Imago #15
Bratislava, Slovakia, Winter 2003


Rafaelo 'Raffy' Kazakov is a Bulgarian-born fine-art photographer who has lived and worked in New York since 1990. Victor Ocheretko is a photographer and medical doctor working in psychiatric research at Columbia University. The two of them spoke in Dr. Ocheretko's Manhattan apartment in early January 2003.  

Victor Ocheretko: What is on your mind, Raffy?

Rafaelo Kazakov: I read a quote from the painter Francis Bacon today: "Isn't it that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do? Isn't that what art is all about?..." Bacon's concern is very relevant to serious photographers because our medium is bound to reality by its nature. If I have a picture of mine in which too much of the factual information is lost, I somehow feel as if I'm cheating. I almost feel an obligation to stay close to the clear vision of photography. It is curious that I feel that pull at a time when my work is going into abstraction. I also have this constant concern--how do you develop your voice, how do you make a group of pictures yours...not just good pictures. I'm not really interested in making just "good" photographs, many photographers can do that. The big question for me is how do you make a group of images yours, without "forcing" them. There are many strategies for forcing, even "raping" photographs in attempting to make them solely yours. You see this all the time in galleries-a gimmick, a stylistic device repeated again and again...

VO: Well, to have insight into your own style is very difficult, and it shouldn't be of that much concern to you. It is for others to see much more easily, and whether or not you are aware of your own style, it doesn't really matter in the end. Your awareness or absence of awareness is not really likely to affect the final result. When I see one of your photographs, I can almost always say: "This is a Raffy Kazakov or at least looks like a Raffy Kazakov"...



RK:Thank you.

VO: I'm looking at your flower pictures and they remind me of the work of Kenro Izu who works in a similar direction. It is interesting that nowadays photography has had enough of a history of its own so that a photographer like you or him can actually reach into photo history, pull out something and remake it or reference it in a personal way. This is a recent development, by the way, from the last 15 years or so, a postmodern phenomenon.

RK: I'm mostly interested in referencing life and hopefully eliciting emotion, not commenting on what has been done before. I think that postmodernism in photography as a whole had a devastating effect on spontaneity and on seeing as an emotional act. Words like spontaneity, emotion and even beauty became suspect, dirty words in the hands of overintellectual, overskeptical artists like Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and John Baldessari.

VO: Don't you think, though, that in a way you are jumping in front of the image before it is done? I know that artists and photographers are constantly surprised by their own work. When the piece is completed the artist is looking at it without trying to match it with the emotion he had at the time of creation. His own work leaps at him, surprises him in a way, and he is open to that surprise. Incidentally, the approach that you defend has strong roots in Eastern Europe-let's leave aside everything conceptual and historically referential and delve into spontaneous emotion that will somehow unlock a special private impulse to be imprinted in the picture... Well, not really. Every idea has its emotional content and vice versa.




RK: You're right, I can't argue with that.

VO: There's something else, too. As an immigrant you are working with a reality that is not so emotionally charged as in the case of an American. We were talking earlier about this photograph by Marla Sweeney of an angelic young girl. Well, go into the bathroom of this apartment and you will see the same mirror from the 1930's as the one in her picture. This mirror will have quite a different meaning to an American who grew up with it, someone for whom it is part of childhood memories. An immigrant lacks this connection, and this absence brings about a special kind of schism between concept and emotion. Yet, I think this schism need not be devastating or harmful. One cannot run away from early formative experiences. Think about it this way-how can Baldessari run away from his historical context? Pop Art was so big at the time! In Bulgaria there was no pop art...

RK: In a way art becomes part of the cultural landscape, just like the mirror. In the case of artists who think in images and think about images all the time, the art of the time becomes part of their background. They reference objects and the art around them in the same breath. To go back to the schism you mentioned-I know all so well what you are talking about! That rupture between formative experiences and the reality around has been with me for all these years in the States. It might have diminished but not disappeared. The work I'm doing today comes partially from that experience.

VO: Why does this bother you?

RK: It doesn't bother me. The rootlessness I feel is light and pleasant--I will remain a foreigner for as long as I live, no matter how much I adapt. I feel that not belonging fully is a rich place to be if you are an artist. I am constantly amused by the United States and I still find everything fresh and interesting to observe. And then of course there is New York, which is a whole separate country in itself. I guess you could say that my generally romantic disposition plus my US/New York experience account for the existence of the work we are looking at here.

VO: I'm really pleasantly surprised to see the whole series EXILES together. The silver gelatin prints are just perfect for it. The Kenro Izu pictures I mentioned were done in platinum and the medium could not sustain the imagery. Platinum is a very delicate, if you can't get a certain lyrical feel, you might just as well forget about it...

RK: If you look carefully you'll notice that there is some very subtle partial toning in the EXILES pictures. It imparts a certain antique, lyrical look, which clashes with the crazed, violent feeling the flowers also have. The toning pushes the highlights and the shadows apart and yet a certain flow of continuity is retained. I'm very conscious of these oppositions, and I constantly seek them out. I always need several levels of tension to hold the picture together because of this belief of mine that harmony and beauty alone cannot sustain an image and especially not a whole series of images. If you look at the GLUT series, you'll see that the conflict there is much more open-between the sacred gravity of the symbols



and the wacky, contaminated materials they are built from. These images are harsh, much more in your face, which is not really typical of my thinking. But I also see this work as funny and quite postmodern, which is obviously ironical coming from someone like me who rails against postmodernism so much.

VO: No matter how much you change your style, however, there is an element that is constant to your pictures-a masochistic tendency of sorts. I can't say if this is part of the artistic process or comes from...

RK: It comes from who I am. I have a dark sensibility. I've always had this vision that just as we humans come from a black void only to disappear back into it, so do images come from the black, flicker for a moment and then disappear again. But back to the term masochism, pain for the sake of pleasure, well, I'd say that is a pretty good definition of art!

VO: Well, you see, my remark was not necessarily to your personality, it was a reference to the objects in the photographs-in all of them, no matter whether a hammer and sickle heated up to melting point or a mutilated cigarette butt, in every image there is manipulation (whether intentional or not) that leaves the impression of an extremely tormented subject.

RK: There is always the force of the hand.

VO: If you are able to expand on the range of experiences, not your experiences but the ones that a photograph offers...for the pictures to get their own narrative...I'm glad that you are beginning to be able to get that.

RK: What do you mean by narrative?

VO: You can call it narrative, or post-vision or whatever. Photography begins at the point where vision ends. You cannot compare visual phenomena in images and seek photographic significance. If the photograph has a hold on you, you stop seeing it--the initial shock is over, what you retain from it is an interchange, a memory of the image, and furthermore--emotions and thoughts provoked by the image and happening only in your head. I don't look at a photograph as beautiful or ugly, but as something that offers me an experience larger than myself. A good work must have a post-vision, a narrative; when you see it again it must have the power to offer you new experiences, to widen your horizons. That is why the death theme that you are dealing with is not something you can exhaust, there is no end to be reached. The question is how far do you want to go. 



RK: From early on it has been my ambition to escape from subject matter, to be able to communicate emotion that is not typically associated with the subject matter of the image. The example I always give is: to photograph a forest and make it look pornographic and then photograph people fucking and have the tender feeling of a spring landscape. I don't know if this is possible. But I know it's possible to make a completely abstract image and make it communicate strong feelings. This is the direction I'm moving in. It is scary and exciting because there are no anchors, no crutches to hold you, you're on your own. There is the danger of looking for anthropomorphic similarities in pure forms--a hand, a head, a penis... and that can become formulaic and stupid.

VO: You are getting to something people realized fifty years ago, that the abstract form is a frightening experience. But it has tremendous expressive power.

RK: I think I'll jump right in.



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