The Naked Room presents WE ALL ONCE LIVED, a new exhibition by Alexander Chekmenev. It is made up of photographs created in the 1990s mostly in Luhansk—where Alexander used to live and work—but also in Kyiv, Odesa, Poltava, and other cities.
Chekmenev’s photography has two different points worth considering. The first is about its subject matter, story, and hyperrealistic documentation of everyday city life in eastern Ukraine, where the transformation at the turn of the two political eras felt especially painful. The second is about compositional and colouristic perfection of the images. It reveals both the photographer’s attention to chronicles and sensitivity of his artistic vision. The uniqueness of his street photography resides in its amazingly natural combination of the documentary and the timeless aesthetics of every shot.
Chekmenev didn’t merely take photos of the familiar and comprehensible. He captured the world that he lived in and belonged to. Photographer’s view shows no sign of othering or mocking. But there is also no nostalgic admiration of the unattractive, but the “so dear”. Both of these approaches can be frequently found in portfolios of the artists who work with photography as visual anthropologists. Chekmenev, instead, demonstrates a calm and surprisingly mature eye (the artist wasn’t even 30 years old but one’s skin became thick very soon back in the 90s). In these images, we don’t see just a city that after 30 years seems like a disappeared fossil to us. We see a completely different type of public space.
In turbulent times—as it always happened in human history—public space didn't belong to anyone. Therefore, it belonged to everyone who lived there, including those who simply didn’t have their own private space and shelter. The restlessness of this common ‘nobody’s space’ equalised, not divided its citizens, who were trying hard to settle down. Maybe due to such bitter but honest equality, Chekmenev’s characters, despite the poverty and devastation around them, look into the camera lens (as well as at the exhibition visitors, who look back at them today) rather friendly and even proudly.
However, Chekmenev’s photos aren't perceived as bare photo documentation or an artifact of the "wild 90's". Their documentary significance is emphasized by artistic image perfection. An authentic film and hand-printing convey a renaissance sense of colour. Contingent, but not contingently captured poses, gestures of people on the shots, in turn, refer to historical paintings. This is how the peredvizhniki artists worked on their canvases. Soviet art history tended to focus only on a social inequality judgement in their art. But without the flaming stain of the red headscarf, the idea of a picture falls to dust.
The strength and complexity of Chekmenev’s work rely on something seemingly simple–a clear understanding of the basic possibility of a photographic method: its ability to immobilise the fragment of the visible world without the added value of posing, post-editing, and other manipulations. But the photographer keeps his choice of a place and a moment of immobilisation. This choice can be made on a paramedics night shift. Or by a passport office worker, who takes photos for the documents of people that are confined to their poor houses because of age and disease.
Chekmenev’s series is an example of acute, accurate, and ruthless—as a surgeon’s knife—photographic practice. It cuts precisely, at one time and forever. But without such an approach it wouldn’t be possible to see and understand the world that surrounds us.