Edited by David Everitt Howe
Unveiling the image
We’re used to seeing an image as something hermetic, hidden inside itself like a pearl in a shell. It’s a mystery to solve or guess. It’s only when the image finally reveals itself that we’re rewarded for our efforts.
However, this appeal is short-lived, as once we discover the image’s core mystery it becomes commonplace and ordinary. Our attraction to it was based on not knowing what it was, and knowing makes it uninteresting. Is this the only way we can encounter such a thing? Can an image embody only a single meaning interpreted only one way, true or false? Having been caught by the light, so to speak, meaning dissolves – the ways of getting it become dark.
The history of photography is this history of image unveiling. Having being created by the photographer’s imagination, an image starts living independently of its maker. Every great photographer has their distinct vision of the world; looking at their work, we’re seeing the world through their eyes, their lens. When they take a photograph, the routine things we see day to day – without thinking – are transformed into what we call art. These things become extraordinary.
If the aim of the Viewer is to look at something and transform it, grasping its very idea, then we could say that it’s the photographer who is the first Viewer; it’s he or she who transforms reality with optical instruments, such that when someone looks at their photograph, the exhibition space disappears and only the photograph’s illusionary space remains. Within the frame, a timeless and placeless story is told.
With all this in mind, I can think of only one person who creates these kinds of images: Sergey Romanov. Nothing to it! While one may ask the artist the point of his photographs, Romanov is silent. Their meaning relies on the eloquence of his images and the shrewdness of our eyes, which take it all in as if reading a book. Turning its pages, we find ourselves in strange scenes performed by dwarfs, nude women, shadows and ghosts in ominous masks, belonging either to plague doctors or forest spirits. We are plunged into an otherworldly reality of agamic, sexless creatures and shape-shifting monsters whose flesh transform into dead tree branches. Numerous questions are raised: is it an orgy or medieval mystery? Is it a performance at the theater? A patient’s typhoid delirium? The photograph’s subjects are dreadful yet comically grotesque, alluring and repulsive. They can be fortuitous, or insane. However you feel, there is a system to the insanity that defies easy comprehension.
Do these images belong to a genre? There’s no nature here, only the world of people. Some images seem like portraits, but if you look attentively you’ll notice their subjects are neither extraordinary individuals nor normal human beings. Facial expressions are elusive; they flicker. One realizes that the portraits’ power lie not in the face, but in their flickering. Moreover, the images don’t have anything in common with religion. What are these neon nimbuses for then? What do they hint at? Can they mislead?
Though it may not be readily apparent, these works relate to genre scenes to some extent; genre art is generally considered to be pictorial representations of events from everyday life, something prosaic – like a moment from life valued for its transience and instantaneity. As such, it’s closer to sequential shooting. Pioneered by the Dutch in the sixteenth century, it existed long before photography. A representative example would be Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder
However, understanding genre scenes is not such an easy thing; meaning hides behind homeliness, slipping away from us. Since we see only one given moment in time, we can interpret it in many different ways. It’s an adventure sensing and guessing the significance of something so everyday. In that way it’s very dream-like, as a dream is a deflection of real life events. Senses are unclear, images entwined. A dream is not a meaningless thing, it’s fascinating but hard to interpret: its reality flickers in our night vision.
Let’s look at the photographs again. While they have traits of genre, the subject has been excluded, like signs without any meaning, as Ferdinand de Saussure might phrase it. However there is the sense that there’s something complicated beneath the surface. What can these dancing figures in dunce caps remind us of? Are they from the Mysteries of the Cabeiri? Could it be Pinocchio from our childhood? Is a dunce hat an attribute of the heretic condemned to fire? A phallic symbol? A cap of the fool? Head gear of the Sansculotte? Each of these speculations brings forth their own scenes and suppositions, which are all valid since they’re based on historical and cultural phenomena. While there can be numerous interpretations, they are not infinite. They depend on associative thinking and the viewer’s education level.
This play with signs is something of a Romanov trademark, and is a core of his photographic practice. His images are carefully constructed such that they blink and flow, hiding their mysteries. There are metamorphoses: a body is transformed into a doll, a man is turned into a woman; twins lose their likeness, which is taken by strangers; a negress morphs into the mother of God; a hand appears to be a horn. There is a face sprouting from flesh, turning into its own shadow.
Transforming form, playing with form, and losing form, Romanov’s images never lose themselves in the process. This is why Romanov’s art is so genuine: he unveils images, yet withholds easy apprehension. It’s up to the viewer to imagine their resonances.