Catching the Instance
A new exhibition by Dmitry Konradt of his iconic images of St. Petersburg rock musicians is now on view.
Published: May 22, 2013 (Issue # 1760)
Andrei ‘The Pig’ Panov (r) performing with his band Avtomaticheskiye Udovletvoriteli in the early 1990s.
Dmitry Konradt, one of the city’s top fine-art photographers, was there with his camera to document most of the historic moments as well as the liberating spirit of St. Petersburg rock music during the Leningrad rock explosion of the 1980s.
Now focusing almost exclusively on abstract and eerily beautiful photographs taken in the courtyards and alleys of old St. Petersburg, Konradt is displaying some of his iconic rock images — featuring Russian rock legends such as DDT, Akvarium, Kino, Alisa, Auctyon, AVIA and Sergei Kuryokhin’s Pop Mechanics — at an exhibition at the Timiryazev Library that opened last weekend.
“Whether Russian rock exists or not is still an open question for me, but it can be said with some confidence that in the 1980s, it did,” Konradt said, speaking to The St. Petersburg Times ahead of the opening.
“I am not sure about now. Back then it was the combination of a [specific] time and place,” he said. “We witnessed it and managed to capture a few things.”
Called “From Konradt’s Rock Archives of the 1980s,” the exhibition includes 28 photographs of leading Russian rock musicians active in that era. Some are dead, some have disappeared and some went on to become big national stars.
Originally, the exhibition was created for Finnish audiences and was held at the Pick Me gallery in Helsinki to coincide with the release of “Pietari on rock,” a book about Leningrad rock music written by Finnish writer Tomi Huttunen and illustrated with more than 60 photographs by Konradt, who was credited as a co-author.
That exhibition, which included 31 works, then moved to Helsinki’s Stoa Cultural Center, where it began a tour of Finland, including stops in Tampere, Turku, Kuopio and Oulu. The copies of the photographs for the touring show were made by the Finland-Russia Society.
“The works were selected based on two principles: On one hand, they had to illustrate Tomi’s book to a certain degree. On the other hand, I wanted them to be good photographs,” Konradt said.
“[Tomi] told me, ‘We need this person,’ and I looked to see if I had good images of that person from my point of view as a photographer. To me, purely photographic qualities are important — notwithstanding the rarity of the situation or the identity of the subject. I tried to be not only a chronicler, but also a photographer.”
Konradt said he has included several atmospheric photographs to convey the mood of the 1980s Leningrad rock scene for the original exhibition, which is now on view in St. Petersburg.
“I have also tried not to have everyone with guitars on stage, because it’s a bit boring for the viewer, even though lots of things are different there — the people photographed, the lighting, the dynamics,” he said.
In February, Konradt showed around 100 of his photographs in “Time of Small Bells,” a large group exhibition by several photographers featuring some 200 works dedicated to 1980s Russian rock at the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow.
“I sense that there’s an interest, and the experience in Moscow confirmed this; it’s all the more so here [in St. Petersburg],” he said. “I am into different things now, but I don’t renounce [this part of my work], it’s an important part of my life and I would like to do it on a larger scale to respond to this interest and pay homage to my youth.”
Although the Timiryazev Library is not a proper art gallery, it is an approachable space that supports fine-art photography, complete with amateur photo classes and a small exhibit on the history of photography.
Out of the 28 photographs on display, only two are in color, with the rest in black-and-white.
“Speaking about the current exhibition, the most memorable image for me is a photograph of [Kino’s late frontman Viktor] Tsoi lighting a cigarette,” Konradt said.
“He’s out of focus, blurry, but in my view he came out very beautifully. I think it’s the only, 100 percent exhibition-quality photograph — no matter whether the viewer knows who it is or not —purely based on its photographic qualities.”
The exhibition also features an iconic bare-chested image of Tsoi and the classic photograph of Pop Mechanics on stage with live chickens, taken at Rock Club in December 1985.
Born in Leningrad in 1954, Konradt was educated as a geologist at the Leningrad Mining Institute. He took his first pictures as a student in the 1960s and says his photography is different because he started as a music fan rather than a photographer.
“I was young and I listened to this music as a student,” Konradt said.
“In 1969, I learned that Russian rock music existed and that it was very interesting. In the early 1970s I went to the first underground gigs — two of Kolya Vasin’s Beatles birthday parties. I found myself caught up in it all and realized that it was an interesting [scene]. And because I wanted to be a photographer, I found an area where I could apply myself.
“I am made in such a way that I want to take photographs of what I like. I can’t photograph what I don’t like or what I am sick of, although maybe I sometimes should have. From very early on it became important to me to take good photographs without using direct flash, which destroys everything. It should also be competent and stand on its own as a photograph.”
In 1981, when Rock Club was launched in Leningrad under the surveillance of the KGB and the Communist Party, Konradt cast off the idea of becoming a geologist and got a job in the photo lab of a local factory.
“I gained full access to the lab, the photo materials and the chemistry, and I threw it all at capturing the rock scene,” he said.
“I was moved by a desire to preserve something I loved, that was interesting and relatively radical. We forget now, but a man with a guitar looked like someone carrying a Kalashnikov in the street at that time.”
Konradt said the underground rock musicians of the 1980s, who made their meager living as night guards and stokers, were more interesting to him than today’s rock stars.
Akvarium’s Boris Grebenshchikov, photographed in 1987.
“I liked the aesthetics, and I understood that it was fleeting and unique,” he said.
“Perhaps it was important that there were very few photographers there at the time. When I see crowds of photographers rushing [to the stage] at concerts now, I lose any desire to take pictures.
“But I have to say that I have no such desire at concerts now anyway, because I don’t see anything visually new.”
Konradt said that rock photography for him was also a way of hearing the music.
“It was a way of participating, although sometimes I was carried away by the music,” he said.
“For instance, at [the late singer/songwriter Alexander] Bashlachyov single [public] concert at the Leningrad Palace of Youth I took only five pictures, and then I stopped. I thought it was better to listen to him for the first time rather than take pictures.
“But more often than not, it was my way of taking part [in the concert]; even releasing the shutter frequently coincides with the rhythm. When [ska band] Stranniye Igry all jumped into the air during one song, I took a picture of them all off the ground, except for [drummer Alexander] Kondrashkin. I also have a lot of photos of Kuryokhin in the air, which was not difficult at all.”
According to Konradt, a music photographer should find a balance between listening to the music and taking pictures.
“Sometimes you go to a concert and just don’t take out the camera at all, then there’s something that you start getting excited about,” he said.
“I remember going for the first time to see [performance troupe] Derevo, which described itself as a ‘neo folk group’ then. I had my camera in a backpack but I didn’t plan to take photographs, because you should know the production beforehand. But at some point I just lost control — because it was that great — and took several pictures, which turned out to be quite good and were used by them for a long time.
“It’s an ideal situation, when you catch the mood, when you become exhilarated. It’s the way I try to take photographs of the city, with music playing in my earphones, too.”
From working in rock photography, Konradt has evolved to creating sophisticated artworks based on the textures, elements and moods of the city.
“As I define it for myself, I make color compositions using the urban environment as a raw material,” he said.
“It’s not about St. Petersburg, it’s about what I have found in St. Petersburg. It’s like bringing a bucket of mushrooms back from Kavgolovo (a village near St. Petersburg) and saying, ‘This is Kavgolovo.’ No, this is not Kavgolovo, this is what I found in Kavgolovo. One could look for and collect something different.”
While not ruling out that he may resume taking rock photographs in the future, Konradt said he was not very interested in what was happening on the current Russian rock scene.
“I always take photographs of what I like and what I love,” Konradt said.
“Because very little music is left in rock music now (although I like, for instance, [Auctyon’s frontman Leonid] Fyodorov and his projects), I have almost completely stopped taking photographs [at concerts].
“Now if there’s someone worthwhile, they are surrounded by crowds of photographers. The lighting has improved [since the 1980s] but it makes everything look similar, unoriginal.
“I don’t find any freedom to make something that would be my own.
“It’s like photographing St. Petersburg’s doorways. They all make great photos, but everyone’s picture looks the same. It’s almost overkill.”
Being a rock enthusiast at the dawn of Russian rock music, Konradt managed to capture some of the spirit of the era, something that many other photographers missed.
“I was always perplexed that when newspaper correspondents started coming to concerts in the late 1980s they asked me, ‘Who do you photograph for?’ he said.
“The very question was incomprehensible to me. For myself, for history, for the musicians; it was just necessary to take photographs.”
“From Konradt’s Rock Archives of the 1980s” is on view at the Timiryazev Library, located at 6 Ulitsa Shkapina, through June 30. M: Baltiiskaya. Tel. 252 7289.