Siberian artist Nikolay Bakharev worked as a photographer for a mechanics factory in 1980s USSR, but spent his free time documenting East Russia’s disaffected youth in his studio. Nikolay was fascinated by normal people and the intimate scenes of their daily lives and his images have now been compiled into a book, Novokuznetsk, published by Stanley/Barker.
Despite it being highly illegal at the time, Nikolay regarded his personal photography as social work and as a way of participating in and giving back to the community. “The book shows people of my town, who simply wanted to see themselves on pictures, while I, as a photographer, wanted to serve them good,” Nikolay tells It’s Nice That. His monochrome images are captivating, honest and unapologetically erotic with naked women and undressed men lounging around rooms, drinking and smoking.
This type of photography was common practice in the art studios of London and New York at the time, but the Soviet Union regarded Nikolay’s sensual snapshots as low-class pornography. Reflecting on his working conditions, he says “we just lived and did what we could. When we had difficulties because of the numerous limitations (“you can do this, you can’t do that”), we saw it as unavoidable. You’re not allowed to take photos of the unpleasant sides of life; you’re not allowed to take photos of naked bodies; daily life is not worth being pictured.” The nude men and women in his photographs exude a relaxed contentment as Nikolay successfully captures their truthful gazes. His book gives us an insight into Soviet Russia and prompts us to imagine the lives of these transgressive individuals.
Despite the stringent restrictions, Nikolay lives by his own principles as an artist who photographed people’s lives as they really were, from homosexual relationships to young motherhood. “Out of over 50 pictures I was paid for three or four. But I was only interested in a single moment that would appear by pure chance that would earnestly show the openness and frankness of the image. Such works were not welcome in the Soviet Union and were not allowed in exhibitions,” Nikolay explains. The USSR understood art to be something that would morally improve and uplift its citizens. It would denounce anything that “degraded” the body to the level of daily life and celebrate creativity that was, by their definition, principled and righteous. “Openness was called slander, sincerity dubbed as an unwillingness to build Communism with the others, and a desire for the forbidden (or foreign) would be equal to treason,” Nikolay says. Novokuznetsk is not just an archive of the Soviet Union’s underground scene, but also a reveal of the regime’s hypocrisy.
Nikolay’s strength is his curious exploration of individuals behind closed doors at a time when Soviet citizens were told to favour the system. “For me any picture without inner content, any picture that is not about looking deep into the model’s eyes through the prism of an artist, is worthless,” Nikolay states. Now 71 years old and living in Russia, the artist explains that the book’s publication helped him re-discover his own work. “The selection was done by the editors who do not know me personally, it was very important for me. It is a true look upon myself from the outside.”