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Kseniya Babushkina and Alexander Gronsky at the launch of ‘Schema’. Photo by Arnis Balčus

‘When I follow the ball, I don’t see the gorilla’ 0

Alexander Gronsky speaks about his book ‘Schema’ and our ways of looking at the world

Sergej Timofejev

 With the support of the State Culture Capital Foundation

Alexander Gronsky was born in Tallinn, lived and worked in St Petersburg and Moscow and then moved to Latvia, where he spent several years in the seaside semi-resort town of Saulkrasti. You might think that the relaxed, almost domestic atmosphere of the place would suit this unhurried and thoughtful bearded young man with attentive brown eyes. And yet he is going back to Moscow this summer again, leaving behind in Riga a photography book entitled ‘Schema’ as a kind of summary of his Latvian period. Conceived and created with his partner Kseniya Babushkina, the book was presented in early May as part of the Riga Photomonth 2016 programme by its publishers, the Orbita association (which has previously published a number of other photography books, including, for instance, ‘Rock’ by Roman Korovin).

Alexander Gronsky is a photographer of considerable international reputation. His solo exhibitions have run in art galleries and exhibition spaces in Paris and Tokyo, Bogotá and New York. Winner of the prestigious World Press Photo Award in the Daily Life Stories category, he has long since outgrown the boundaries of reportage photography. And yet he is undoubtedly interested in reality – if only in reality seen as if from a considerable distance. In one of his interviews, Gronsky said the following: ‘I call my works urban landscapes, social landscapes […], to avoid [simply] using the word ‘landscape’, which has acquired an unnecessarily positive meaning. Landscape does not evoke any tender feelings in me; it does excite me but without specific positive or negative emotions. When I am shooting, for instance, some sort of garages or a landfill site, there is no evaluation in my mind, nothing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about it. And it is not indifference that I feel, either: what I see is a complex compound, a chaotic space with its causes and effects. It is a neutral thing whose elements have somehow arranged themselves in this world in this particular manner, and I do not give it any evaluation.’

Gronsky’s works are sometimes likened to classic landscape paintings, even drawing parallels between his photographs and Bruegel’s works. However, just like his great Dutch predecessor, he is interested not in the formal beauty of sunsets or dawns but rather in making statements about the world as a consolidated system. At the same time (and that is not so common for photographs of some sort of post-Soviet urban outskirts) the tonality of this statement can sometimes be quite exalted and even solemn. In many of the pictures, there are people; however, they simply exist, performing the roles delegated to them by the content of the situation – they ‘loom’; we do not see their faces or expressions. They are silhouettes, signs of habitancy – part of said urban landscape. It is no longer quite the case in the photos featured in ‘Schema’, however – but more about that a bit later…

Alexander Gronsky. From the ‘Pastorale’ series.

In which part of Tallinn did you grow up?

In the centre of the city. I lived there until the age of 18. Then I went to live in Russia for some ten years or so, then moved to Latvia.

I don’t think I remember seeing anything shot in Tallinn among your projects.

That’s true; i have never shot anything in Estonia or in Latvia. I have no idea why. I don’t seem to have formed a conception regarding that in my mind. I don’t understand it myself.

As for the Russian post-Soviet landscape: do you find it interesting because you feel a certain affinity with it or quite the opposite – it seems intriguing as a contrast?

It’s hard to say. It is already difficult for me to single out landscape as a genre that is important to me on principle. Today I see it rather as an interest in certain aspects of photography that has found outlet in landscape. I started as a magazine photographer, and the situation was that the magazine format did not allow me to do anything meaningful. And that led me a bit astray. Later I switched to landscape, but the situation turned out to be pretty much the same.

In the sense that landscape also leads you away from what you really want to say?

It’s not that it actually leads me away really. It’s that it slips by slightly off the focus of my interest. And the interest is in the moment that happens even before there has been any attempt to interpret the image. As soon as you have interpreted the image and perceived it as a certain text or a set of symbols – that’s it; that is another story completely. You have already been incorporated into the text and its structures. And yet initially photography refers to the situation of seeing, the experience of looking – which, actually, is not at all a homogeneous one and is quite complex, and that is why I would like to start with that and not the subsequent interpretation.

How do we generally look at photography? If a photograph is printed in a magazine, you look at it in a certain way, presuming that it is telling you a story – or, in some way, repeating or enhancing the text it accompanies. In a gallery, there is already a greater potential because it is presumed there that an image can be self-sufficient. And yet a certain structure of interpretation is still present there. In a gallery, you inevitably start to view a photograph as a work of art. And that is a highly charged context that takes you along a track of its own...

Alexander Gronsky. From the ‘Pastorale’ series.

Why did you find yourself interested in landscape?

There is an aspect of a double defamiliarization… Photography generally presumes a certain distance from the thing that is captured on the photo. And then you can choose to use a photographic language where distance plays a fundamental role – where people do not transform into specific characters with specific properties that are immediately very easy to attribute – to determine what they remind you of… No; here it’s all about a mise en scène that is very non-specific. And there was perhaps an intuitive movement towards the outskirts – places that aren’t burdened with a load of specific symbolism. In this sense, it is generally quite difficult to work in the urban space: it is jam-packed with easy-to-read symbolic stuff. On the other hand, ‘the outskirts’ are also not that different: as soon as you start to work with a certain space, it also starts to acquire a symbolic charge of its own.

However, you are adding a different mood, a different sound to this, at first glance, not particularly cheerful space. The series that won the World Press Photo Award was, after all, entitled ‘Pastorale’.

Well, I am not telling a story about Moscow, for instance. I do not know anything worth telling about Moscow. The first thing that I am referencing is the experience of observing. A very repetitive experience of walking in endless circles while keeping a certain distance. At the time when I was making it, that was a very unsettling move for me: how come I have suddenly given up the traditional – and to me, natural – narrative that imitates the medium of cinema to a certain extent? Where you pick a set of symbols, then interpret them and they come together to form a certain text...

Landscape is also a way of recording a certain fixed state of the world. From this specific angle, at this specific moment – this is what the world is like. It is not a coincidence that this universal analogy to Bruegel always comes up: Look at the world, it’s the Lord’s earth.

The thing is, there actually was no landscape before Bruegel. That’s what landscape was born to do – to show people God without necessarily resorting to drawing a specific bearded bloke. Through the complexity of the whole creation, let’s put it this way. And that, essentially, is the intention of any landscape; it is perceived intuitively: look, it’s the world the way it is.
However, I am more interested in the fact that landscape is a sort of space that is convenient for me to examine. Looking close up at someone’s face for a long time – that’s not very polite. It is different with a landscape. There is a safe neutral distance. Like a view from a window.

Alexander Gronsky. From the ‘Pastorale’ series.

And yet there can be a variety of tonalities to a landscape as well. If we think about the ‘sound’ of these photographs, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Bach.

Yes, the whole thing is quite solemn...

There is even an element of sacredness, of liturgy...

At that, you do realise that my taste was formed by magazines for amateur photographers. And that is pure tackiness. And to me, aesthetics in photography is nothing but a set of tools that has so far suited my needs. If I want to make a beautiful nude and get some    10 000 ‘likes’, that calls for a specific form of expression, of meeting specific aesthetical expectations. If I want something solemn, with countless simultaneously existing details, that definitely has some connection with Bruegel. But clearly my Bruegel is not an art historian’s Bruegel, not an enormous luggage of reflections on some sort of texts – it’s just a picture. Because that is the level on which Bruegel is present in everybody’s mind. And it is exactly this Bruegel that I am referencing.

There is no aesthetics in a photograph as such; it is a mechanical product. Aesthetics is always introduced into it. And it can be any kind of aesthetics. Aesthetics is the tool with which you can communicate your intentions. For instance, I want to appeal to people with certain aesthetic notions. Or I want to capture the attention of people who are focusing on some other matter. It is important to understand the intentions of the photographer. And the aesthetics of the photograph is just one of the tools that help us decipher these intentions. As for me personally, I am interested in the moment before the photograph transforms into a text – what we can distinguish there, what we can clarify there.

Alexander Gronsky. From the ‘Norilsk. Polar Day’ series

I remember your Norilsk series, for instance. And I try to understand what exactly you mean when you say ‘before it transforms into a text’. For instance, a picture of countless crushed discarded cars in a junkyard...

Yes, an excellent example – that exactly the key problem for me. If someone sees in the photograph a mountain of rusty old cars, a certain posteresque interpretation kicks in immediately: a-ha, ecology, apocalypse – get it. But if you look more attentively, this pseudo-clarity disappears and you start to see completely different things.  And there is no way I can help the viewer in this. This effort of looking closer – only the viewer can do it himself. It is not a specific thing that I can point out to them – and something that I would be prepared to define on the level of a method. It is rather a kind of intuition and a vector of movement. And it has to do with modality of looking per se. Because we do look in a number of very different ways. The very experience of seeing, of observing can vary radically. If you are in a hurry to get ready for going to work in the morning, you can glance out of the window for a split second. And you sort of see the landscape outside your window – but the thing is, in reality you do not see anything: you notice. You notice the required information. You do not look out of the window to observe but rather to read certain key symbols: clouds; wet asphalt or dry asphalt. If you are a driver, you look at the edges of the puddles: are they frozen or not? There are a number of clearly recognisable pictures which can quickly translated into symbols and told like a text. And at that moment, you do not see what is happening outside – for instance, that someone is walking down the street in a really weird manner. You ignore an enormous number of various layers; you simply switch your understanding to the readymade meaning mode. Incidentally, that’s the way cinema is built, in my opinion. When you’re watching a film, it is very difficult to see something that the cinematographer is not showing you. And there is similarly a cinematographer inside each of us, arranging the sequence of actions, and we are not going to see anything else until all of them are not realized. I don’t see the layout of the parking lot; I just see a vacant place in the parking lot. And so on...

And so in the latest book I explore the actual experience of seeing. Because it appears that photography essentially appeals to a certain affect of my vision – but I do not really understand how it works. The question deals first and foremost with the way I see things, not with photography as such. Let’s suppose I have visitors and I need to take another chair to the kitchen from my room. After a while I enter my room again and I see that something is not quite right there. There is some sort of incongruity; something is out of kilter. It is only then that I realize that the chair is missing. Supposing that, in some mystical way, the impossible happened and the chair was located simultaneously both in the kitchen and the bedroom, I would have thought that everything is perfectly alright. I would have felt absolutely at ease with the most incredible situation – it would make sense to me.

Therefore I can say that, in a sense, there is something similar to photography operating in my mind. I had a ‘photograph’ of this room in my head, and as soon as something changed, I considered it a signal of incongruity. A signal of a problem. In which case, it seems that ‘photograph’ exists so I wouldn’t see something – so I wouldn’t see this room and would be able to focus on things that have changed in it instead. Let’s say, I have known this man for years, and now he has gone and got himself a different haircut. And so for a first few times when I see him I feel a certain dissonance when I look at him. The actual image does not correspond to some sort of ‘photograph’ inside my head.

Alexander Gronsky. From the ‘Landscapes’ series

It is probably something like a primeval mechanism – primeval skills...

Certainly, because you needed to see not the whole landscape but a specific small predator inside this landscape. Or behind a tree. And to isolate this information and process it, you have to disregard everything else around it. Whereas a real process of looking is closer to prostration – when I stay put at the window for thirty minutes or so, contemplating the yard where absolutely nothing is happening. It is not a mundane state of consciousness.
And that is why photography can refer to various ways of perception. I want to tell a story, and I need to throw in quickly and boldly some symbolic meanings. It is quite similar to the famous experiment by Kuleshov. There is a shot of a man and a shot of a coffin, and due to the editing we presume that the man is mourning a loved one’s death. When the same shot of a man is combined with a shot of a plate of soup, we think that he is hungry or about to have a meal. If there is a woman instead of the soup, we presume that he is in love. And when we perceive things in this manner, we do not see the photograph – we see a ready-made meaning that seems to be already injected into it.

The 1990s German photography was essentially based on this principle: Wait a minute, let us rewind the whole thing and hang the frame of the man and the frame of the plate of soup on the wall again. And let us try to get to the bottom of things: after all, it’s not as simple as that. Here is the man separately from the soup.

Unsurprisingly, photography of this kind is not popular. Because on the everyday level it seems pretty much as if I told someone: ‘Let me tell you an interesting story. Today I got up, washed myself, had some breakfast, got dressed, got into the car and drove for a very long time. Finally, I arrived and parked the car.’ On the level of a story, any focused observation is unbearably boring, because there is no ready-made symbolic content which is so easy to read.

To a certain extent, this thing resonates with various mystical practices – with what Gurdjieff said about the need to ‘recall oneself’, not to give in to mechanical perception of reality. Because not only man does not see what is taking place around him – he also does not remember what happened 10 minutes ago. By and large, we don’t follow reality. We only react to certain disruptions, to novelties. Look, a new gate has appeared in the wall...

And modality of vision switches at this point. I wanted to look out at the street to check the weather – but there is a naked girl standing in a window of the building on the opposite side. And at that moment I forget why I even wanted to look out of my window in the first place.

Cover of the ‘Schema’ book. Lenticular print.

And the title of the new book you did with Kseniya Babushkina, ‘Schema’ – is that a reference to this schematism of vision you were talking about just now?

At the time when this series already started to come together, it was not about a certain word or a meaning, or a term. Giving the completed work a single name, a title – that was already quite a violent operation that took place at the very end of the process. I would have preferred not to give it a name at all (laugh), particularly in view of my ambition of exploring photography prior to any interpretations.

When I was looking at your book back in the layout stage, the initial reaction was a sense of a reality shift. Two frames next to each other; it looks like the same street, the same angle – and yet the windows are slightly different in one of them; a balcony seems to have appeared from nowhere. The viewer is confused.

The whole thing started when we noticed that two photographs, placed side by side, can engage in an extremely weird conflict – to cancel each other in a way. Clearly it is a sort of trickery. However, everything to do with visual arts is always trickery of one kind or another. It’s not scary. It makes one wonder what we can do with it.

In this book, I tried to select the photographs so as to problematize the time of the shooting and the position of the camera. The basic characteristics.
Everyone usually understands exactly what is shown in a photograph. There is a sort of inherent intuitive intelligibility to photography. But what I propose is – let us presume that a photograph is completely incomprehensible. It is unclear what it is about and what it could possibly depict – on the level of these self-same basic characteristics. Is it the same moment in time and the same location or not? Or what?
And everything revolves around tautology, certain variations that appear to be identical – and yet feature some sort of radical discrepancy.

A spread from ‘Schema’ by Alexander Gronsky and Kseniya Babushkina

I think that the principle of tautology today is key to perception of the reality in general. As you complete this circle again and again, taking it apart into its components in your mind, you can make sense of what is happening.

I believe that it is an alternative to the method of the cinematic narrative. By which I mean the traditional approach to creating a photographic storytelling – not actual filmmaking. It is by and large pretty similar to the principle of sequencing the shots in a film. Although the element of tautology has been known to be applied in filmmaking as well, particularly in old movies. Someone’s hand is putting out a cigarette in an empty ashtray; then a black shot follows. And then we see the ashtray again, only now it is full of cigarette butts, and we must realize that a long time has passed; the person has obviously stayed up throughout the night. You are expected to put together and analyse two almost identical pictures, and the meaning that you arrive at is analytical, not obvious.

Did you not perform any manipulations inside the frame?

The initial plan was to try and incorporate this trickery into non-manipulative photography. There is some very obvious manipulation in positioning the camera; some photographs are mirror images. But in a way that is also open to questioning: can an image still be considered a documentary photograph if it is treated this way? To me this is a documentary project – I am documenting the various possible positions of the camera.

But it is also an interesting statement about reality – about its extent to which it is conspiratorial and unpredictable. And in a big city it is perfectly possible to meet the same man with the same pink umbrella at the same place at the same time on the next day...

And things like that did happen. Kseniya says that the actual process was a study of this sort of probabilities. I didn’t want to include any text, any interpretation of the pictures in the actual book. Why? Firstly, my son is interested in this project. I can see that he understands what the whole thing is about. And that is a sensation that visits me rarely.  With the landscapes I realized that it is a form that calls for a certain cultural baggage. Whereas here my 6-year-old son can easily ask the key question: How is it possible? In other words, this is reasonably democratic stuff.

It is also a statement regarding the schematic nature of the urban space itself. Here we have a corner of a street; consequently, there must be a shop there; on the façade there must be a shop sign, and so on.

Of course, it was not an abstract thing for me. It was a landscape I wanted to squeeze into somehow. A large part of the works is my archive of photographs shot in 2005 in the Russian Golden Ring cities. The pictures were gathering dust, never used in any way; I did not understand how to get inside this landscape. And then a very banal idea was born in a very simple way: why not go back ten years later and try to replicate them exactly as they were?

So there is this distance in time?

There are also some very similar-looking places, and there is this gap of ten years between the image on the left and the one on the right. We wanted to confuse the viewer, and that is why we had to invent a new algorithm every time from scratch. As many algorithms we managed to come up with, as many there are in the book.

You mentioned that ‘Schema’ is only the first volume of this ‘tautological’ project. The second one is almost completed; there are plans to make a third one. Is it these algorithms that are going to make them all different?

Not quite. It is rather the actual analysis of the instrument that is the principal thing here. And the instrument is very complex, and you can ask more questions from various angles than just ‘Are these two different places or is it the same one with a huge gap of time between the pictures?’ A camera can photograph a single object so it looks as if there were two different things. You could call it problematization of the index in photography. It is all the same to the camera what to shoot and what technique to use. It is for us that there is an essential difference between a photograph of a landscape and an X-ray picture of an elbow. The latter also does an excellent job of reflecting the reality – but a reality of a different kind. At that, no picture ever is just a reflection of reality. The fact that, for instance, the sky is exactly blue in a colour photograph is a result of a certain convention. Scientists have empirically found out how we see the colour blue, then invented a device and configured it in such a way that it shows the colour blue in the place where there the sky should be. And it is a purely conditional thing.

Meaning that a photograph is configured…

…To be as consistent as possible with the way in which we see the thing that is being photographed. And that can also be problematized. But when I tried to compile all these things in a single book, the result was a horrendous mess. Hence the three volumes.

And what is the second one going to be about?

It is more about light and colour specifically.

I see. And yet, when I was going through the whole thing for the very first time, despite all the intricacy and mystery of it, there was also this feeling of ‘Yes! That’s exactly how it is!’ (Laugh) This repetition, these recurrences, coincidences – that’s again not a story of sociality, of human relationships, but rather a statement of the ‘that’s how the world is’ type.

I find it more convenient now to interpret it as an attempt to share the very experience of observation. My aim is not producing a photograph which I am then going to sell to a gallery. There is this experience of observation, which theoretically can be communicated. And people are fascinated by the opportunity to spend some time watching a certain effect that tells them something about the way they see, the way they perceive reality – on the level of a schema. There is this famous experiment in cognitive psychology, which, in my eyes at least, is actually also art. It is a short film in which people are throwing a ball to each other in a field or something like that, and your task is counting how many times the ball is passed on from one person to another. So you count the times, and count them accurately, and then they show you the film again and tell you to just watch it. And then you see that somewhere in the middle of the film a man in a gorilla suit walks across the field. But you didn’t see previously, because your eyes were on the ball at the time. And this experiment or this scientific joke makes it very obvious to me how I look at things. If I follow the ball, I don’t see the gorilla. As soon as I no longer have this super objective of obtaining a certain information, I immediately notice the gorilla. This thing can be interpreted in many different ways; there are thousands of scientific studies referencing this story. But the fundamental thing here is this individual experience of looking – when you actually notice yourself that there is something very weird happening with your vision, something that you do not understand.

When I think of what this experience of working on a joint project with Kseniya Babushkina must have been for you, I imagine it like a sort of extended stroll – a great number of seemingly optional shots from which eventually a paradoxical couple of images might suddenly emerge…

It was a completely new experience for me – because I had always worked alone previously. It was always an almost sacred process to me: I tried not to plan any other errands on the day. Or at least it was an excellent excuse for not doing anything else: just pull myself together, focus and go somewhere – a long and exhausting walk… It was like a ritual. But here it was more like a brainstorm where we would bounce ideas off each other: we could try something like this – or perhaps something like that… And the whole thing was revolving around some sort of visual ambiguities. It was a sort of ping-pong.

You also changed the distance this time around – you found yourself closer to passers-by. Did you notice anything particularly interesting during your search for the ‘right’ shots?

First of all – that people in the streets don’t simply walk: they methodically repeat the same posture, assume the exact same pose every second and a half, with the precision of a millimetre.
It struck me that everything keeps fractally and constantly repeating – rhythmically repeating. We used Google Maps to search for some urban neighbourhoods which are interesting exactly from this point of view. For some reason it is immediately obvious that everything comes together into a single intertwined pattern when you look at a map, whereas here, ‘on the ground’, you can walk around certain places for years and only then discover that ‘this building is very similar to the one I live in’. I didn’t see it earlier because I look at my house differently: I buy my meat in this shop on the corner of the street; here I buy my cigarettes; here I leave my rubbish. 

You also photographed in Japan – in Kochi Prefecture and in Tokyo. Was it easier to find interesting shots in a comparatively unfamiliar and foreign environment?

No, it was not an easy matter at all. Around the middle of this residency I was pretty close to a real nervous breakdown. Because we had already started to do things in St Petersburg, and the logic of doing things was quite clear back there. The point of departure was architecture, its fractality – the position of the few passers-by. And then we had this idea that if we managed to transfer this thing to a completely different landscape, it would then be a more general, more universal story. Not about St Petersburg or the Russian landscape but about photography in general. It was a very ambitious idea, of course. And then it turned out that there are no similar-looking buildings in Japan, and people move in a completely different manner. And they don’t like each other at all.
For instance, you are shooting a winter landscape in St Petersburg, and you can be pretty sure that the next passer-by will be wearing black trousers, black boots and a black jacket. And he will create a normal rhythm in reference to someone else. It is not like that in Japan; the people all seemed pretty individual to us. And the architecture is made up completely differently; we had to find another way out of this situation.
Eventually a sort of weird synchronization of different people, postures, mise en scènes. But this switch to a different approach was very complicated.

And yet the result is a series of very successful shots. Everything seems very tranquil, measured – everything is serving its purpose. Meanwhile, a granny with a handcart appears simultaneously everywhere, and no-one notices her – like the gorilla in the experiment.

It was very important to me at that to include some completely comprehensible photographs in the selection – to shift the accent. Trickery as such is cool, of course, but here it is a purposeful action – an approach that allows us somehow to distance ourselves from the whole thing – to assume a new position regarding photography. For instance, there are pictures where there is a ship in a harbour – and then there is no ship in the harbour. Not such a huge mystification at all. (Laughs.) And the algorithm is obvious. Because, after all, the trick is not in making something incomprehensible.
The thing is, each of the photographs becomes intelligible and opens up if you look at it really attentively. You can look at the details and juxtapose them in some way. There is a small clue in every picture somewhere: either its Kseniya’s hand sticking out behind a passer-by or my head – or it is very obviously a mirror image.

And I love it that at the same time there is no standard approach to reading these photographs – that the clues are in various unexpected details – and you don’t know exactly which ones. Sometimes it is a licence plate; sometimes it is a flag – or perhaps the shape of a cloud…