Bratkov joined us. So, Gosprom is me, Leonid Pesin, Volodymyr Starko, Misha Pedan, Boris Redko, Sergiy Bratkov and Konstyantyn Melnik.

Leonid Pesin, from series 1984, 1984, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Igor Manko.

I don’t know what would happen later on if it weren’t for the economic situation in the country, which, to say the least, didn’t favour the development of arts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the Houses of Culture closed down and exhibitions stopped being organised as there was literally nowhere to hold them. Photo materials disappeared from the stores, at the place where there had been Photolyubitel store (a store for cameras and other photo paraphernalia), there emerged a fashion boutique. Photographers went commercial, and some of them moved abroad.

If not for all that, the Gosprom group might have had an interesting future. Probably that could have been some kind of movement from strait to conceptual photography. But in that situation, it just quietly and unnoticeably disintegrated.

When Sergiy Bratkov decided to turn his studio into a gallery, there were only two photographers from the group that worked in it, me and Bratkov. The rest had moved somewhere else or got detached from the group: Misha Pedan had already moved to Sweden, while others worked in commercial photography or the areas not connected with photography at all.

 —Tell me more about Bratkov’s gallery?

— The gallery appeared in 1993, and it was located in an attic-floor space. There was a steep wooden staircase leading up to it, hence the name, Up/Down. Everything still alive in Kharkiv photography in the 90s concentrated in the gallery. It hosted numerous exhibitions, including the ones of Sergiy Solonsky, Boris Mikhailov, Ihor Chursin, Boris Redko, Fast Reaction Group and Bratkov himself. It existed for about five years.

— Let’s talk about your projects. Although, back then, you probably didn’t use this word to define them.

— The word project is something from the new realia. Back then, we would talk about series and cycles. A series is something smaller with a clear order of photographs. A cycle is something vaguer, without a certain order of photos and larger-scaled.

I had a few black and white series that were displayed at exhibitions in Kharkiv. Also, I had individual works. At the end of the 1980s, I “invented” the technique of multicolour chemical toning (not so long ago at an exhibition of Klaipeda photography of the ’80s, I was surprised to discover that they experimented in that technique too). That was my response to hand-colouring of prints, which was so popular with Kharkiv photographers. 

— What was the technique of chemical toning about?

— There were chemical toning solutions called colour intensifiers. The novelty of my approach was in using several successive colours. To make it work, the prints had to be printed denser than they usually are; they first had to be processed with one solution, then the processing had to be interrupted, the print rinsed and, processed in another solution. As a result, two colours appeared in a photo.

The first work in this technique is Town Motifs with Clouds series, made in Tselinograd (now Nur-Sultan — ed. note). It was toned blue and brown.

Igor Manko, from Town motifs series, 1986, gelatin silver print, toned. MOKSOP’s collection.

In my yellow and green series, Childhood Memories, I kind of experienced childhood once again through my son. The location where the photos were taken is exactly the same place where I grew up, and my son is the same age as I was back then.

Igor Manko, from Childhood memories series, 1987, gelatin silver print, toned. MOKSOP’s collection.

Seascape with a Frontier Helicopter is a very important work for me. It was Jurmala in 1990, and a frontier helicopter was patrolling the border of the Soviet Union that had another year to live. This work is about the Iron Curtain and isolation from the rest of the world.

 That period (let’s call it “the Gosprom period”) ended with an exhibition in Denmark, which was a milestone event for me. In 1991 my works took part in the exhibition of Eastern European photography, Looking East, held in Galleri Image in Aarhus. After that, there came an offer to exhibit my solo show, which took place in February 1993.

Igor Manko, “Seascape with border helicopter”, 1990, gelatin silver print, toned, hand-coloured. MOKSOP’s collection.

The next 10 years were a compromise between photography and the necessity to work for a living. I photographed mostly in summer in Crimea. There, 36 Views of Mount Kara Dag project appeared.

That was an interesting story. In 1993, when I first got to the Kara Dag nature reserve, I was so impressed with that place that I suggested to the management that I take photos for a landscape calendar for them for free. They agreed, but next year, when I came back there with cameras, a tripod and a bag of diapositive film, everything was different. The management had changed, no one knew about our agreement, they started charging for excursions, all the guesthouses were occupied, and there was no way I could get a pass. I packed my stuff and went to the Fox Bay, from where one could get amazing views of the unapproachable mountain.

Igor Manko, from 36 Views of Mount Kara Dag series, 1993-2005. Image courtesy of the author.

Seven years in a row, whenever I came to the Bay in summer, I worked on that project, which consisted of 18 landscapes and 18 nude photos (there is a nudist community in the Fox Bay). In 2005 I came there once again to take a couple more nude photographs and then I displayed the project at my solo exhibition in Kharkiv (1993-2005, Kharkiv Municipal Gallery).

Kara Dag is a dead volcano with a strong magnetic anomaly, and its magnetism made me come back to the subject. In 2009, I started working on 100 Views of Mount Kara Dag. In 2013, works form that project took part in two exhibitions in Voloshin’s House. The project was intended to be long-lasting and, if it was not for the annexation of Crimea, I would still be working on it.

Igor Manko, from 100 Views of Mount Kara Dag series, 2009-2013. Image courtesy of the author.

In 2007-2009, I made a big and slightly ironic project, called Sky Signs, where the graphics of plane traces was represented as “thesaurus and combinatorial potential of a language, the writing system of which is yet to be deciphered” (from the artist statement).

Igor Manko, Sky Signs projects, 2007-2009. Image courtesy of the author.

The year 2014 and a premonition of a war anything but civil, required changes in aesthetic approaches — there was no place for irony anymore. The Golden Ratio of Ukrainian Landscape (2014) was a kind of protective magic against the threat of imminent military invasion. The Sea, The Skies and The Black Earth (2015 – 2016) was about the impossibility of a full-fledged art statement. In The Deadly Flowers of War (2017) the name speaks for itself. 

Igor Manko, The Sea, The Skies and The Black Earth, 2015-2016. Image courtesy of the author.

— Now you’ve also started researching the Kharkiv School of Photography and have written several essays for the VASA Project. Why did you decide to start doing that?

— I hope I’ve already finished that (there should be a smiling emoji here). It all started in 2011: when I was working on my solo exhibition on VASA, I talked a lot with Roberto Muffoletto, Head curator of VASA Project. I told him about various episodes in the life of the Kharkiv School of Photography. For example, there was a story at the end of the ’80s, when the Swedes came to Kharkiv on their way to the Museum of the Poltava Battle. Mikhailov and his wife offered to drive them to Poltava, and then there was a KGB car chasing us, 3 hours of waiting at a road police office, vigilant Poltava citizens taking one of the guests from Sweden “captive” and us trying to free him. Or how difficult it was for “Vremia” group to work in the conditions of censorship and surveillance. There were tons of other funny and sad stories. Muffoletto suggested that I make a project on that, not only about the Kharkiv School of Photography but also about the conditions in which it was created. Hence the subtitle in the name of the project, From Soviet Censorship to New Aesthetics

On the one hand, there were people who knew more about Kharkiv photography, than I did, but they didn’t know English. On the other hand, I was a direct participant in many of the events, and I knew everyone. A good thing was that I couldn’t quite imagine the scope of work to be done, otherwise, I would have thought twice. As a result, there are four big online exhibitions with chronological coverage from 1970 to 2013 (more than 2,000 images), seven essays, video interviews with photographers, interactive catalogue and two years of life.

— In that project, you were talking about the third generation of the Kharkiv School of Photography…

— Yes, as early as 2010 at the exhibition titled Two Views on the Ukrainian Photography (curator: Misha Pedan), I was surprised to discover that the ideas of the Kharkiv School of Photography were still alive. The ideology, approaches and techniques, typical of the Kharkiv School were getting their continuation. The rich collage tradition of the School is continued by Yaroslav Solop in his Plastic Mythology project. The Shilo group completed all the uncompleted lines and brought them to a closure: they finished Mikhailov’s Unfinished Dissertation and coloured everything they could reach. After them, it is scary to approach a photo with paint at all. 

Yaroslav Solop, Plastic Mythology, digital collage. Image courtesy of the author.

In 2015, when I was working on the final part of the exhibition about young photographers, I had a feeling that the third generation will make another leap and there will be a new loop of development. But now there’s only a handful of the young authors that continue the photographic practice. As it turned out, alas, that was the last gasp before the death of the Kharkiv School of Photography.

But it is not that sad. I like the analogy with the history of Impressionism. That fruitful art movement developed into Post-Impressionism, then Pointillism brought that approach to a closure, and that was it. But later on, there emerged Cubism, and the art started moving in a different direction. It may be the same story with the Kharkiv School of Photography — it emerged, it grew up and then it dried out. Still, it gave numerous impulses for further development of Ukrainian photography.

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