Experience

Sasha Rudensky: “I’m allergic to just a pretty picture”

Sasha Rudensky about why she shoots in Russia and Ukraine, what does it take to be a photographer and about her mentors, principles and coffee table books.

Sasha Rudensky portrait

34 years oldSasha Rudensky,
American photographer, teaches photography at Wesleyan University in New York City. Born in Russia, moved to the States at the age of 10. In 2008 graduated from Yale University with MFA in photography. Author of projects Brightness, Eastern Eve and Remains, all of which she shot in Ukraine and Russia. Rudensky’s photographs have been displayed as personal and collective exhibitions in New York, London, Rome, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, and featured in the publications like PDN Magazine, American Photo and Esquire.

Why did you decide to teach at a university?

I have been developing both as an educator and an artist, simultaneously. When I was 19-20 I became a professor’s assistant. I taught my very first university level course at 23. Why do I continue to teach? It’s my income. Not many can earn a living just with their photographs. You choose between commercial photography and teaching. The latter has always interested me more.

What are the qualities that a teacher should possess?

In order to teach the art of photography truly well — not just its technique or history — one needs to know how to do it skillfully. Teachers at the US universities are, first and foremost, professionals. Their works always come first and the instructing is always secondary.

Who were your teachers and what principles did they instill into you?

I didn’t have very good university education. We had only one teacher whose understanding of photography was radically different from mine. I strived to enter the graduate school at Yale — as the methodology and the works of its graduates always inspired me. At the time, Tod Papageorge served as a dean at the faculty of photography. He befriended all the celebrities of the 60-ties — Robert Frank, Gary Vinogrand, Diana Arbus, Lee Friedland. Besides, he was a critic and a curator — an amazing writer who could verbally describe the feeling that takes over you in photography. Among other teachers we had Gregory Croodson, Phillip-Lorka Di Corsia, who influenced me very much, and curators from MoMA.


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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-Brightness-LawOffice.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Brightness”,
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What do you like to tell your students?

I begin with a statement that photography is a language. People think that they know it but they don’t. The very first thing I say to the students is — leave your old baggage of ideas behind and start anew. Photography as an art is something new. It’s not the association with a trendy magazine picture that public is so familiar with. This doesn’t right away sink into the minds of the students, so I am hard on all of them throughout their first month.

Sometimes I say: learn to look at the world as if you were seeing for the first time. Like children, learn to find visual associations that you didn’t notice before. Picture is a form and a plot, and there has to be a deep connection between the two. When you learn to see it — in a nonstandard and unhacked way, only then you will enter a phase of your own.

Is everyone capable of becoming a good photographer?

After 12 years of teaching I came to the conclusion that I can’t turn every single person into a good photographer, but I can make them a better one — teach them the technical side of shooting and printing. But not everyone is blessed with the gift of unique vision. However, good shots can still happen, regardless of who’s shooting — a monkey or a blind.

Some think that they are seriously involved into photography because they spend days browsing internet and looking at photos.

Many acquire mirror cameras with interchangeable optics and consider themselves accomplished photographers. How can you discourage them?

I would warn them that their life will be extremely difficult. At Yale, we asked new students: “What can your contribute to our program?” A girl responded: “And what can you contribute to me?”. One of the professors’ answer to that was: “Life, full of doubts and misery”. To a point, that’s exactly what you end up with. Nevertheless, there are some wonderful moments too: enjoyment and the feeling that you are doing what you are meant to do. Those feelings are not abundant, but they are so effervescent that they keep your going.

What is needed to become a good photographer?

The main thing is shooting. Not just reading, attending workshops, looking at pictures, but photographing per se. Some think that they are seriously involved into photography because they spend days browsing internet and looking at photos. On the opposite, it is rather distracting. I’m not saying that staying informed is a bad thing. It’s just the fact that you watch, read and are aware of things doesn’t necessary mean that you can apply all that in life.

How can one determine if it’s the photography they are doing or simply waisting their time?

You need to face your pieces and ask yourself the following question: did you express something through your work, something genuine and essential? Recognition is important — exhibitions, book publishing — yet many artists didn’t have that, for instance Eugene Atget.


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“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
“alt”: “From series Eastern Eve 1”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-EasternEve-Eduard.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-EasternEve-KatyaSablya.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-EasternEve-LoveCurly.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
“alt”: “From series Eastern Eve 4”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-EasternEve-LoveCurly.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-EasternEve-YuliaMcGuffie.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Eastern Eve”,
“alt”: “From series Eastern Eve 6”
}

Is it true that it’s easier to be a photographer in the west than in Eastern Europe?

It’s an illusion. It is easier nowhere. Yes, there is a market in the west, and a better education, yet it doesn’t mean that there it’s easier. To be a photographer means that your work becomes you. It’s not just something that you do from nine to six. It’s your ever-presence within the constant process. From the side it looks romantic and cool — you travel, doing your favorite thing. But the moments when this blissful feeling takes over you are rare. Most of the time what you feel is fear and doubt — regardless of your level of advancement as a photographer. Even the very process of photography comes with a certain dose of agony, and the only way to get out of its clutches is to achieve the result you are after.

But results are unpredictable!

You show the pictures you made. Yet no one gets to see the mountains of crap that you had to conquer in order to capture those pictures. That’s the price of being a photographer.

Why do you shoot so much in Russia and Ukraine if you live in the US?

What draws me is the fact that here I am a native and a foreigner all at once — it’s a very appropriate position for a photographer. I do not see Eastern Europe as an exotic world. I was brought to the US from Russia at the age of 10 and have been here for 24 years now. On one hand, I feel detachment from this reality, on the other — it’s the world imprinted into me at a tender age and that is why it remains magical. In the States I don’t experience as strong sense of an inspiration as I do here. In Ukraine and Russia I can see something new, yet in the same time — this is how I see myself.

How different are the approaches to photography here in Eastern Europe, and in the west?

In Ukraine and Russia photography is still associated with reportage and pictures made at a studio — boudoir, landscapes. People here absolutely do not grasp the concept of photography, there is no groundwork, pretty pictures are the only thing that draws attention. What’s important in the conceptual art is the ideas, not skills. People take a look at these pictures and start thinking that they can do equally well if they just pick up a camera and start shooting. And if those, who are not photographers, can, then it can’t be art at all — but rather something deceitful. Let’s say, John Cage and his silence — it’s truly the basis of the basis of the conception, but here people consider it fraud.

Soviet educational system has no room for anything that doesn’t follow rules.

Please describe your principles in photography.

I like controversy: when beautiful can be associated with antibeautiful, funny — with sad, irony — with sincerity. Perhaps that’s why I am allergic to just a pretty picture. I’m often being told that my photographs are a fairly close visualization of myself.

What’s your attitude towards the rules?

A bad one! I do not have a set of rules — I use my intuition instead. Why is it so hard to study and teach art in Ukraine and Russia? I vividly remember my impressions of soviet schooling and educational system. I don’t think that things drastically changed since then. Here, everything is presented as a set of rules. Historical facts are spoken of according to their “correctness”. There is a “correct” version to interpret “War and Peace”, and an incorrect one. This approach is exactly what suffocates art. Soviet system of education doesn’t accept anything that falls beyond the rules.


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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky_Remains_05_Schoolhouse.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Remains”
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“text”: “From series Remains”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-Remains-TznaRiver.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Remains”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-Remains-BusStation.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Remains”
},{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rudensky-Remains-AuditoriumAndGym.jpg”,
“text”: “From series Remains”
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What cameras do you shoot with?

I work with a medium format film cameras. When shooting on the streets off hands I prefer Fuji 6×9. For portraits I have Mamiya 6×7 — a large professional camera that I always use the tripod with. Its viewfinder is at the chest level — therefore you look at the picture from above, and there is no obstacles between you and whoever you shot. It absolutely changes the interaction between the two of you. I compare cameras to people: there are those that you are happy to see and those that you aren’t. You need to love your camera. My equipment is the extension of myself, my hands and my eyes.

I teach both digital and film classes. The students who start with film and then move on to digit almost always achieve better results. The limitations — that film and processing cost money, that a film only has 10 exposures — play a positive role. But at the end of the year, when I sum up what I spent on the shots, a thought of buying something digital does cross my mind.

A few months ago I purchased a digital camera, that, I believe, we can establish a good relationship with, — Leica Camera. Its manufacturer tried hard to simulate the film-using experience. Before that I had bought Canon 5 D Mark II, but sold it a few months later. To me, the camera gave out too much of a reporter vibe. I don’t like when I can’t see the result, and when there is an obstacle between me and my human object.

What are your favorite coffee table books?

Number one is A Storybook Life by Phillip-Lorca DiCorcia, number two — American Prospects by Joel Sternfield, number three — The Americans by Robert Frank. I also like Vivian Sassen, a young photographer from Amsterdam, and her book Parasomnia. And I simply adore this little book by Boris Mihalkov — Suzi et Cetera. It’s not very well known, but for me it’s one of the most brilliant books of his. Clearly, the man deeply felt all that he’d been seeing.

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