Sasha Gusov and the Human Comedy 

A photography of the little theatre of manners

About Sasha Gusov. Sasha Gusov

Comrade Lunacharsky, the Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, declared in 1926 that “every progressive comrade must not only have a watch but also a camera. In the Soviet Union we will provide not only a good general education, but a photographic education as well” Perhaps he could never have imagined what Comrade Gusov would eventually do with it. 

Soviet Russia may have been the birthplace of Gusov’s distinctive and insightful photography. He shrugs off any attempt to label him as an heir of Rodchenko — by saying that he is trying to photograph in a completely different way. Indeed he is much closer in spirit to those photographers whose visual perceptions are intrigued most of all by the human comedy of manners — Robert Doisneau and Elliott Erwitt. 

The beginning of Sasha Gusov’s career as a photographer, and the story of how he came to England could almost come from the plot of a John le Carre novel. Sasha’s father Rafail was an engineer involved in building nuclear power stations all over the Soviet Union and its satellites so the family was in constant movement — from the far north of Siberia to Bulgaria. “This meant I was always changing schools, and had to make new friends very quickly. It probably made me what I am.” The constant mobility of this peripatetic existence (social and geographical) played its part in forming his amusing and likeable character, but it also brought him more tradeable skills — principally photographic. 

Sent away during the long summers to relatives at the coastal town of Taganrog on the Azov Sea in southern Russia (where he had been born and which is also famous as the birthplace of Anton Chekhov), the young Sasha Gusov learned both the fun and the serious arts of photography in his uncle’s darkroom — a place where “he taught me how to process film and prints, but also how to lie”. Uncle Valery’s job was as a schools photographer but he had a girlfriend or two in the local town, so Sasha was encouraged (and bribed) to play stooge whenever his aunt inquired as to the whereabouts of her husband — “he’s busy in the darkroom”, being the stock response. But what Sasha learned from his uncle could be put to very good use — for instance the art of portrait lighting, at which his nephew now excels — but also the social facility to put the subject at ease, and conjure a relationship with the camera eye that will elicit a telling portrait. It also gave him a lifelong interest in cameras. Sasha fondly recalls the excitement of going with Uncle Valery to Moscow at age 13 to buy a Practica camera: “at this time you must be seriously cool guy to have one, they cost 300 roubles (about 5 months salary for an average soviet worker) when a — Russian-made— Zenit was 60. And there was Pentacon 6×6cm camera, also German (OK, it was East-German, but still German!) — I thought it was masterpiece with its Sonnar lenses. Oh my God; I was fascinated.” 

Ratchet forward fifteen years or so. Towards the end of the 1980s Gusov was living in Moscow, and a member of the Moscow Committee of Graphic Artists which enabled him to work as a freelance photographer whose subjects and friends were often writers and poets — and living dangerously by buying and selling western cameras on the black market. His membership allowed him the luxury of being able to read magazines denied to the ordinary Soviet citizen and produced by the “decadent bourgeois” western photographic press — chief among them his favourite, the British Journal of Photography — and to dream of one day seeing his own work grace their pages. But it also gave him a good idea of what was in high demand in the photo equipment market. “Trying to sell cameras on the black market was very dangerous — there was an official secondhand shop in Moscow, and only those citizens allowed to go abroad like scientists and politicians could bring back the best western equipment, Nikon, Canon, Leica — anything they wanted that was in short supply in the Soviet Union — then they could sell it secondhand in this shop. The trick was to wait near the shop and offer them a good price before they went in.” Such “parasitic” black market activity was severely repressed by the authorities, so Gusov was running a big risk of being imprisoned if he was caught. 

Like many of his compatriots in 1988 Gusov had begun to see that the joint effects of perestroika and glasnost might finally make it possible to “live the dream” he had nourished of becoming a successful photographer by leaving the Soviet Union. “I went to the British Embassy and they gave me a visa. So I ran away to the West…” His departure itself was a major event. “Everyone hung out together in those days: speculators, artists, poets — the bohemian crowd! They put on a grandiose farewell evening for me at the House of Writers… fifteen people at the table, we drank and had a good time. They all came to see me off at Sheremetovo airport. I didn’t tell anybody I was intending to stay. I didn’t have many things with me — a hundred dollars that were taken away from me, but also a camera and a couple of lenses and ten dollars tucked away in the case. My friends got me drunk and pushed me into the airport on a trolley. I sat on the plane as it waited on the runway, saying farewell to my homeland — dreaming of seeing the ‘big city lights’, of London from the air. I was the only person in business class, and the hostesses gave me caviar, vodka and champagne. After an hour and a half I was completely drunk, and felt very bad. Soon after we took off I locked myself in the toilet and fell asleep. The next thing I remember was the hostesses forcing the toilet door open 30 minutes after we had landed at Heathrow, and it took them 15 minutes to get me out. Next thing I know they are kicking me down the stairs of the plane telling me what a bastard I am… I can just about remember walking along the endless corridors in Heathrow, finally sliding down the wall, not being able to get up and falling asleep. I woke up to see two white-coated angels with beards and turbans standing over me (I later realised they were Sikh cleaners), who took me under their arms and gently delivered me to the Customs and Immigration desk. I couldn’t find anything in my pockets and they just shouted at me 'Where is your passport? ' until eventually I found it and they threw me out. As I had only $10 and was afraid to leave Heathrow I just came straight back into the airport buildings and spent a day and a night there but — thank God! — I woke up right by a newspaper shop and I saw a copy of British Journal of Photography on display. It was a Godsend! I turned to the back page, there was an ad for a camera shop in Waterloo, so I bought an underground ticket and went there, sold my Canon F1N and two of the L lenses (24mm and 85mm f1.2) I’d brought with me from Russia, and so I had some money.” 

However, becoming a photographer in England was not a simple matter. For the next two years Gusov lived a hand to mouth existence, doing whatever work he could in London, washing up in bars and cafes, waiting at restaurant tables, cleaning work in an Edgware Road gym — where he had the good fortune to meet the fashion and portrait photographer Andrew MacPherson, who hearing of his background, introduced him to Roy Snell with whom he shared a studio and darkroom business in southwest London. Snell recalls that “Sasha had been making portraits of young actors after hours in the gym, but he needed somewhere to print the work and we needed someone to help us with the business.” For the next four years Sasha worked in Snell’s darkroom and film processing facility — running the processing room, and printing for the eminent group of advertising, fashion, and editorial photographers who used Snell’s establishment; “he became” Snell says, “our main man.”

The objective of professional photographers working with black and white film at that time was to get a “punchy” image (strong contrast but without loss of detail, so the print had “impact” when it hits a picture editors' desk) and the darkroom secret for this is to over-expose the film and then adjust its development so that the negative retains all its highlight and shadow detail. When printed on a hard (i.e. contrasty) silver gelatine paper in an enlarger with a cold-light source of illumination it is possible to make “a really singing print but one with a nice greyscale” — as Roy Snell puts it. “At that time we were working 24/7 and were really able to hone it to a fine edge. But we also thought we should give the photographers a good time in the darkroom, standing there rocking to the music as you devved their film.” 

Sasha Gusov absorbed this new culture of photography learned in the red gloom of Snell’s darkroom, and the arrangement was that he could also use the facilities for his own work. The darkrooms were in the basement of Snell’s house and as Sasha processed his own work well after midnight, Roy recalls that “we would be upstairs in bed hearing the clanks of the films in the tanks”. But there were some compensations for the Snell family — on one occasion Gusov brought his friends from the Bolshoi over to the darkroom, and they even entertained Roy’s eight-year-old daughter with an impromptu performance — “Zoë was spellbound, it was such a marvellous moment”. 

The struggle in which Sasha was engaged to make his name as a photographer was taking place in a London where, through the 1990s, a growing and increasingly wealthy Russian emigré population was beginning to settle. But although various members of this community would later prove to be supporters of his work, Gusov’s success in London was entirely due to his own efforts in creating a remarkable “behind the scenes” view of the Bolshoi ballet on its London tour in 1992. 

In the history of most photographers of note there is one formative project which projects them beyond the frame of the run-of-the-mill and into the limelight, and gets them noticed as an interesting image-maker with something to say. In Gusov’s case it was his photography of the ballet. The Bolshoi’s visit came at precisely the moment when he had been able to sharpen his skills by developing and printing photographs at Roy Snell’s studio and by making striking and appealing portraits of young actors and musicians — both Jude Law and Ewan Macgregor had already become subjects of his telling portraits by this point. The Bolshoi’s London visit was thus a god-given opportunity for the young photographer. 

Gusov took his courage in both hands and walked into the Royal Albert Hall, gaining access to the troupe by blagging the line that he was a press photographer who was going to cover the ballet. “Yuri Grigorovich, who was then the Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, was sitting in the stalls and I told him that I was a well-known Russian photographer and had come to shoot everything. To begin with he was not interested, (and he was drunk), but finally he said 'OK, you can go on the stage', then he yelled at me to get off and kicked me out. The next day I sneaked back in and asked Grigorevich 'you let me stay? ' and eventually he said OK and let me shoot the ballet for one month.”

Apart from the evidence it supplies of Gusov’s persistence and persuasive powers, the masterful aspect of this “self-commissioned project” (Gusov had no buyer at all for this work at its outset) was that he had decided to do it all “behind the scenes”. Virtually all the images (and certainly the best) were made during practices and rehearsals, where the dancers are shown in both stage dress and normal working attire, and the stage hands and others seem to be part of the act. These photographs manage to be both beautiful studies of the dancers and musicians and onlookers, but also ones that offer a social and narrative dimension — the everyday life of the ballet — that no theatrical or performance photography could hope to provide. They are also evidence of how Gusov was beginning to work with the juxtaposition of binary opposites in his pictures to telling effect — the pairing of one symbolic element with another, such as a beautiful young dancer standing next to an elderly stage-hand, a visual technique which would become a signature of his approach. 

Gusov’s month with the Bolshoï was spent working almost every day on some aspect of the project, and shooting about 500 rolls of his favourite Kodak Tri-X film. In simple terms, and assuming no major mistakes, this produced about 18,000 negatives. Processing, contact printing, editing and then making fine prints of the selected shots must have taken an enormous amount of time — all found in the interstices of Gusov’s daily work comittments.

The great effort was consecrated when he took a set of Bolshoi pictures to Reuel Golden, then editor of Sasha’s beloved British Journal of Photography. “It was one of my dreams to be in the BJP. Later on, when I met Terry O’Neill I said to him, “I want to tell you that it was when I saw your photos in the BJP I decided I wanted to be a photographer.' He was touched'” Golden loved the work and promised Gusov a double-page spread in the magazine. Its appearance in April 1993 immediately conferred a new status on Sasha as the magazine was widely read “in the trade”, and he started to work for the English National Ballet, and for the press — initially taking on assignments from the Daily Telegraph, whose arts and culture editor Sue Steward recalls that “with a whirl of wild Rasputin locks and a high-pitched giggle that shattered the office calm, the Russian photographer Sasha Gusov landed on the arts desk of this newspaper in 1994, […] he had perfected his sales pitch on Moscow’s black market, […] and promptly sold me a beautiful picture of his compatriot, the dancer Irek Mukhamedov.” This portrait of the dancer, in full performance attire but dragging on a cigarette, typifies the Gusovian binary approach to photography that continues throughout all of his work.

So striking were these pictures that they also attracted the attention of the late Isabella Blow, legendary fashion stylist. “Issy took me to Vogue magazine and introduced me to the picture editor as 'the genius photographer', and they began to give me jobs doing editorial portraiture — which is how I met Philip Treacy, the hat designer.” He has regularly photographed Treacy’s hats ever since.

While Gusov is capable of making beautiful and classic images that range from nudes to landscapes and architecture, his most telling work is probably best seen as cast in a “narrative” mode, where what is being pictured is a small observation or anecdote about human manners. Some photographic predecessors in this genre have already been identified, but there is also a sense in which this work is firmly located in the tradition of social observation exemplified by the drawings and engravings of Hogarth or Daumier, being about common features of humanity and its frailties, but also presented in a popular and readily understandable form at the same time. Since his break-through in 1994, Sasha has wandered the globe on assignment for one or another client or patron — magazine, corporation, public body, nation-state — but his vision seems always to be focused on what his photographs can record about the human condition, and in essence what a visual observation can encapsulate and tell us about it.

More recently he has even deployed social media to invite the public to comment on such photographs — a sort of plebiscite to help him select and edit from the huge flux of material that he is creating.

As someone who is a close countryman of Chekhov, though born more than a century later, it may not be surprising to hear Sasha pepper his conversation with references to literature. He is well-read, dropping allusions to everything from Aldous Huxley to the once-influential but now almost forgotten art critic, R. H Wilenski. Gusov’s fascination with the literature of the human comedy and with its photographic representation have similar roots. One might suppose that a man who had once been a member of the Moscow Committee of Graphic Artist and counted poets among his friends could not be immune to the lessons of Gogol, Tolstoi — and beyond the borders of Russia, those of his great hero Balzac. Although he has also been the creator of impressive work on landscape and architecture, Gusov is deeply interested in human morals, customs and behaviours, and has assembled his own cast of characters via photography through a life-long fascination with how to represent the human condition. Much as a writer might contrast purity and corruption in his characters by the use of symbols of these values, Gusov is similarly drawn to the juxtaposition of opposites. This ranges at one end of the scale from what one might call the “beautiful” — actors, dancers, models — to the other end, the point at which those who are the “damned” (of whatever sort) begin to appear. This is not to say that Gusov’s work is social documentary in the sense of being obsessed by famine, war and pestilence, but more that he does not shrink from including the more ordinary of us mortals as actors in his little theatre of manners. Story-telling and photography are intimate bedfellows, the one revealing what the other conceals— so one might surmise that Gusov’s fascination with the human comedy and with its photographic representation have the same roots.

Like the writer Balzac whom he so admires, Gusov is interested in morals, customs and manners — and how they manifest themselves in ways that can be photographed. The most obvious locales for this sort of photography in the modern era have traditionally been the public spaces of the city — so it is little surprise to find that Gusov is a “street-photographer” of remarkable observational powers. The other favoured haunt of such photographers is the beach as a sort of stage on which its temporary actors play out their roles, so it is not surprising that here too, Gusov is a master of the genre.

Although perhaps of less appeal to the current art market than photographs depicting endless typologies of industrial buildings, large colour prints of empty spaces, or the vodka-sodden victims of Russian society, Gusov’s photographs do possess something such photographs do not — popular appeal. At one time the leading picture magazines such as Vu, Life, Picture Post and their ilk featured the best of this sort of photography, but the annexation of the medium by contemporary art has now made such work unfashionable — though not, it must be stressed, unpopular. The problem may be that humanist social reportage of the type practiced by Gusov — associated with the likes of Doisneau in France, Bert Hardy in Britain, Dorothea Lange in America (to name only a few of its leading exponents) — is no longer thought of as “cool” by the cultural intermediaries who draw up the agenda of metropolitan culture. Or possibly they view it as too “populist” — a curious view that mistakes populism for optimism. Paradoxically, however, the consumers of such culture flock to see the work of pictorial artists such as Gusov when it is offered to them — as the social media example attests and the worldwide success of Salgado’s work have demonstrated. 

Gusov’s “Locusts” project (published under that title in 2008) is an example of this social documentary approach, an account of human-ness in the present, and conceived as taking place on a global stage. The photographer subtitled the work, “images of a plague” and the illness in question is that of modernity, with all of the benefits and costs that it brings to us — if one image might exemplify this it is that of how Auschwitz concentration camp has turned into a photo-opportunity for so many of its visitors. Gusov’s analytic eye ranges far and wide, looking at how digital media allow us to ceaselessly record everything we do, how the media have taken over the public realm, and how sexuality has become not a private thing but publically ominpresent; how tourism overwhelms each place we might go to; almost everything indeed that is now visible as our species consumes the planet like a biblical plague.

These pictures were not, however, the product of a single and neatly defined photo-shoot by Gusov but emerged from the huge stock of images he had assembled during his career up to that time. The project itself recalls the scale of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine with its vast cast of characters, and these images could almost be used to create a modern illustrated version of his works (of which were 91 were published and 46 remained unfinished at the writer’s death).

Although much of his commissioned portraiture and commercial work, for instance, is now made with a digital camera, Gusov is distinctive in preferring to use a 35mm Nikon film camera and to work in black and white for the vast majority of his more personal and documentary photography — as if the skills hard-earned during his childhood and early career are too precious to be abandoned. But he feels they give him a discipline (36 exposures per roll of film) and a quality he cannot match with digital. (This is not to deny that he is also a remarkable colour photographer as his recent books on Belarus [2011] and the Royal Parks of London [2010] show so well.)

What has been created in less than 25 years is a magisterial and extraordinary archive of pictures that chronicle Gusov’s lifelong fascination with the human condition, and a series of visual anecdotes that detail a multitude of the foibles to which our common humanity commits us. It situates him as a major photographer in the humanist tradition, an approach that is in tune with his fundamental belief that, as a famous Magnum photo agency collective project of the 1950s once asserted, “people are people all over the world”. In the negative files he has carefully accumulated, there are more than 1.5 million images of which the large majority deal with almost every aspect of the human condition, an extraordinary body of work in both size and scale given the fact that it represents a little over two decades of continuous work as a photographer. It is the remarkable raw material from which he assembles his books, each of them a new chapter in his ongoing documentation of the human comedy.

© Peter Hamilton 2013