Photographic tropes of Jury Rupin

Yuriy Rupin, “Self-portrait”, undated, silver-gelatine printing

Jury Rupin (1946, Krasnyi Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, USSR – 2008, Vilnius, Lithuania) was a photographer, essayist and gallery owner, one of the first member of the semi-official movement of photography, later known during the perestroika as the “Kharkiv school of photography”. 

Like most representatives of the photographic underground in Kharkiv, Rupin pursued an higher technical education. While studying at the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute, he became in 1971 one of the initiators of the “Vremia” group (which means “Time” in Russian), created inside the Kharkiv municipal photo club.

In a country where photographic practice existed in only two modes – an amateur one, focused on technical quality, encouraged by the state through the creation of a network of photo clubs, and a reportage one, directed by an ideological governmental order – Rupin and the other members of the Vremia group were looking for ways to rethink photography as an artistic practice. All of them    – Boris Mikhailov, Yevgeniy Pavlov, Oleg Maliovany, Oleksandr Suprun, Gennadiy Tubalev, Oleksandr Sitnichenko and Anatoliy Makiyenko, who joined the group later – realized in the framework of this program the need to develop a new approach, a new look at the photography.

The Vremia group, which was active from about 1972 to 1976, differed by its nature, from the conception of a classical art group with common aesthetics and collective art projects. Instead, it related to one of those unstable informal communities that slip away from the description with a formal language, manifesting itself only “in the disappearance, leaving only traces of their communicative gestures“. Such spontaneous associations fundamentally differed from the coercive, isterogeneous communities of kommunalka, and have signified the “decay […], when all imperial signs lose their significance […] when the usual bonds are destroyed and remain only those who are “superfluous” and «random»“.

On the ruins of imperial and totalitarian symbols incarnated mainly by the representation of endless parades and celebrations, members of the Vremia group sought traces of the presence of life through photography, which became the main tool of their resistance to randomness and neurosis of the regime. From this point of view, it is easier to grasp the meaning of the “blow theory”, which was proclaimed by Rupin during the only retrospective exhibition of the group, in 1983. According to this theory, a photograph should punch the face of the viewer in order to lead him out from indifference and apathy. Obviously unbearable for the regime, the exhibition was censured and shut down the day of the opening.

While working as a photojournalist since the early 1970s, Jury Rupin become at once actively engaged in artistic photography, which means for him at this time a constant interference in photographic material and process. The choice of photo-graphics, which, besides Rupin, was practiced inside the Vremia group by Oleg Maliovany, Gennadiy Tubalev, Oleksandr Suprun and Anatoliy Makiyenko, can be directly linked with the relevant contemporary trends in Czechoslovak and Polish photography. Kharkiv photographers indeed had more or less stable access to specialized photographic magazines coming from these socialist countries – the Polish “Fotografia” and the Czechoslovak “Revue Fotografie”.

Yurii Rupin, “Night”, 1974, silver-gelatine printing, collage.

Polish art photography, from the pioneer of pictorialism and one of the founders of the Union of Polish Art Photographers, Jan Bułhak, to Edward Hartwig, demonstrated a consistent tradition of graphic experiment that was popularized in Poland and abroad through book publishing, specialized publications and exhibition activities of the Union. This tendency regained importance throughout the Europe in the 1950s, with the movement for the “Subjective Fotografie” of Otto Steinert, who reestablished the connexion with the experiments of Bauhaus and “The New Vision” of László Moholy-Nagy, interrupted by the Second World War.

However, if the photographic experiment in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as in the countries of liberal democracies, was associated with the will to “prove the existence of a personal vision, an aesthetic bias on the content and the form, to affirm the creative power of the photographer who alone transforms the subject to the image” then, in the conditions of the dictatorship of socialist realism, it acquired inevitably the status of a political gesture. Indeed, as Jury Rupin recalls in his “Diary”, “formalism,”, was totally “inadmissible for internal use”. Occupying a negative position of “in-country emigrant” towards the official photography and the “general line of the KGB”, Rupin was actively testing the form, both through its malleability, flexibility and controllability.

In the 1970s, Jury Rupin’s works used mainly experimental techniques of photography such as photocollage, pseudo-solarisation, intermediate negatives, as well as the posterisation technique invented by Witold Romer, a Polish engineer born in Lemberg (nowadays Lviv, in Ukraine). Those experimental photographs received the most vivid approval among those colleagues whose opinion Rupin respects the most at this time. His first institutional recognition took place in 1974, when two of his works were published in the specialized monthly publication  “Československá Fotografie”. At the top of the page devoted to Rupin’s work, there was a photography made in high contrast pseudo-solarization technique from the series “Bathhouse” taken in 1972, while the “Anxiety” (made before 1975) was published in its lower part.

Yuri Rupin, “We”, 1971, silver-gelatin printing.

In the “Bathhouse” series, Rupin treats a subject which happens to be quite common for photographers of the Kharkiv school – a nude body. In the same year, Yevgeniy Pavlov, a close friend of Rupin and member of the Vremia group as well, made the “Violin” series, which significance for the whole Soviet context laid on the massive shot of naked male models. From the mid-1960s, Boris Mikhailov documented in Kharkiv the Soviet corporeality, banished into a non-manifestation. From this moment on, the woman’s naked body also became the important topic of the aestheticized photographs of Oleg Maliovany.  

The interest of underground photographers in the individual, vulnerable, naked, repressed corporeality in the Soviet context was largely related to the prohibition of its representation. The image of the naked body, which was automatically disregarded as “pornography,” was part of the classic prohibition triad. Furthermore, it was also prohibited to take photographs from a high point of view, as well as to photograph strategic objects – factories, railways and military sites.

As a part of the negative aesthetics of the Vremia group, the representation of the individual corporeality allowed the photographers to reveal the signs of “collective” reflected on it. Boris Mikhailov has demonstrated most obviously this projection of the collective image on the specific body in the series “Yesterday’s Sandwich” (1965-1981), where he overlaid color slides of the images of private and under-represented body with images of the «public body». The nude body in the photographic practice of Jury Rupin is associated both with the trial of the limits of socially permissible representation – and their transgression (“The Night”, 1974), and with the perception of the body as of the last possibility of a private and inalienable experience – and its aesthetization (“Two the sea“, 1975, “We“, 1971, “Acts” series, 1970s).

If the version of “Bathhouse” series composed with direct photographs rejoin those realized by pioneers of Soviet photography – Boris Ignatovich, Arkady Shaikhet, Max Penson, its graphical version breaks with materiality, while only the ethereal shadows, spots and lines composed in ideograms, remain. The graphic version of “Bathhouse“, as other most audacious graphic experiments of Rupin at this time (series “Energy for the BAM“, 1975, “The Birches“, 1970s-1980s), frankly tends to abstraction.

Unlike “Bathhouse”, “Anxiety” is dramatic and suggestive. Here Rupin, uses the “simple” and “unambiguous” instrument – a camera, in order to recreate a voluminous, complex, abstract concept – an emotional state. As a result of the complete removal of the gray shades, the silhouettes of the bodies begin to dissipate in the background, while the contours of the eyes that fix the camera and the viewer, are significantly emphasized. 

The  classical in the history of art image of mother and child is apparently reviewed here and acquires the features of monstrosity and danger. This approach of the motherhood theme – in terms of uncertainty, fear and fatigue, which are inextricably linked with the real experience of motherhood – radically differs from its optimistic image, glorified by the Soviet propaganda, particularly by the pictures displayed in the monthly magazine “Sovietskoye Foto” (Soviet photo).

According to the words of Yevgeniy Pavlov, Rupin’s practice of artistic photography in the 1970s aspires “to realize a solarization of the Party congress”. However, in parallel, he traveled a lot in the Union as a part of his photojournalist work, which gave him the opportunity to accumulate documentary photographs of the Soviet everyday life. Finally, in the 1980s, he produced a number of documentary series such as “Sorochyntsi Fair”(1983), “On November 7″(1985), “The Cow’s Death”(1985). The main creative method in these series becomes irony, while his gaze often fixes at the insignificant, indecisive moments of the surrounding reality. By this approach, Rupin became close – both aesthetically and personally – with Vitas Luckus, a rebel in a group of famous Lithuanian photographers that they were in those time. Both in distinct pictures and in series, Rupin assumes the unpredictability as a potent element of photographic practice and refuses to pursue a technically perfect image. 

Yurii Rupin, “Anxiety”, early 1970s, silver-gelatinous printing, solarization.

This refusal of “quality” as a criterion of evaluation of a photograph became the starting point to the theoretical redefinition of photography by Rupin and the Vremia group. In the documentary footage of Rupin, every detail, regardless of its position in the overall composition, matters. Paradoxically, Rupin, as well as Oleg Maliovany, was one of the best technical specialists in the field of photography in the Kharkiv community. Both of them were part of a small circle of people able to print photographs in color, an extremely difficult and labor-intensive process in the USSR. Furthermore, elegant, well-balanced and somewhat monumental compositions in such works as “Kharkiv Girl” (1977), “Incident” (1978), “Yaroslavl. Bus Stop” (1977), show Rupin’s ability to compose images in the spirit of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”.

“On November 7”, is one of the last series of Jury Rupin. Dedicated to the celebration of the October Revolution, the photographer treats here one of the most popular subjects in the Soviet Union, a collective demonstration. Almost all the members of the Vremia group admired this theme at this time : the photographs from Kharkiv parades compose a significant part of the “Red” series of Boris Mikhailov (1968-1975), while the common characters found in Rupin’s and Maliovany’s series (“Demonstrations”, 1978-1985) tackle the collective character of these shootings. 

In the photographs of the demonstrations, the circle was supposed to close itself, and the individual body to turn into a collective one. On the pictures of many photographers from the twentieth century – from Alexander Rodchenko’s sportsmen to “Moscow” (1961) of Sabine Weiss – Soviet demonstrations were shown essentially as “the mass ornament”. However, Rupin’s series is made in 1985, the first year of Gorbachev’s perestroika, when the ideological crisis started to reach representations as well. Full integration in the collective body falls down, while smiles become more and more strained, and hypocrisy becomes increasingly evident. The greatest documentary value of these series consists indeed in the fixation of the appearance of this awkwardness, inconsistency, conscious of falsehood and masquerade. The traces of history are manifested here not in the formal portraits of the changing leaders, but in imperceptible private gestures, facial expressions, and the behavior of participants in the traditional collective ritual.

Besides the active participation in the activity of photographic community in Kharkiv in the 1970s – early 1980s, Jury Rupin became one of the main historiographers of this movement. In the early 2000s, he published on the Internet “Photographer’s Diary” and “Photographer’s Diary in the KGB Archives,” in which he demonstrates not only the thirst for creative freedom among young ambitious photographers, but also the paralyzing fear that bounds the minds of population more strongly than the KGB’s network. Otherwise, after 1976 the last don’t let any photograph of Jury Rupin to leave abroad. 

One can understand the place of Jury Rupin’s accomplishments in the origins of the Kharkiv School of Photography as well as in the history of European photography in general only at the very intersection of texts, organizational activity, reflections on the perception and practice of photography, the aesthetic experiment with its material and form, the representation of individual corporeality and the documentation of collective rituals of the late Soviet era.

  1.  Oleg Aronson, Bogema : Opyt soobshchestva (Nabroski k filosofii asotsialnosti) [Boheme: Community Experience (Outline to the philosophy of asociality)] (Moscow : Fond “Pragmatika kyltyry”, 2002), 57. 

  2.  Oleg Aronson, op.cit., 72.

  3.  Jean-Claude Gautrand, “Subjective Fotografie” in Nouvelle histoire de la photographie, ed. Michel Frizot, Paris, Bordas, Adam Biro, 1994, 672.

  4.  Jury Rupin, “Dnievnik fotografa” [Photographer’s Diary], last modified  17/02/2009, http://samlib.ru/r/rupin_j_k/dnevnik_fotografa-2.shtml.

  5.  Československá Fotografie, №4, 1974, 208.

  6.  Tetiana Pavlova, Yevgeniy Pavlov. Violin, (Kyiv : Rodovid / Kharkiv : Grafprom, 2018), 3.

  7.  Jury Rupin, op.cit.

  8.  Cf. Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, Weimar Essays (Cambridge, Harward University Press, 1995), 416.