I am not someone who dreams
Interview with Russian photographer Igor Elukov
Text by Barbara Stauss
published on CPN Canon Europe Website
Photographer Igor Elukov, age 25, is currently based in St. Petersburg, Russia but comes from a small village along the Peza River in the country’s northern Arkhangelsk region. His family has lived for centuries in the isolated setting which is drenched in snow and swamps. In the spring and autumn his village becomes an island. Depending on the season, Elukov travels home often by train, plane, helicopter, boat and snowmobile. This environment is the reason for his strong connection to the landscape, the scents, the low sky and the peculiar expressions of the local people. For him it’s like a code that opens the treasure trove for his images.
Elukov likes to speak in archaic imagery: "I take my gun, go out hunting and become empty and unperturbed. What else does one need for creativity other than emptiness and simultaneous nonchalance? I am fascinated by the creative force I see in the people of the north. When they bury someone, their wailing sounds like an ancient Greek choir. Their mutual insults are as animated as those of the heroes of an Italian drama.”
He speaks of abundance and power and the fact that everything is so simple there. For him it is not a romantic or sentimental description when he states that the Russian north brings him back to an elementary state. Elukov quotes Osip Mandelstam with the final lines from the poem ‘Silentium’ which claim that because the heart comes second and is not the origin, the origin is heartless and as such elementary:
Let heart become ashamed of heart,
With origins of life fused tightly!
Elukov seeks to avoid anthropocentric views in his work and he cannot put his relationship with the northern elements in words. It would be impossible, he says, much like sharing one’s own death with someone else. This is why he photographs it. Elukov is as interested in the life of crows, wind or water as he is in human life. He was never particularly interested in people, their emotions and feelings. For Elukov, people are merely part of the landscape. And, he emphasizes: “Not the most interesting part of it. I think if you leave the anthropocentric, you begin to comprehend more interesting things. The world of Platon’s ideas.” He stresses that in the north there is no separation between how he lives and what he depicts.
As a child Elukov never viewed the weather as bad or good, because it appeared to him that any weather promised particular pleasures. This is how Elukov composes his photographs, avoiding labelling at all costs, because any coincidence promises a unique addition to the pattern of life.
Elukov seeks out surprise, something that awakens divine and original feelings in him: "We need to free ourselves from the known and be prepared to step into unknown spaces. I call it to die. I tell myself: ‘I'm dead. What is in front of me? What is going on? What emotions do I experience?’ You never know where the surprise is waiting for you, but you have to be prepared for it – to be ready for one´s own images. I observe the outside with the same attention as I look into myself. And sometimes, what I see outside, the lines and points, begins to swing with me, and awaken a feeling of a deep ontological sense of life. I still don’t fully understand what it is, but it is in that moment when I press the shutter.”
Looking outwards to see within
It does not come as a surprise that Elukov allows himself no staging, nor does he crop or otherwise manipulate his photographs. Elukov honed his skills on film and, only recently, delved into digital photography with the EOS 5D Mark III. He calls himself a documentary photographer, but he also adds that you cannot turn away from your own fantasies and fears. All of this is equally a part of life or what we call ‘reality’. Thus Elukov documents and he documents it all.
All this metaphysics begs the question whether he thinks that everything is already immanent in ourselves and we simply have to uncover it in the specific context. Elukov replies with Michelangelo’s thoughts on sculpture: you take a block of marble and cut off anything superfluous. The marble already contains the sculpture, you just have to see it and set it free.
Similarly, he does not "compose" his photographs, he simply creates a corresponding image, which he deciphers not devises. Elukov sees his task as establishing a state of mind that enables the identification of these inherent images. It is only logical that not fellow photographers, but the methods of Hesychasm or the Zen Buddhists had the strongest influence on his photographical work.
Does Elukov believe in that the photographer is visible in his images? The ideal would be if he could disappear, he answers succinctly. Not just disappear from the picture, but truly disappear. Elukov would like to look at the world as it is, without the subjective distortions which conditioning, experience, knowledge and emotions bring. Only then can he be sure of the authenticity of what he sees, feels and thinks. Elukov says, as long as he does not reach this state, he cannot trust his photos.
The inevitable narrative
There is a strong narrative in Igor Elukov’s work so what role does the single image play? He realised only in his third year of photographing that he is working on a series. For years he thought he was photographing singular frames and only recognised the existent narrative in retrospect. For him, photography does not provide the benefits of painting: "A single picture of Bruegel tells a whole story." He says he prefers the narrative when a story has self-sufficient elements like the renga genre of in Japanese poetry.
Elukov did not intentionally move to creating solely black and white imagery; he only realised after the fact. "I cannot simultaneously comprehend two conceptions. If I started to photograph in colour, I would immediately forget the black & white." For him colour promises much that is beautiful and he believes that one day colour will emerge again in his pictures.
Since childhood Igor Elukov has been interested in the visual arts. Initially engulfed by painting and drawing, he began photographing on the side. Elukov originally attended art school and then became an illustrator. As such Elukov never studied photography; he studied photographs. His education also came in the form of his travels, which he describes as “a voluntary and joyful asceticism, where he does not look at anything for months, except to look upon life itself, and to take pictures.” Thus photography became his method of cognition and meditation – a means to see life "as it is".
When asked of his plans for the future, Elukov replies, “I am not someone who dreams.” The only thing he wants, he says, is to deal with his favourite thing: confronting bigger challenges and solving them. He hints that maybe making films is next for him...
He sounds too mellow! After all the man is twenty-five years old… doesn´t he have any foolish or exuberant dreams? "You know, I dream of a story in the city. Maybe I'll begin this year. But I do not know how my images will change by changing my place: In any case I'm not going to try to copy or repeat myself, nor to force myself to photograph differently. It seems to me that every place entails its own substance; the historic Chinese painters called it "this is the place". This being, the spirit of the place, the ‘genius loci’ one needs to disentangle and to grasp.”
"And you just said you had no dreams?” I call out joyfully - whereupon Igor Elukov replies, quick-witted and succinctly: "This is no dream, this is inevitable!”