Nikolay Bakharev, The People of Town N @Julie Saul

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 2001. Nearly all of the prints are square format, sized roughly 12×12 (there is one print sized 13×12), and alternately available in editions of 5, 8, 10 or 13. The show also includes 2 documentary videos running on a single screen near the reception desk – both are interviews/features on the artist from 2005. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Part of what makes a local photographer successful is the elementary fact of his or her sustained presence – by being around long enough, the community has a chance to develop a sense of trust and understanding with the artist, and the artist comes to know the nuances of his subjects and their environment. From the studio-centric efforts of Malick Sidibé (in Bamako, Mali) and Mike Disfarmer (in Heber Springs, AK), to the out in the world investigations of Tom Wood (in New Brighton, UK) and Ed Templeton (in Huntington Beach, CA), it is those who are deeply rooted in the fabric of the place, regardless of their particular artistic gifts or approaches, that are often the best suited to making lasting pictures of the subtleties of the inhabitants.

Nikolay Bakharev’s portraits taken in his hometown of Novokuznetsk in Siberia are yet another distinctive example of an original photographic voice emerging from an unlikely locale. Begun during the Soviet years in Russia when making and exhibiting his photographs (particularly nudes) was prohibited/illegal and continuing on through the subsequent decades, his work is steeped in the unguarded faith of his sitters and their engagement with his illicit picture making. The images are filled with subversive risk taking on both sides, and the visual bargains and transactions Bakharev has made with his neighbors have led to some consistently sensitive moments of intimacy and warmth.

Bakharev’s most notable pictures come from his Relationship series, where summertime bathers (in now dated swimwear) have taken a break in the cool shadows of the nearby greenery to have their portraits taken. There are extended families, drinking buddies, fathers and sons, brothers, friends, couples, lovers, in short, nearly any combination of holiday people we might come up with. Perhaps it is the relaxed mood of the setting, or the state of general undress, or something about Bakharev’s manner, but the merry making quickly quiets down, allowing the photographer to capture the tender moments and genuinely intimate gestures on display. Seemingly burnished in soft silver, the embrace of arms, the lean of bodies, the expressions of age and adolescence, they stare out with a gripping timeless elegance, drawing us into their anonymous lives. As studies of human connection, they are compellingly real.

When Bakharev heads into the studio for the nudes in his Interior and Study series, his pictures get more controlled and mannered, his stage managing of the poses becoming more heavy handed. Female bodies drape across beds and sofas with loose odalisque eroticism, but a direct look into the lens of the camera exposes the open cooperation going on; while the pictures aim for a mood of careless relaxation, tension fills the air. Splayed legs and crossed arms are used as formal elements, with patterned cloth backdrops and room props (a thatched broom, a lava lamp) adding compositional balance. The pictures feel like rule breaking and escapist personal rebellion (both on the part of the photographer and his subjects), a radical chance for all involved to break from the societal bonds that had dampened their freedoms.

Seen together, Bakharev’s portraits explore the boundaries of public and private in a controlled society, and do so with stark grace. The best of the images are the moments when his sitters take their guard down for just a fraction of a second, allowing their authentic emotions to fleetingly shine through. It’s here that the attention paid to the gentle touch on a face or the arm draped across a companion’s shoulder speaks loudest, instantaneously jumping across distance and time to make the link of common recognition.

Collector’s POV: All of the prints in this show are priced at $7200 each (including the frame). Bakharev’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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