The Photography of Vigen Vartanov1965-1975

The photos of Vigen Vartanov can be compared to cinematography in the impact they have on the viewer. They are an open portal to unexplored surrealistic realities, like a kingdom of dreams, they evoke multi-layered, black-and-white worlds filled with mystical codes and meanings.

His creative work fell outside the rigid Soviet system of “socialist realism,” the only artistic style accepted during most years of his lifetime. Knowing this, during his career which spans 60 years, Vartanov never published those images. Finally, several years after the death of the artist, the Vartanov family has returned to the negatives, printing and restoring his visions, almost a half-century after their creation.

Vigen Vartanov was born on October 29, 1941 in Tbilisi, in an old house on what was then called Plekhanov Avenue (now D. Agmaneshebeli). His father was a civil engineer who worked on many large construction sites in Tbilisi. After Vigen left school in 1959, he went to work with his father and during all those years he harbored dreams of a more creative life. 

In the late 1950s, Vigen’s elder brother started doing family photography. Vigen borrowed his camera and made his first shots, and those were his first steps on the way to mastering skills of photography. He later saved up for a Soviet rangefinder camera “FED” which remained the only camera he used for composition photography.

There was no school of photography in Tbilisi, but Vigen found various books and technical guides and taught himself the art of photography. Having an impossible dream of being accepted to the only Institute of Cinematography in Soviet Union, he practiced the art of lighting by converting the dining room of the family’s small apartment into a studio, building his own light fixtures and photographing still-life images, plaster busts and portraits.  The negative development printings were done in the tiny kitchen using an enlarger borrowed from a friend.

All these difficulties didn’t stop him from dreaming of cinematography, a dream that was born when at the age of fourteenhe worked at as a projectionist at a neighboring “Kolkhida” cinema. He was powerfully moved by the Italian neorealism and watched the movies  numerous times, and these movies became his education to slowly move from amateur work to professional.

Photography became the meaning of Vigen’s life. In 1967, he started a job at film studio ‘Gruzia-Film’ as a photographer, where for 30 years he worked with many prominent directors of Soviet Georgian Cinematography. He also worked as a production designer on documentary and short films.

For all those years, Vigen continued doing photography on his own. He lended cameras from ‘Gruzia-Film’ and used the studio’s industrial darkroom for film development and printing, the room he nicknamed “The Big Laundry”. Working at the studio gave him a chance to use the Soviet “Salut” medium-format 6×6 view camera, and later with the German medium-format camera “Praktica Six”. Vigen had hundreds of black-and-white negatives rolls, shot with this cameras and hidden away in his archives along with a few dozens of gelatin silver prints mounted on cardboard and plywood during that period of time, which laid between old newspapers and remained untouched on top of a wardrobe for nearly five decades.

Between 1969 and ’71 Vigen shot materials for a short film using the Soviet 35mm film camera ‘Rodina’. His photos were to be used as a background for various symbolic transformations. Unfortunately, the final cut of this film,  assembled by Vigen and titled “Etudes on Expression,” was lost. The only thing left is a raw cut of negatives that may be possible to develop, to finally see the interesting vision and idea he had.

From 1965 to 1975, Vigen was actively engaged in the art of black-and-white photography, which allowed to reflect his complicated, multilayered inner world. It was never in his interest to simply take pictures, he was looking for ways to make the images more expressive, to transfer mood or emotional message. In Vigen’s photos, light is the main means of expression, focusing attention on lines, texture, and forms. Just as before, Vigen shot all his still-lives and portraits in the dining room of the same small apartment, with the table removed and lighting fixtures installed, and relatives and friends, generally mother and wife, being his models. 

Vigen experimented with alternative techniques, such as solarization and combinations of two, three or even four negatives to gain the effect of depth, mystery and nuance in his images. Using various methods, he sometimes blurred images to transform them into art. Perhaps now, in our digital world, these techniques do not surprise as much. But for the ‘70s, this combination of creative and technical skills (not to mention access to equipment) was unthinkably rare. 

In 1976, an exhibition called “Photography in the USA” took place in Tbilisi, where works of famous American photographers were displayed, along with photographic equipment. It was the library of books created for professional photography that interested the self-made photographer the most – he realized how much he had been deprived of in a professional sense, and that it would be impossible to excel further without his own studio and laboratory. This event, triggered him to “cheat on  photography”, as he called it. Vigen’d already begun finding new ways of creative self-expression in collages and assemblages and that later became his main form of expression.

Meanwhile, he didn’t give up photography. Going for “stalker” walks with his camera around the city, he photographed Tbilisi’s decaying facades and desolate entrance halls. Even when he was not shooting with a camera, according to him, he “was filming with his eye”.

In early 2000s, reluctantly having accepted a digital camera, Vigen made a project devoted to the entrance halls of Tbilisi’s apartment blocks and to the variety of wrought-iron staircase handrails. In this project, his black-and-white photos differ in artistic approach – they are constructed on a light and shadow play. Vigen devoted five years to this project and collected a vast archive, sorted by different districts of the city, to await its publication.

Vigen Vartanov’s creativity is multifaceted – from the art of black-and-white photography, that explores contemporary identity,  to the collages and assemblages, creating unique worlds from sights and objects found on the streets. But what remains important is his non-standard vision of the world, his impeccable view and his determination to discover beauty in trifles and daily routines. Vigen sought to see the Universe, where most people would only see familiar Soviet realities.

The first exhibition of Vigen Vartanov’s photography was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, in May of 2019, the exhibition of the man who was born and lived in Tbilisi his entire life. Several years after the death of the Artist, the Vartanov family has returned to the negatives, printing and restoring his visions almost a half-century after their creation. This exhibition and the photo album is the first attempt to present Vigen Vartanov’s photographic works, to give us a chance to plunge into a world that is tearing the limits of reality.