Photography in Bulgaria after the Year 2000

by Vera Mlechevska, Stefka Tsaneva

At the end of the 20th century, Bulgarian art, as it is happening in the context of an “open” world already, starts experimenting and looking for its essence, for its specific topics, aesthetics and a place on the international scene. While the institutions adhering to the old period continue to divide art into forms, genres and techniques, and to put it in categories, sections, disciplines and professorial courses, the artists of the new generation start experimenting bravely and mixing the media. Photography turns into one of the mandatory means of expression of contemporary art.

And somewhere between photography as a part of the arsenal of contemporary art and the professional photography that is realized and presented at specialized international concourses, meetings and forums, the new wave of art photography in Bulgaria finds an identity of its own. Some of the main personages are Misirkov and Bogdanov. Although nowadays they work predominantly in the field of documentaries and full-length feature films with the company Agitprop found by them, their work in the sphere of photography is an important contribution to the development of this scene in Bulgaria.

Boris Misirkov and Georgi Bogdanov graduate as camera-men form the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts (NATFA), then they pass one-year course at Fabrica of Oliviero Toscani in Treviso, Italy. Toscani is one of the legends of advertising photography and makes the campaigns of the Italian fashion giant Benetton for almost twenty years. After their return from Italy, the two men found Bulgarian Society for Photography and Agitprop Studio – both of the enterprises, after 1998, find their home at CEEA (Club for Aesthetic Education of Artists) in the courtyard of NATFA. In the next four years, this place, having been something of a kiosk and repaired by Misirkov, Bogdanov and there adherents, turns into one of the most active places for meetings, conversations, exhibitions. For only four years, the Bulgarian Society for Photography organizes over 50 Bulgarian and international exhibitions there. In 2002, the turbulent life of CEEA comes to its end. Misirkov and Bogdanov, on their part, take up artistic projects of their own and work ever more on the development of the producer company Agitprop together with the producer Martichka Bozhilova.

Misirkov and Bogdanov succeed in combining in their work professional photographic techniques and conceptual approaches with a message. For example, New Mythology (2000 - 2001), presents the new icons that come from the mass culture of the 90’s in Bulgaria. Yalta Beach Portraits (2002) and ID 2000 (1999) also shall be remembered as emblematic for the new history of Bulgarian art.  

The two authors also have rich experience in commercial, advertising and life-style photography. As early as the 90’s, the two of them work for magazines as Egoist and One – periodicals for the new youth from the city. Misirkov and Bogdanov take this scenic appearance of the media image and use it with critical distance in their author projects. In their project Searching for a Bright Future (2005), realized within the Visual Seminar organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art – Sofia, the two authors pose the question about the future and the dreams of the first generation of democracy.

After the two periodicals – Egoist and One become history and are no more on the book market, in 2009, another key magazine appears – and it is under a foreign brand and with emphasized international content – VICE, its art director is Gergana Mudova – Gati who is one of the former important persons in Egoist. Gati and Musis Foundation, that she represents together with Ivan Mudov, organize from time to time exhibitions of contemporary photography in Bulgaria and there, they show international names of contemporary photography like Mary Ellen Clark, Ben Ritter and Ryan McGinley.

Teams like Poststudio and art directors like Vasil Iliev (the Shimba) work on the visual identity of the above mentioned media projects. Egoist, One and VICE are exactly the places where a number of photographers started and later on invented a style of their own. Such are Lubri, Mihail Novakov and some younger ones like Zlatimir Arakliev. In their practice as authors they continue to photograph the unpolished reality of the street, the clubs and the intimate world of their close relations, and work outside the enticing life-style aspect of things.

Lubri

Untitled, 2011.

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Milen Radev, Maritsa Kolcheva, Yana Lozeva, Gergana Petrova also document the life of the new generation in one way or another – parties, kitsch, absurd and the traces of the 90’s.  

Yana Lozeva

Immediate Light, 2014.

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  • Material: архивен отпечатък
  • Width: 70.00 cm    Height: 100.00 cm    Depth: cm   

Yana Lozeva

Immediate Light, 2014.

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  • Material: архивен отпечатък
  • Width: 70.00 cm    Height: 100.00 cm    Depth: cm   

Marica Kolcheva

meteorology observations, 2018.

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  • Photographer: Marica Kolcheva

Marica Kolcheva

a transmisiometer, 2017.

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  • Photographer: Marica Kolcheva

Marica Kolcheva

the puddle, 2017.

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  • Photographer: Marica Kolcheva

After 2007 and his first exhibition in Sofia at the Pistol Gallery, Lubri is actively present at the scene of contemporary art. And in 2011, the curator Vera Mlechevska presents him within the platform Background: Young Authors of Sariev Gallery. Lubri is the photographer of the strange night city landscapes.

Lubri

Untitled, 2011.

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Regardless of whether he is at some parties in Sofia or in the streets of New York, he manages to capture the lightness and the pleasure of night life. In his photography, there is no censorship or pretense, he shoots exhausted party-monsters and drag-queens, homeless people or just interesting people.  

Another key figure of the new wave of Bulgarian photography is Mihail Novakov. Similarly to Lubri, he captures the rhythm of city everyday life in his pictures.

Mihail Novakov

Mini world in pink, 2014.

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In is important to note that this type of photographic imagery quickly finds a place in the institutional context. Mihail Novakov is presented with the solo exhibition Cars, Chicks and Landscapes in 2012, while Lubri is presented with Eclectics in 2016 at Vaska Emanuilova Gallery, a branch of the Sofia City Art Gallery. SCAG also has a key role for the recognition for photography in the context of contemporary art by founding the fund Contemporary Art and Photography as early as 2004, its founder is the curator Maria Vasileva.

Mihail Novakov

Untitled, 2015.

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Mihail Novakov

Untitled, 2014.

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Many of these young photographers resort to amateur or semi-professional analog cameras from the 80’s and the 90’s and catch the moment in snapshot style. Thus the particular film grain, the specific color tone of the different brands of films, as well as the moment of contingency in the light environment leave characteristic traces on the shots. Sometimes the photographers use different effects like over-flash of the flash-light, other times they look for depth and diffuse light that attributes a nostalgic element to the shots. Yet the subject on the photograph remains most important while the conceptualized composition and the lighting are left as secondary. They come after the human being, the happening, the curiosity…  

Form the beginning of the first decade of the new millennium, new spaces appear to search for and exhibit contemporary photography. In 2004 for example, Sariev Gallery starts at first as a place for ceramics and photography and includes photography in its program till now, together with other media. Another important space is Rubber Band Gallery, founded by the photographers Maritsa Kolcheva and Desislav Likov in 2012 in Sofia, it starts as a print-shop. A year later Rubber Band Gallery is moved to a far larger space on Gerlovo Street and its conception changes – a place for exhibitions, a library for photographic books, as well as a space for photographic events , workshops, etc. In 2014, Lyubomir Atanasov joins the team. The founders, together with him, move the gallery to the district Kapana in Plovdiv. This is a craftsman’s district and in the context of the program European Capital of Culture it has to be turned into a center of creative industries. Rubber Bands resists the instantaneous gentrification for only two years and is closed in 2016. Through the years of its existence, the gallery presents exhibitions of authors like Yana Lozeva, Milen Radev, Dimitar Kenarov, Rayna Vlaskovska, Gergana Zmiycharova, etc.  

Yana Lozeva

Come to me, 2018.

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  • Material: архивен отпечатък
  • Width: 100.00 mm    Height: 70.00 mm    Depth: mm   

Yana Lozeva

Untitled, 2016.

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Another space for photography that still exists today is the Photosynthesis Gallery, but its conception of photography is a more classical one. In the last years, the presence of one photographer is ever more prominent and he is one of the few in Bulgaria to succeed in establishing an adequate relation between photography and contemporary art. This is Nikola Mihov who lives in Paris from the end of the 90’s and the beginning of first decade of the new millennium. In Paris, he starts his occupation with photography and gradually turns to documentary photography. Between 2009 and 2012, he develops the project Forget Your Past where he researches and takes pictures of socialist-period monuments throughout Bulgaria. The project is presented many times at different exhibitions in Bulgaria and abroad, it also exists in the form of a photography book published by Janet 45 Publishing House. Another photographer schooled abroad is Ivaylo Stoyanov who graduated in Germany. In his practice, he pays a lot of attention to the materialization of the photograph in high-quality print and its framing. The author is looking for an abstract aura of objects that he shoots in the city or in nature. He explores their structures, fractures and volumes, and then manipulates the photo with the help of software, creating autonomous aestheticized images.

In 2013, Nikola Mihov and Ivaylo Stoyanov create the online platform Bulgarian Photography Now (http://www.bulgarianphotographynow.com), which is aimed at building a kind of an archive of the most important phenomena in Bulgarian photography.  It features projects of Bulgarian and foreign photographers who have worked in Bulgaria.  

Other authors who also work in the sphere of documentary photography, but successfully find their place in the context of contemporary art, are Pepa Hristova (Berlin) and Veselina Nikolaeva (Utrecht). The photos they create individually are a result of continuous research that crosses the fields of different humanitarian disciplines like anthropology and sociology while viewing certain segments of society. In her project Sworn Virgins (2008-2011), Pepa Hristova researches the transformation of gender through the prism of social role. She views these processes in isolated places in Albania where they occur under the burden of tradition. Veselina Nikolaeva also strives at showing series of photos that vividly reveal the existence of a small society and its relations to the outside world, be it a school or a ghetto.

This type of socially engaged photography generally remains presented mainly by authors based abroad. It is not completely absent from the practice of the photographers living in Bulgaria, but is presented most often in separate photos and without being furnished with an in-depth research.  

In the last years the genre of photographic book is becoming ever more popular. In 2017, the Sofia Art Book Fair, founded by Desislava Pancheva, is focused solely on photographic books while a co-curator is Nikola Mihov. In the exposition and the supplementary program, a number of the authors from the new generation are included. They experiment with photography; among them are Sofia Grancharova and Maximilian Pramatarov. Nikola Mihov, on his part, makes a “remix” of his project Forget Your Past and asks contemporary artists to work (literally) on his book. Among those who take part with their amendments on the book are Anton Tereziev, Atanasov, Vito Valentinov,  Vesela Mihaylova, Kalin Serapionov, Kaloyan Iliev – Kokimoto, Kaliya Kalacheva, Kremena Nikolova, Ivaylo Stoyanov and Veselin Petkov, Maria Nalbantova, Martin Angelov, Maria Valkova, Nedko Solakov, Nikolay Panayotov, Lachezar Boyadzhiev, Nadezhda Oleg-Lyahova, Stefan Nikolaev, Stanislav Belovski, Yasen Zgurovski, etc.  

Another advancing tendency in the recent years is the work with findings of old photography. Authors like Radostin Sedefchev, Tihomir Stoyanov or Zhelyu Tereziev interpret in different ways the topic of the past and the memories. They create installations with photos and other material found on second-hand markets.  

Radostin Sedevchev

“The beauty of a naked body is felt only by the dressed races”, 2013.

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  • Photographer: Radostin Sedevchev
  • Material: Found magazine, acrylic paint, pencil
  • Width: 16.00 cm    Height: 21.00 cm    Depth: 0.40 cm   
  • Sizes: 17 pages

Radostin Sedevchev

“The beauty of a naked body is felt only by the dressed races”, 2013.

Book

Details

  • Photographer: Radostin Sedevchev
  • Material: Found magazine, acrylic paint, pencil
  • Width: 16.00 cm    Height: 21.00 cm    Depth: 0.40 cm   
  • Sizes: 17 pages

Radostin Sedevchev

Cover (detail), 2017.

Installation

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  • Photographer: Radostin Sedevchev
  • Material: Gum bichromate, cardboard, PVA, inkjet prints, textliner marker, graphite, color pencils.
  • Sizes: Variable size

Apart from the authors who specialize in photography in some way, photography remains, of course, one of the means used by many artists mixing different media in practice from the 90’s onwards. (A link to Desi Mileva’s text) According to artists, photography is one of the many instruments for visualizing their ideas. For example, it is useful to them in order to construct a narrative or to document certain aspects of social relations in contemporary life. Kamen Stoyanov, in his Hallo, Lenin (2003), presents several separate shots of himself as lifted on the pedestal of a monument. Viewed from a certain angle, the author, with a remarkable similarity, looks like Lenin with his cap, while Lenin’s depictions were removed from public sculpture after 1989. In this case, Kamen Stoyanov documents a performative act by means of photography. Such is also the photograph of Lachezar Boyadzhiev How Many Nails in this Mouth. A Self-Portrait with a 2 kg of 12.5-long Nails in the Mouth from 1992 -1995. Thus photography serves as a document of the action.  

Luchezar Boyadjiev

How many nails in the mouth? Self-portrait with 2 kg 12.5 cm long nails in the mouth, 1992.

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  • Material: digital print on paper
  • Width: 60.00 cm    Height: 80.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Description: 1992-1995

    The “How many nails in a mouth?” work started as an inner turmoil expressing pencil-on-paper drawing made on the terrace in front of the Albertina Museum in Vienna in summer of 1992. Later on it evolved into “Homage to Günther Uecker”, part of cycle of homage(s) first shown at “Orient/ation”, the 4th Istanbul Biennial curated by René Block in 1995.

Other artists like Pravdolyub Ivanov use photography in a fashion similar to the principle of the accidentally found object. In his series (Non Works), the artist stumbles upon a number of objects that lure the mind into a generic mode of perception within the photographic frame. In this perceptive mode, the object is simultaneously banal and strange.  

Peter Tsanev is interested in the phenomenological aspect of the object. He multiplies the spatial dimension of his installations of real objects by transferring them also to the two-dimensional world of photography while between the two there is а constant perceptive relation.  

Many artists of the 90’s use photography in order to capture moments from the social transformations of the transition to democracy. They show the impetuous expansion of capital in the space of the city and the absurd contrasts of opposite cultural identities that inhabit one and the same city area. Such are the projects of Lachezar Boyadzhiev, Krassimir Tereziev, Veronika Tsekova, Boryana Ventsislavova, Alexander Valchev, Ivan Kyuranov, etc. Photography is a medium of crucial importance also for other artists, among them Boryana Ventsislavova, the early works of Ivan Mudov, Voyn de Voyn, Dimitar Solakov, Mariela Gemisheva, Kalin Serapionov, Kamen Stoyanov, etc. Many of them use this medium in order to register different visual codes, regardless of whether these are codes they created themselves or public ones (Lachezar Boyadzhiev Chairs and Symbols. A project for peaceful co-identification, 1995-2001), Vikenti Komitski (The Way I Remember this Building) or they are found by chance within the contemporary social fabric (Kamen Stoyanov Incidents).  

The mass implementation of digital cameras, as well as of Adobe Photoshop and different other applications for processing images, makes photography accessible and often preferred medium that is able to offer huge freedom of action and unlimited opportunities.  

For example, Lachezar Boyadzhiev makes his emblematic series Vacation from 2003 on. There he takes pictures of monuments throughout Europe and then cuts out the horsemen from the depiction. The horsemen, who once were representatives of local power in the photographed place, are symbolically and literally cut out by the artist.

Krassimir Tereziev is also an author who, apart from making video art, installations and objective art, also deals with photography. In 2003, he makes a series Post-Urban Landscapes where street dogs in blow-up are appliqued on Sofia landscape.

Later on, in his work the motif of space appears and he interprets it by means of photography and digital collage in a number of works like Family (2015), Apollo Melanin Programme (2018), Apollo Albino Programme (2018), etc.  

The artists Valentin Stefanov and Nina Kovacheva live in Paris and deal mainly with video and photography. In 2018, at the festival Photofactory, the two of them present in Sofia City Art Gallery the exhibition 0 for Black, 1 for White that traces their photographic projects through the years.  

Boryana Rossa makes many photo series and photographic projects that are a continuation of her feminist and political messages in her work. Such are, for example, Robot, Revolution, Onanism! With Oleg Mavromati in 2004, Amazon Armour and  Perverted Vegetables in 2013. Boryana Rossa often puts photography in correlation with her practice of performance artist. Her photographs, apart from being a document of her performances, acquire autonomous life in gallery space. They are made purposefully and are additionally aestheticized by the arrangement of space, the alteration of different formats and their combination with other media like video, that the artist organizes in a thorough installation environment.  

Together with Boryana Rossa, Daniela Kostova also belongs to the “Bulgarian diaspora” of artists in the USA. In the recent years, Kostova makes hyperrealist photographic installations and series where she interprets different social topics and problems of American society – from family and education to cultural differences and fear.  

The artists from the youngest generation are looking for new opportunities for expression in photography. The Berlin based young artist Marta Dzhurina for example, combines the classical technique of photogram with painting. Marta Dzhurina literally paints with light by pointing rays of light onto photographic paper in order to obtain the spectrally opposite color of these rays. This technique, explored by some of the bravest and most original experimenters from the Bauhaus Shool like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, reveals to the young artist the opportunities of working both with light and with the materiality of photography itself. She works with photographic paper itself by applying different forms to it. Thus her work turns into an autonomous sculpture with volume and rhythm, that she installs at different height in the horizon of the viewer.  

Martin Atanasov (he works under the pseudonym of Atanasov) works at the edge between conceptual photography, collage and photo-book. Sofia Grancharova chooses to blow-up fragments, prints or images from fashion magazines and then she integrates the obtained new images into textile installations.  

Thus the photography of the last decade is enriched by many new names and different techniques. It also enlarged its thematic range considerably. We can say, photography today in Bulgaria receives a lot of public attention, it is institutionally presented and is present in all areas of visual art.