Sexy Chernihiv and Rituals of Polissia
Ukrainian photographer from Chernihiv, currently residing in Kyiv. Works with analog photography, classic, and alternative printing techniques. Has exhibited in Ukraine, France, Lithuania, and the USA. Winner of the Bird in Flight Prize '21 viewers' choice award.
— I worked on the series “My Sexy Chernihiv” throughout 2013. The project is dedicated to Chernihiv, where I spent my youth. It’s my artistic hommage to this beautiful city—old, quiet, and provincial, yet brimming with youthful energy, which I portrayed through the lens of eroticism. Working with nude subjects was a significant part of my artistic practice at that time, so using it to create a playful portrait of Chernihiv felt entirely natural.
At the same time, I began working on the project “The Rite,” which took three years to complete. In it, I continued to employ the technical techniques used in the Chernihiv series but with a shifted focus in the frame. I reflected on the vital forces of nature and the fertility rituals of our ancestors, laden with explicit sexual acts. This series reinterprets ancient rituals in a modern context. It seemed that sexual freedom was expanding its boundaries, giving rise to a new societal morality. Blatant erotica on the verge of pornography became as socially accepted as it was thousands of years ago.
Both series are united by formal elements (hand-painted black-and-white images of women integrated into the landscapes of the city and nature) and ideological themes—celebrating vitality, sexuality, feminine energy, and strength. The idea of creating a double book, with each part starting from a different side, belongs to the publisher Mauro d’Agati of 89books.
I reflected on the vital forces of nature and the fertility rituals of our ancestors, laden with explicit sexual acts.
Coloring my photos was a dream I had for a long time, but initially, I lacked the technical skills. When I first started with photography intentionally, I studied world photographic classics. Once, on the Magnum Photos agency’s website, I came across a series of colorized images of the Taliban found in Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak. I had never seen anything like it before. Since then, the idea of trying my hand at coloring images never left me.
Later, I noticed similar work by my friends from the “Shylo” group in Kharkiv, who were young but already quite well-known at the time. In particular, Vlad Krasnoshchok created a series of playful coloring. However, this intentionally “unrefined” style of coloring didn’t match my vision, and I hadn’t yet mastered the art of beautiful painting. It was only when I met the artist Olga Aboronok and shared my vision of “My Sexy Chernihiv” with her that the stars aligned. In fact, Olga was the one who colored this series, taking into account my stylistic and color palette preferences but adding her own vision and talent. I colored the “The Rite” series entirely by myself.
Technically, both series consist of black-and-white silver gelatin photographs, colored using aniline, oil, and sometimes acrylic paints. Hand-coloring, rather than, say, direct color photography, adds a mystical hue to the works, corresponding to the erotic “charge” of the images and creating an atmosphere of mythical spaces imbued with mystery and the promise of wonder. Color itself becomes a means of expressiveness and an integral element of the composition of the frame. Additionally, I enjoy working with tangible objects that bear the artist’s touch. Therefore, digital images or CGI just don’t interest me.
I enjoy working with tangible objects that bear the artist’s touch. Therefore, digital images or CGI just don’t interest me.
I’ll reveal a big secret that I think anyone who has worked with nude models knows. If you offer it to everyone you like, only about 10% will agree to be your model. At least, that’s how it was about ten years ago. Now, I believe finding models would be much easier. The younger generation today seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards nudity, and a much larger percentage would likely agree.
Once you have obtained the fundamental consent for a photoshoot, the rest is straightforward. Especially in a small town where information spreads quickly: if you have a reputation as someone who creates interesting things, girls already have a rough idea of what to expect. You explain to the models what you want to capture in the frame, and you quickly start shooting.
I drew inspiration from all the photographic and artistic classics of the time that depicted female nudity, from ancient times to the present. And also, from the vastness and grandeur of the Polissia nature, the beauty and warmth of my hometown Chernihiv, and of course, the energy, vitality, and strength of Ukrainian girls.
I drew inspiration from all the photographic and artistic classics of the time that depicted female nudity, from ancient times to the present.
In Chernihiv, I used “iconic” locations, which are tourist landmarks and popular spots for photoshoots. These included the Val, the entrance to the city from the Kyiv side, the Krasna Square, and the RAGS building, among others. We would go there, wait until people disappeared from the immediate vicinity, and quickly take photos. Typically, in the summer, shoots happened in the morning when the sun was high enough to provide sufficient light but when there were hardly any people on the streets. In the fall and especially in winter, we would shoot during the day.
As for “The Rite,” I had the images I wanted to create in my mind, and I could vividly imagine where I could bring them to life. After living in the city for a couple of decades, you get to know its surrounding fields, forests, rivers quite well.
When we were shooting the photo “Entrance to Chernihiv from the Kyiv side,” it was around 9 in the morning. This road is quite busy, with plenty of cars passing by. Even when the model was undressing, drivers honked and showed thumbs up. She wanted to pose completely nude, but I convinced her to wear boots to avoid getting cold in the freezing weather. Eventually, she put on the boots and wrapped herself in the Ukrainian flag, waiting for the cars to clear from the frame.
Suddenly, an old “Moskvich” car stopped nearby, and a man with a mobile phone stepped out, wanting to take our photo. I didn’t have time or the desire to talk to him, so I shouted aggressively, “Take pictures of your wife at home!” The man got scared and ran away. In just a minute, we captured several shots, one of which became the hallmark of the series.
I don’t think I’ll be shooting something similar anytime soon. Since moving to Kyiv, I’ve been shifting my focus to other subjects, and after the full-scale invasion, I’ve been entirely concentrated on understanding the new wartime reality. However, my perception of these series hasn’t changed. Chernihiv, although scarred by war, is as calm and beautiful as ever. The destruction will be rebuilt, and I can see it happening. The most important thing is that the atmosphere remains, so everything will be fine.
I don’t think I’ll be shooting something similar anytime soon.
All unsigned photos are part of “The Rite” series. You can order Bogdan Gulyay’s book at the following link.