The End of La Belle Epoque by Misha Pedan

Misha Pedan‘s “The End of La Belle Epoque” offers us a remarkable testimony of life in Ukraine, during the last few years of the era of socialism.  The design of the book itself is quiet classical and gives it a solid feeling like the feeling of a traditional (pre-digital) family album. What makes its design extraordinary, is the way it is enveloped in a cardboard file, reminiscent of the burocratic files in which the Soviet regime contained the lifes of all its subjects.

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But, the real thing about “The End of La Belle Epoque” is the extraordinary way in which these subjects of the CCCP have been portrayed. About this portrayal, the book contains an insightful essay by Irina Sandomirskaia.

Irina Sandomirskaia notices that the pictures in “The End of La Belle Epoque” were made while the USSR was collapsing, while the empire’s grand aspirations, its striving after a brilliant future, its militant spirit of class struggle, had already long retreated from daily life. The social landscape was irreversibly decaying and evaporating. Most Westerners did not know it yet, but “the Reds” had relaxed their iron muscles on their own people for good.

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© Misha Pedan

And, what were the subjects of Misha Pedan up to in this end-of-times context? Mrs. Sandomirskaia observes that they are surrendering themselves to a dolce far niente, to a sweet idleness of doing nothing. They seem not to hold themselves any longer accountable for or attached to anything. There is a sense of quiet contentment ruling. Misha Pedan’s heroes are giving themselves to those modest enjoyments which their grand epoch used to forbid them and which the time of stagnation is offering in abundance.

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© Misha Pedan

Irina Sandomirskaia than lucidly outlines that Pedan’s heroes embody a soft kind of anarchism. She describes this anarchism as the subversive power of leading one’s life as a modest feast – a life that “has disentagled itself from the clutch of the historic law”. The Soviet regime was, according to her, completely powerless towards this bumlike attitude of its subjects. She relates the powerlessness of the Kremlin towards Mr. Pedan’s heroes (or bums) to the powerlessness of the polis of Athens towards Diogenes, who was only looking for some bodily pleasures on the agora.

It would have been far less surprising to our eyes to see only the miserable, grey and frustrated faces of a generation that has bitterly lost the cold war. But Pedan’s heroes (i.e. bums!) are not traumatised by the catastrophe of the downfall of the USSR and even less excited by the hot and revengeful spurs of the liberal revolution. Indeed, Misha Pedan’s focus “on a festive mood laced with a slight hangover in an unpretentious enjoyment of the present” is truly something unique.

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© Misha Pedan

His unforgettable characters may have dropped out of their own times whose propaganda and campaigns were blasting on a daily basis against persons like them (ill-disciplined workers, shirkers and alcoholics). Still, they seem to be fully satisfied with their humble existence free from obligations, duties and regime pressure.

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© Misha Pedan

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© Misha Pedan

They shamelessly enjoy their cigarettes, balalaika music and of course their bottles of booze. Even if (or especially because) their lifes were to be led in a impoverished urban culture, running away from activity and doing nothing seemed to be the right thing to do!

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© Misha Pedan

Classical aesthetics mostly strive for a kind of pure or “beautiful” portrayal of the subject, whatever the subject might be. But Mr. Pedan’s subjects are seemingly shown in a blurry, un-ordened way. His pictures also sometimes seem to be found in a private family album and do not share the objectivating aesthetics of pictures in a “normal” photodocumentary. Again I turn to Irina Sandomirskaia‘s very inspiring analysis of Misha Pedan’s aesthetics to come to terms with the particularities of his style! “It might seem that it is full anarchy that rules the gaze: it abolishes the hierarchies of the important and the insignificant, the foreground and the background, the compositional center and its margins, the main motif and the details.

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© Misha Pedan

Referring to the specific Soviet context in which the photographs were made, she also notes that Mr. Pedan’s camera renounces the heroic composition of Soviet photography with its desire to formulate a fact correctly and to place it in the center of the image while at the same time purging it of anything “unnecessary”. And she continues: “Here, instead, inspite of the apparent chaos, the camera is looking at the world seeking to discover an alternative order….Pedan’s photography uses simplicity to create a new complexity … It concentrates on the insignificant to build new perspectives – which appear, nevertheless, as anarchic and unnecessary as the life itself that they represent

I believe that the tour de force in The End of La Belle Epoque, indeed, lies in the truthful and close depiction of the very complex reality of the regime’s anti-heroes. To manage this, to realize his unique vision of their alternative order, it seems that Misha Pedan succesfully supressed every photographer’s natural intention to exploit his subjects.

Mrs. Sandomirskaia notes that the subjects in The End of La Belle Epoque instead willingly join the artist in the creation of the image. “They are staying and posing a story for the future picture, inventing its micro-dramaturgy and mis-en-scène. Life seems to take over the role of director in the process of its representation. The subject does not suspect the camera of spying or betrayal.

Asked about the spirit of the times in which he made his pictures, Mr. Pedan let me know that the end of the eighties was “a special time” in the Soviet Union: “As photographers and artists we had no possibility to exhibit or publish our pictures. When you did something you did it for yourself or just to show it to your friends and colleagues. Every day we met in the same café and discussed pictures and photography.” And additionally, he also let me know that one of the photographers who joined his friends and colleagues in the café’s in Kharkov was nobody else than the now internationally highly acclaimed photographer Boris Mikhailov.

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© Boris Mikhailov

I asked Misha Pedan also why he has published his beautiful work more than twenty years after he made it. He wrote that – until recently – he had never realized how “nice” it was during the last days of the USSR. “Some years ago I looked through my old negatives and was surprised about the continuous warm feeling through these pictures from the last days of the empire. We did all we could to make that regime vanish but in a certain way it was a very nice period”.

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© Misha Pedan

Asked about the reasons why those days have also been “nice”, Misha Pedan – tongue in cheek – explained: “perhaps mostly because we were young!” But more seriously, Mr. Pedan also indicated in his communication that it would be “impossible” for him to make a similar book today, “because this (Sweden) is another place, another time and another life.” And he added, referring to his new work, that “the aesthetics are also different“.

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© Misha Pedan