Richard Ansett

Boris Mikhailov arguing his case for new reality (with Vita), Berlin © Richard Ansett 2024 (see sequence)

Dear Boris and Vita,

Thank you for such a wonderful evening. As promised I have attempted to distill something of our conversation here, specifically relating to our attempt to empathise with the reality for young people now. Perhaps buried deep in this text is what we felt we lost.

It’s inevitable when spending an evening with you both that the conversation quickly drifts into the state of reality and our unique and collective relationships to it. No matter how complex the language barrier, as English, German and Ukrainian bounce around the table it becomes increasingly passionate certainly in terms of the representation of our experience in the past as it relates to the present. As creatures of different bygone epochs we share an anxiety about this relationship that we project onto a new generation. We decide they must wrestle with a present that bears little or no resemblance to a previous more solid state. crumbling remnants like us are the only clues to it – like architecture, vinyl, film, modernism these clues are a reminder to the young that they are born into this less coherent universe and it’s not unimaginable that these younger versions of ourselves crave the touch of the tangible instead of embracing their spurious present, the temptation is to withdraw into nostalgia for ours.

Most Photography I argue is infected by a bias towards representation steeped in nostalgia, it’s both a withdrawal from the terror of the present, an ambivalence toward it or laziness and fear of failure in the face of how hard it is to create an image of value against such odds – NOW. The old processes that defined reality and beauty still rule our photographic world unchallenged. To help sell ideas like mortality, suffering and trauma (normal life) reality truth is diluted to make it palatable, subjugating our personal responsibility as its audience who accept it unquestionably as ‘other’ (not our own experience ) as something to be consumed, seen as opposed to experienced. This is why I feel conventional narrative should be considered anathema to the fine artist working in photography – it defines the parameters of reality outside of our own experience (I am defending my practice here). We are the citizens of a crumbling end stage capitalist empire existing in parallel with the new world who are protected from realities suffered directly, tangibly by our fellow human beings in unimaginable places. The muffled screaming coming from the outside of this transparent veil affecting only our subconscious BUT my argument is that infection of the true brutal reality around us is inescapable – it seeps into every aspect of our daily lives like osmosis – we wear it passively but it can be read by the artist if we free ourselves from the inhibitors. It affects how we eat a meal when we sit so close to someone starving. It’s a form of vicarious trauma, a sense of responsibility that destabilises the very privilege we defend at all costs but the consequences are collective and seep into our contemporary cultural experience and becomes the new normal. 

We have lost touch with the source of our anxiety and are left only with the symptoms that we attempt to find new homes for.

My passionate defence of an unadulterated capture of the present feels naive in the presence of the master who has succeeded in communicating existential ideas of the beauty of human suffering free of such petty considerations like time and space – in the tradition of the greatest artists of history Boris’s work is as relevant now as it was in the old Soviet reality he so clearly and bravely dissected in the 20th century. It is relevant to mention now as he confesses with great humility that he has lost touch with that past reality now, that the great artists should not allow their work to be pigeonholed by curators that are tempted to frame their work within this conventional timeline and accidentally consign it to ‘history’ rather than find ways to remind us of the relevance of their work to us now. I sense a fear in him that his words even in this moment, might be misinterpreted in translation.

If you will forgive me for talking about my own work further, my Nihilism that dismisses any conventional reality has a silver lining in the form of a glimmer of hope represented by the pursuit of something/ anything that documents a beauty founded in existential truth. Inevitably anything not related to existential reality is labelled with the axiom ‘nothing matters’ and consigned to the bin reserved for those things that block progress towards the ‘bigger picture’. Boris’s work is The Grail, a horizon towards which I can never reach but I keep moving toward in the hope of learning something on the journey. But even Boris concludes that his work is motivated by ‘something’ and I sense disapproval that I am not pursuing work that more directly relates to this ‘something’ – in this case war. I sense I am, inevitably perhaps, a disappointment to him.

I believe we are affected by the suffering of others no matter how distant and the camera can document it either directly or indirectly. My work deals with the visual clues only to these psychological affects of vicarious guilt and subconscious anxiety unique to the West – schadenfreude is a happiness defined by our lives relative to the suffering of others. Images of value are either documentation of it or our own infected gaze as traumatised artists – mine is the latter. Everything I do of value possesses the cry of an abandoned child, I seek out an impossible reconciliation with those that abandoned me through the documentation of others. So powerful is my need to shape the universe in my own image that I can still conjure up the energy to manipulate time and space and the very molecules in front of the camera to document my life experience. My instinct in the moment can be at the expense of my subjects who become allegorical beings rather than sympathetic figures – I am ashamed to say I am human in this regard. I am an object lesson in the infection of autobiography onto any objective view and this is my greatest USP unrecognised except for a few friends. I confess I have no interest in reality truth which is as cold and empty as space, I am only interested in my relationship to it.

We feel the dislocation of the young as if it is our own and we care. They are surrounded by the remnants of our past that took solidity for granted whilst their existence in parallel is ephemeral , digital  – there is no longer a sense of anything to grasp and solidity is celebrated as a quirky, precious resource. Our mortality is threatened by the vastness of democratic space that reminds us of how small and insignificant we are by how little we are heard within it.

Instead of embracing this new present as our own, we cling to nostalgic filters to define it through the lens of an imaginary past. It is a disaster to reject one’s present in exchange for something so spurious. But no wonder we crave nostalgia when complexities are anathema to this new present reality, when our basic emotions have been long since commodified and used against us. My contempt for it is a detectable meme in the rare work I create that is of value to me.

The greatest challenge for photography as an art form is to capture the present in the medium of the age  – so that future audiences can recognise the work as from that era within its literal composition on an ontological level. Our relationship with the present – even to criticise it or dispise it – should be protected from the infections that destabilise that opportunity – the reminders of the old reality challenge the young artist’s right to embrace, explore their present and invent new ways of seeing  – The only option feels like escape-withdrawal disguised as comforting strategies like nostalgia. I celebrate digital as the medium of the epoch but also as a medium for the experimentation beyond the parameters set down by limiting nostalgic practices – like the finite nature of film that denies the potential for progress towards a new way of seeing. Digital, by removing these determinate limits opens up the possibility of experimentation towards new ways of interpreting reality.

I am always overwhelmed by your support and affection. 

Love always, your friend,