Born in Ukraine, lives in Moscow, Russia
chemistry |transmutation | alchemy
In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful. – Susan Sontag, On Photography
Susan Sontag’s words from the 1970’s still ring true forty years later. Unconsciously, we continue conflating beauty and idealism, particularly in the realm of photography and popular culture. A quick tour of social media confirms it, holding forth a cornucopia of cultural clichés in every genre: landscapes, erotica, snapshots with friends, family vacations, weddings, selfies, etc., etc.
I remember my first photography teacher, Ken Shorr, telling the story of how his parents would borrow the neighbor’s dog for family photographs, explaining to the kids that every family was supposed to have a pet. It hardly mattered that the image was not the reality, because in the modern world of surfaces and appearances, we all understand, however implicitly or unconsciously, that images are often more powerful than reality. Photographs look real, but their truth is slippery. Every photographer knows that her images hide as much as they reveal.
The real line of tension here sits squarely between our public personas and our private lives; ourselves as performers reading our lines in the visible social world versus the unedited and untidy realities playing out behind the curtain.
Yulia Kazban’s work stands in dissenting opposition to multiple trends and forces in the contemporary media landscape. Her work is personal and autobiographical, but with a raw and gritty character that suggests little deference to prevalent notions of decorum. Kazban clearly has no interest in either social or aesthetic rituals of idealism, nor is she under the sway of any aesthetic or technical protocols in her photographic practice. Her work is not about appearance, but rather a deeper truth embedded in a direct form of looking and visibility. She invites us into a world that has not been sanitized in advance, where things can be inadvertent, ambiguous, messy, and possibly even a little edgy.
Kazban’s snapshot aesthetic, which we generally associate with an unselfconscious photographic naiveté, actually masks a highly sophisticated understanding of how snapshots rely on context to convey meaning and trigger narrative.
Snapshots mark an elusive moment within the relentless flow of time. Typically, the fuller context remains unexplained and is known only to the maker of the image – that’s why they can seem so opaque and perplexing to an outside audience. The image merely triggers the memory of the experience of the flow; not just that time, place, moment – but that story. Out of context as merely an image, snapshots communicate only a fragmented ambiguity.
I am most interested in photographs that transcend the subject matter and are ‘about’ things rather than ‘of’ things. – Kat Kiernan
While this can be a frustrating experience when viewing a stranger’s snapshots, Kazban uses these same tensions to draw viewers into a moment that feels intensely personal and intimate. We become aware of both what is in the frame – what we are being shown – and also what might be beyond the moment – what we are not seeing, what we are being denied, what we can only imagine. Her images capture a thin slice of time, but the experience feels continuous and narrative. In combination and grouped together, these images begin to talk to one another, their conversations creating a clustered web of moments and meanings. They depend on one another and begin to complete each other. Individually, the pictures feel like fragments, shards, half-memories. Together, they begin to formulate sentences, paragraphs, complete thoughts. Kazban has built a complex, multi-layered, cinematic storytelling machine.
Kazban’s aesthetic is pushed even further by her loyalty to a traditional wet chemistry process and her love of prints, versus the slick, frictionless veneer of images viewed on a screen. Her work, and we can assume her life, is grounded in the world of durable material reality rather than fugitive, flickering virtual fantasies. Her portfolio pays homage to the realm of solid bodies, objects, places; the weight and texture of actual paper held in real hands.
This sensuous and tactile quality gives her self-portraits a particular rawness and urgency. They exude vulnerability, but also defiance and strength. These images sing.
Yulia Kazban offers us an alternate species of beauty, a darker and more complicated – and I would argue – more real beauty than the usual idealized fictions. It might be said that, as viewers we have to work a little harder, be a bit more patient, bring more persistent energy, curiosity, and courage to this work. But this is the norm whenever we must think for ourselves and invent our own definitions. Real art never allows us to be insipid or lazy.
Real beauty knocks you a little bit off kilter. – David Byrne
Kazban’s non-antiseptic vision suggests that reality, and beauty, resides hidden in the banal and the inadvertent. Her images seduce us with the feeling that we’re being given a glimpse of what lies behind the veil; the hint that something extraordinary and magical hovers just slightly beyond the literalness of what one sees in the photograph, an elusive deeper meaning that can only be sensed, not directly identified. Mysterious, faint, just slightly beyond where we can stretch, but present and palpable.
In Kazban’s world the banal transforms into a strange, exotic, and animated alchemy. The literalness of the lens, the concrete chemistry of the darkroom, transmuted into gritty enchantment.
images: © copyright 2016 Yulia Kazban. No use without permission.
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission.