an exertion from a text “Pandora’s Box – The Handling of Things Past in Contemporary Photo Art” by Barbara Straka, in: “1st Ars Baltica Triennial of Photographic Art”, ed. Enno Kaufhold, Berlin, 1996, pp.35-37, total pages of the text: 32-49

History Conserved, Time Brought to a Standstill

For the photo artist Igor Savchenko, who lives in Minsk [White Russia], old photos and other historical documents, e.g. old gramophone records, are "conserves" of a world which is past, a world he wants to make "audible" once again employing artistic means. He writes under the pseudonym "Ivan Sidorov": "One day about five years ago I bought a gramophone record. It was the recording of a concert of Bruckner's 6th symphony, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler. From Berlin. Recorded on 13th November 1943. In Berlin ... and I can listen to this today ... Adagio. With great solemnity. There is a muffled cough in the hall. Scherzo. Not too quickly. Another cough in the hall. The creak of a bench. Finale, with expression, but not too quickly ... Do I just get to hear this performance of the 6th symphony? No, what I can hear are all the acoustic occurrences in the Berlin Philharmonic on 13th November 1943, the way they were recorded by German equipment at that time - very good for that period. [...] In the same way I 'hear' his [I.S.] photos, by being familiar with the 'technology' of their production. [...] Here there is the same chain of associations, the same wave of feelings and sensations. Occasionally, it leads away from the image into the self. But it is precisely this picture which evokes such feelings."4 Igor Savchenko takes photographs of sections of shots from old family albums from the 50s to the 70s, then assembling them into conceptual series which appear, for example, as an "Alphabet of Human Gestures" or he annotates them with language, for example "We Speak German" [1992] (fig.3). The "patina" of the photographs is retained, is even additionally emphasized. Igor Savchenko expresses no irony or denunciation with regard clumsiness of gesture and facial expression, of photographic technique and posing before the camera; he is interested in reconstructing the moment of the photo and in evoking specific feelings and ideas which are awakened by the old photographic image he has chosen. For Savchenko, the memory of an anonymous photograph from the Germany of the 20s, which he calls "Night over Germany", becomes a trigger for a consideration of national identity and cultural meanings common to Germans and Russians: "A humpbacked old woman, as if from a fairy-tale, with a walking stick and dressed in a thin wrap, an old bent tree, a field and the sky. Everything is dark brown and scarcely discernible in the darkness. It is a mixture of German Romanticism, German mysticism and old German stories and legends. For me Germany was always a mysterious, enigmatic country the way it is in this photo; not just the landscape, but the country itself. Or is it only so when you look at it from Russia? Russia. A birch tree. 'The Russian birch'. But what if you say 'the German birch'? How does that sound? You say the German word BIRKE. And a sky with a cloud - the German words HIMMEL and WOLKE, and a field with a tree - the German words FELD and BAUM. Here they all are; and many other things. But do they have songs about their 'German birch tree' Possibly..."5

It is precisely the supposed simplicity of Savchenko's questions to himself which discloses the ideological character of those national "myths" which are stored in and take possession of the cultural memory of peoples, on occasion expressing nationalist attitudes - to the point of their deployment in warlike conflicts. There is no need to think any further than the third verse of the German national hymn. For Savchenko, these reflections on a historical photo were a stimulus to work on his series "We Speak German", but its aesthetic manifestation does not initially differ in any way from comparable amateur photos from those years which depict soldiers demonstrating the comradeship between men at arms (fig.4). But the true artistic process of appropriation takes place with the author's laborious purple printing on the photos, writing reminiscent of the staccato-like exercises from Russian textbooks of German used during the Cold War. Savchenko's series of works should not be misunderstood as an analytical discussion of Russian and German identity, they do not claim to be an analytical approach to the past. In these images, characteristics of the times or attributes which could serve to identify what is depicted or the setting may be sought in vain. Nevertheless, the photographic form is "present everywhere ... as a means of investigating the phenomenon of time, the aesthetics of photographic space and the manifestation of man in time"6.

Like Savchenko, many of the traditionally trained photographers from former eastern block states had left the field of "the photography of authorship" by the end of the 80s at the latest, and taken over conceptual forms of presentation and work. Collecting old photos and albums, establishing a picture archive, studying amateur photography and its repertoires of form gave them indispensable prerequisites for this work. Representatives of these conceptual tendencies were the Lithuanian Vitas Luckus, whose iconography of photographic motifs is reminiscent of Aby Warburgs methods [70s], the Ukrainian Boris Michailov, the Russians Vladimir Kupriyanow and Alexey Shulgin [Moscow], and later Lyudmila Fedorenko and Veronika Lapreye, backed by the theory of "photo-archaeology" conceived by Dmitry Vilensky [St. Petersburg]. In Poland, the development of these tendencies has been given important stimuli from as early as the 60s by Andrzej Rozycki and later, Wojciech Prazmowski.

  1. Igor Savchenko, “Ein weiterer Versuch, diesen Artikel zu schreiben” [A Further Attempt to Write This Article], in: Fotografie aus Minsk, ifa-Galerie Berlin, Berlin 1995, p.28
  2. Ibid., p.28
  3. Ibid., p.19