The Three Passions of Alexander Petrosyan
By Olga WareApril 24, 2021
HE COULD HAVE BEEN born in Turkey if his grandparents had not had to escape the Armenian Genocide and immigrate to Georgia in 1915. His mentor could have been the legendary Ara Güler, but life had planned a different scenario for him. Instead of becoming “the Eye of Istanbul,” he became “the Eye of St. Petersburg.”
Alexander Petrosyan was born in Lviv and moved to St. Petersburg with his family in 1976. He received his first camera as a birthday gift when he turned 13, and since that time photography has been his passion. While he was growing up in the Soviet Union, world photography, like many other arts, was still hidden behind the Iron Curtain. After spending days in the library, graduating from Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Culture, and studying all the available secrets of his craft, he became a self-made master. He developed his inimitable style mainly through trial-and-error and the visual impressions he absorbed. Petrosyan often utilizes the grotesque and contrast to illuminate the absurdity of life situations. Writer Tatyana Tolstaya calls his style gogolini, a lexical blend from the names Gogol and Fellini. His style is recognizable by his distinct vision of the context and a capture of characters’ interaction within this context.
The city where he lives is his second passion. He is fascinated by heights and bird’s-eye views of St. Petersburg. He climbed the scaffolding of the 155-foot-high Alexander Column on Palace Square during its restoration, construction cranes of the shipbuilding plant, and a pylon of a new cable-stayed bridge across the Neva River. There, at a 400-foot height, he experienced the freedom and joy of being the master of the vibrant city. He is called a chronicler of St. Petersburg, a mystical and mysterious place. To St. Petersburg of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, he added St. Petersburg of Petrosyan, depicting his own vision of the city at its festive and mournful moments.
His third passion is people. He never flatters his characters, preferring honesty and sincerity to embellishment. He believes in his luck and always seems to be inside the shot, a silent recorder who never fails to take side.
Once he was walking — as a street photographer, he walks 10 to 15 miles daily — and was ready to put his camera away when he suddenly saw an old man sitting on the asphalt, drawing a city of light where all people will go for eternal life. The man was preaching, “Kindness and love will reign over the city,” but people were just passing by. Then a woman stopped to listen to him. That was the moment Alexander captured.
With and through his impeccable timing, perfectly balanced composition, and his subjects’ remarkable interaction, Alexander, as his own character, preaches love and kindness in today’s world.
OLGA WARE: Like many others, I fell in love with your photography when I first saw your photos of St. Petersburg. Your photographs were in tune with what I felt about the city. You have walked across almost every foot of the city and climbed to the top of many accessible and inaccessible towers and roofs. What does St. Petersburg mean to you? Does it change?
ALEXANDER PETROSYAN: When you live in a city for many years, it becomes an extension of your room, your apartment, even of yourself. It is your natural environment. Having lived in St. Petersburg for a long time, I could observe its evolution. Like all living beings, it is developing by its own laws. Unfortunately, my current view of the city development is not optimistic. All the beauty and grandeur which is replicated in books, calendars, postcards, and paintings had been created mainly before 1917. Luckily, its splendor survived for a long time despite the three revolutions, the World War II, the siege of Leningrad, and perestroika. But since 2000, the city has been in the process of transformation. In the photos taken between 1917 and 1991, the major areas of the city remain unchanged. Recent classics of St. Petersburg photography, like the work of Boris Smelov, present a clean and noble view of St. Petersburg. During the last 10 to 15 years, however, the city has changed drastically. Some areas were refined by retouching facades with squalid remake. Damage to the urban landscape has been done by infill development, new construction in already established historical areas often at the expense of green zones, and by visual garbage. Aggressive and garish advertising, posts, signboards, billboards, wires, and automobiles clog the city’s streets and courtyards.
At the same time, there are joyous moments. Even though throughout 180 years of photography, the city has been shot up and down and its every millimeter has been immortalized, by some miracle many who try to perpetuate it, find something new and fresh. St. Petersburg is a constantly changing continuum where discoveries are still possible. And this is truly inspiring!
What about people? Have Peterburgians changed?
People have become more private with a global change in human psychology. Today people see a potential burglar or a terrorist in every stranger. For me, a photographer, these changes in people’s mentality complicate the conditions of shooting. When I started in the 1970s, the attitude toward a man with a camera was more amicable. Now, with numerous locks — barbed wire, gates, fences, guards, concierges, alarm systems — the city has lost its friendly and fluid environment; it has fractioned and turned into a checkpoint. Attics, roofs, entrances, stairs, and courtyards have become inaccessible. If earlier walks in courtyards and on roofs appealed only to romantics, now this activity is strictly commercial. Money killed romance.
Another reason for mistrust is a boom in urban photography. Social networks spawned many who are willing to win quick and easy fame along with monetary bonuses, which they believe can be done with the help of photography.
Did you have an opportunity to work for the Soviet publishers? Have the conditions changed?
My collaboration with the local Leningrad newspapers started in 1986. Practically everything has changed since that time: the print media has almost entirely disappeared. Media has migrated to the internet. The status of the photographer has also changed. A photographer’s ID card used to be an authoritative document, but now it is almost useless. Even if we talk about an innocent event, like the annual celebration of high school graduation, “Scarlet Sails,” all of the best shooting spots are given to federal channels, while I, a photojournalist for a federal newspaper, don’t get accreditation.
In the old times everyone tried to help photojournalists or at least not interfere with their work. Now there are more bans than means of assistance. If you are identified as a media representative, everything is done to create obstacles. However, the more bans are enforced, the more photographers refine ways to overcome them. Action causes counteraction. To sum up, you may shoot only what you are allowed to, but this is neither interesting, nor sufficient. Photographers’ success is determined by out readiness to surmount bans. As a result, I do get in an absurd situation: as an adult man, I have to hide and run like a teenager to get a good shot for my newspaper.
In spite of all the shortcomings of our nerve-wracking profession — high risk, unpredictability, low income — those who are engaged in photo-reportage love it for the lifestyle and drive, which are guaranteed by the constant changes of subject matter and events and for the possibility to influence people through the photography.
Now you are working for the media holding Kommersant. You are often assigned to go to the Russian provinces.
Do the editorial board’s assignments limit your creativity, or does photojournalism allow you to use your creative potential?
At the beginning of my career, I was often reproached for shooting not what and how the newspaper editors expected me to shoot; but despite all possible repressions I continued to do it my way, often at the risk of being disqualified or fired. Strangely, these circumstances led to a most unexpected result: now my clients are interested in my personal vision and do not attempt to squeeze me into the framework of their expectations. Of course, it took me years to win this creative freedom which I now enjoy.
You are conducting master classes all over the world: England, Germany, the United States, Morocco, Georgia, Armenia, and Egypt. Is it easier or more difficult to shoot in unfamiliar places?
One misleading concept is that it is easier to shoot in a new place. When you are staying there for a short time, however, you are subjected to superfluous impressions, like any person in an unknown area. For the locals, however, the subjects you select are trivial and mundane. You end up taking banal shots which had been taken many times before you. You are unable to deeply apprehend the local idiosyncrasy and environment. You don’t have enough time to appreciate local culture, perceive the spirit of the place, and, as a result, shoot clichéd, predictable photographs. However, sometimes, something goes not as planned and by a miracle you capture something unexpected!
What do you teach your students?
I am teaching them what I am trying to learn myself: not to copy reality. The world is oversaturated with images. What is much more valuable is a unique artist’s style, especially an original one. If you are given lined paper, write across the lines. When everyone shoots according to the rules, try to do something completely different. Be ready for “fortuitous” gifts of fate sent to you as a reward for your quest.
Of course, I talk about practical skills; for example, how to take pictures of people without their permission. Since our childhood, we have been taught that not only shooting but even looking at strangers is impolite. This complex should be overcome because people are the most interesting subjects for a photographer. It is difficult to shoot people in a trice and at the same time to capture the situation where the context and subject are connected harmoniously; but this is a skill that can be learned as it is possible to learn many other skills of our craft. Similarly, shapes, notes, and paints are accessible to everyone, while the skill of juggling with these elements and building palaces or creating melodies or paintings can be developed.
Is there anything you would never shoot or publish?
I have a secret folder. It contains impressive photos, but purely for ethical reasons I will not publish them because first and foremost one should not violate ethical laws. If the photo violated ethical principles, then neither “wow-effect” nor money nor fame is worthy of wrestling with one’s conscience. It is important to remember the principle, “Do no harm.” You know, it is in photographers’ nature to shoot before they grasp the situation. The subject has been captured, but it is impossible to show the image; at the same time, a photographer is reluctant to delete it because it conveys unique feelings. It is not that simple and unequivocal … It has been long known that photographers are great manipulators: with the help of certain techniques they can change the meaning and perception of the photograph to its opposite … The bigger is our responsibility …
What do you believe is a secret of the successful photo? Light? Composition? Memorable subject matter or spontaneity, capture of an instant?
I don’t have ready recipes. If I had, I would not be taking bad photos. For me, the most valuable photos are those which occur unexpectedly. When I calculated everything, and everything went as I planned, there is nothing enigmatic and incomprehensible. On the contrary, when everything goes awry, the shot acquires uniqueness sent from the above, and a masterpiece is created.
What is the difference between a successful and ingenious shot?
It is not difficult to take an alluring picture. What is our criterion? Pleasant and interesting to look at? But this is not enough for a photo to make world history. Millions of successful photos are posted every day on social networks. An ingenious photograph is exceptional. I personally cannot recall a photo which would be interesting because of my capabilities, calculations, or original approach. A valuable photograph happens not thanks to our efforts but despite them. It comes out due to strange, uncontrollable coincidences. Only then we can talk about something unique.
In his interviews, popular Russian Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis said that music should not be played so often because people stop hearing it. The world today is experiencing a photography boom. Does it lead to a devaluing of photography? What is left to a professional photographer? What is the photographer’s mission today?
Yes, the number of photos is constantly growing. Content is produced with the ease of breathing in and out. People are capturing themselves and their world. As a result, humankind is constantly replicating its life and engaging in egomania. Today’s world is celebrating narcissism and selfies. In this stream of visual information good photography can be easily lost. The concepts of professional and amateur photography are blurry. Professional photos are those which the client expects from a photographer. But this does not mean that they are better than photos of an amateur who on a whim, out of love may create something better than a professional constrained by the deadlines and notorious canon. I have been making a living by photography all my life, but I consider myself more of an amateur than a professional because I took my best shots when I was engrossed in the process because I truly love photography, and not because I know how to make money through photography. An honest photographer takes photos for himself, not to please the audience.
But you have a wide audience. Your fans interpret your photographs, quote poetry, and compete in witticism. How important is the feedback from your audience for you?
It is difficult to rely on the comments in social media. One thing is the response of the colleagues whose opinion you value and another thing is the feedback from an incompetent person. Once I thought I had a representative audience, so if my audience liked a photo, it was good, and if it did not, the photo was poor. Later, I saw a fallacy of this idea because sometimes the shot may be not appreciated by contemporaries, but in 10 to 15 years it is reassessed. Time changes the perception of a photograph. Depending on the audience, the environment, and even the generation, the same photo is seen differently. The new generation discerns something that contemporaries missed. Each photographer, including those who are internationally recognized, has a portfolio of 10 to 50 photographs. With time, some of them are weeded out, some are replaced. This is the process of creative evolution.
Like Alfred Eisenstaedt, you became fascinated by photography when you were 13. Which of your shots is your V-J Day in Times Square?
There are photos which allowed me to help somebody. As a photojournalist, I value them disregarding their artistic qualities.
There are photos which are historically significant. Several years ago, Russia celebrated the anniversary of the victory in World War II, and an old photo of the veteran who seems to lose his comrades, suddenly emerged. It was published in the West and became popular.
Most shots are like fading circles on the water: their effect is dwindling and finally dies away. But with some, ripples are spreading out and growing. These shots are added to the history of humankind’s visual experience.
I read your story about taking a photo of a worker jumping across the opening bridge. You insisted it was taken by a pure chance.
It was. I never attribute the success of my shots to myself. My personal qualities are not sufficient to make a good photo. It is a chance, or providence, or the Lord which may open something through a photographer. I am only a portal.
But not everyone can notice subjects and situations you notice.
Those who seek are bound to find. This is a kind of supernatural “window” which opens. Some call it inspiration, intuition, insight. Words do not matter. Sometimes it slams, and I walk empty, contemplating why nothing comes up.
In everyday life, do you look at the world through a viewfinder?
Some professional deformity exists. I sit with my friends and have a great conversation, but some robot-like part of me will be tracing illumination, calculating zone focusing, and noticing arrangement of the subjects. It happens automatically. On the other hand, photographers are vulnerable because their photos tell viewers about them. Their shots expose them. Photography in this sense is a striptease of the soul or medical records for a psychiatrist.
As Nabokov wrote, the second book is the most difficult because the first one is always about the author. In fact, as you said, all books are telling about the author. What do your photographs tell about you?
Probably you see it better than I do. Many viewers say, “This is clearly Petrosyan’s photo. This is petrosyanshchina.” For me, the distinction is not obvious. Perhaps portrayal of emotions prevails in my works.
Which of your Western colleagues would you like to meet? Maybe you would be interested in inviting your foreign colleagues and fans of photography to St. Petersburg to participate in your master class.
I am open to meeting those who work on the same wavelength. Even the language barrier does not exist in such collaboration; it is removed by mutual joy of intuitive understanding for which words are not necessary. Photographers communicate through images, not words.
Recently you received a green card but decided to stay in Russia. The motives of your decision may be deeply personal, but I would like to ask about your view of today’s individual living in Russia. What kind of a person is it?
My decision is not final, but the roots tying me to Russia are strong. What can I say through my photography to a person in a distant place? But here I feel I live in the right place at the right time. Russian society today is not unified. There is no consensus as numerous dramatic situations reveal. Life in Russia is far from a pastoral heavenly idyll … On the other hand, the more dramatic life is, the stronger the photos. Anyway, for me everything can be conveyed by a simple formula: photography, as any other art, is about love. When there is love — it does not matter what kind, to whom, to what, requited or not, where, when, why — photography flourishes. Nothing can resist love!
Olga Ware was born in the Soviet Union, taught at Russian universities, and worked as a translator and interpreter for the World Bank. In 2003 she moved to the United States and currently teaches Russian literature.
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