Looking at Gregori Maiofis’ bromoil prints1, one feels instantly transported in the early 20th century, and, perhaps, nostalgically so: his oneiric images swathed in soft light are somewhat evocative of a different era when photography blurred the lines between painting, drawing and engraving. His prints and photogravures are reminiscent of masterful compositions by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Constant Puyo, Alvin Coburn, George Seeley and Adolph de Meyer – all known representatives of the turn-of-the-20th- century Pictorialism movement, who were also enthusiasts of the oil print process, bromoil being a variant on it. The term emerged in 1907, when the English photographer Edward Wall began to exhibit his prints in the United States. It was a method, allowing the creator to be selective and manipulate the lighter areas of print while keeping the darker parts intact.
Aiming to produce special painterly effects, Pictorialists experimented with types of paper and chemical processes, and some manipulated the tones and surface of prints with brushes, ink or pigments. Gregory Maiofis follows in their footsteps: his bromoil images have a certain impressionistic quality, with their textured surfaces and subtly nuanced palette. “His layering of different papers, the cutting of his images, his use of old even archaic chemical compounds enrich the elusive character of the meaning of his images. His use of captions, with their mixture of popular language and altered meanings, brings yet another dimension to this mix. We find ourselves faced with metaphors of wit that question what we see and think we know,” sums up Wendy Watriss, co-founder and Senior Artistic Adviser FotoFest International.
Curiously, the artist, who has mastered this complex photographic process, is occasionally mistaken for an early day photographer himself: Maiofis has recently regaled me with an amusing anecdote about an American dealer who once marketed postcards featuring his allegedly most recognisable print Adversity Makes Strange Bedfellows (2006) as a work by an unknown 19th century master. The situation was resolved after Maiofis forwarded the seller a link to his website, thus, demonstrating that he was perfectly alive and not at all unknown. The dealer offered his apologies, followed by acknowledging the artist’s authorship. I believe, this confusion is very much indicative of Maiofis’ masterful proficiency in the subtleties of traditional photographic processes and in the handling of the bromoil technique, neither generally known to present-day photographers, nor expected of them.
However, unlike his British, European and American predecessors, Maiofis takes it all with a pinch of salt, while maintaining a simultaneously mysterious and mischievous air. His images are living paradoxes, planted by some strange whim in the midst of our reality. His work is full of somewhat disturbing allusions, layered cultural and national references. According to Karen Sinsheimer, Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, “the work of Gregory Maiofis derives from a keen intellect that has prowled through literature, poetry, philosophy, and the arts worldwide; from his wicked sense of humour and irony; and his voracious appetite to give visual voice to the quandaries and conundrums of being human”.
Over 20 years as a practicing artist, he gradually developed his own bromoil transfer method – an original, instantly recognisable print type, unique to the artist. Maiofis demonstrates his technical mastery, producing exquisite, visually arresting prints distinct from conventional black-and-white photographs. His images possess simultaneously mimetic and painterly qualities that have the look and feel of Old Master prints. In his latest series, he transfers the bromoil print to canvas using an etching press, and then reworks it, edits and adds to the image as one would do in a traditional painting. For instance, his earlier Live and Learn (2006), has a distinctive Boschian feel to it. When looking at it for the first time, one may get an impression of a faded Old Master painting reproduction from an aged art book.
Maiofis works are globally admired and owned by various museum collections worldwide: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Novy Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, and the National Gallery of Slovakia, Bratislava. In 2019, his bromoil prints debuted at the annually-held Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Following his instant success, the RA offered to issue reproductions of Maiofis’ bromoil prints as RA postcards. In 2021, his works from the new series Mixed Reality are going to exhibit at the Photo London Art Fair, which is scheduled to take place between 9-12 September at Somerset House, Strand.
The artist himself suggests that his talent and ability run in his blood: having been born to a family of St. Petersburg’s architects and artists, Gregori (b. 1970) was taught drawing, painting, and printmaking by his father early as a child. Perhaps, this is the reason why he is so accomplished in different media, being able to combine photography, painting and graphic art in an entirely original way. Between 1987-1990, he studied at the Graphics Department of the Repin Fine Arts Academy in St. Petersburg. Before discovering his signature style, he lived in the U.S.A in 1991-1995, where his first solo show took place in 1993. This was followed by his first exhibition in Russia in 1995. Since then, the artist regularly exhibits in the USA and Europe. His now world-famous Proverbs series received Betty and Jim Kasson Award from the Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA, in 2006, and in the summer of 2014, a monograph based on Proverbs was published by Nazraeli Press (USA). In 2008 and 2009, he was nominated for Kandinsky Prize, a Russian contemporary art award. A year ago, in 2020, Gregory Maiofis received the Higashikawa Overseas Award by the Higashikawa Photo Festival, Japan.
This autumn, Photo London Art Fair displays selected works from Maiofis’ recent Mixed Reality series (2019) featuring various people living in the Augmented Reality. The artist makes it clear that his figures are engaged in some strange games, confirmed by such titles as Briefing at the Safe Zone, Please, Do Not Change the Settings, and Retired Couple in Survival Mode. As the identity of the figures themselves, the nature and purpose of these games is unclear. There, he plays on a built-in incongruity between the visual effect created by the bromoil print and the immediate subject: “cutting-edge technology takes the form of retro science fiction fantasy.”
Perhaps, a most popular work in the series, – The Digital – represents a seated mother who cradles her child as she holds it to her breast – the moment of the closest connection between the two. And yet, her attention is hijacked by the goggles she wears. She seems to be engrossed in a totally different reality, oblivious to the process of breast-feeding. “What should be a timeless scene of maternal nurturing instead becomes a Madonna for our times, “suggests an art critic. “With irony, humour and a touch of metaphysical mischief,” Maiofis explores in this project “the inherent disconnect between photographic vision and human perception. Through a series of incomplete narratives, Maiofis shows us characters engaged in macabre play, their senses co-opted by virtual reality glasses as they engage in acts which should be deeply sensory, but are instead confounded,” comments Philip Proger, senior researcher at the Yale University.
With his bromoil prints, Maiofis creates his alternative, slightly topsy-turvy universe. Stieglitz, the founding father of Pictorialism, was once known for saying that “in photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” This seems to apply to Maiofis’ works perfectly.
In view of the above, we might call him a Neo-Pictorialist – an artist who belongs to the international art photography movement, which consolidates an artistic response to the industrialized mass-production of digital photographic images all over the world. The revival of Pictorialism began in the 1960s and continued throughout the rest of the 20th century, culminating in the digitally-enhanced imagery, typical for the 21st century. It is tempting, but I foresee a reaction from the artist, as he strongly objects to be pigeon-holed and insists that the technique is not so important as soon as one gets the message across. Perhaps, the dialogue that will follow will provide a far better insight into his unique method than my own speculations or even interpretations offered by leading art curators and exponents in the field.
Please, tell us why you have chosen bromoil as your main photo process?
First of all, it is beautiful. Bromoil was very much in vogue when I was a kid. Now it seems to be on the decline. However, I believe that the technique is not the most important component of the artwork, for it either works or it doesn't. And if it gets the message across, it does not matter how it was done. One has to have a strong and consistent throughout concept first, for the technique is not a magic wand that can miraculously transform any material into something remarkable. Ultimately, it is irrelevant.
Now, having said that, I acknowledge that the final stage of creating a photographic work , preceded by articulating its concept and then staging it in front of the camera, – and that is, turning it into the image that will go on display, – is the process entirely dictated by my subjective preferences. First, I grew up in a family of graphic artists who were engaged in printmaking – the process is very familiar to me. I have a special appreciation for bromoil, or to be more precise, bromoil transfer. Those are two similar techniques, but the latter facilitates the gradual transformation of work into a gravure. It is a print, but not on photographic paper – rather on a special paper used for engravings or oil paintings. This method evolved organically in my case. I know every minute aspect of this print-making process and what should be done in the darkroom and on the printer. While making these prints, I can also edit them: certain things can be made less visible, whilst the others – removed or enhanced. Of course, nowadays, one has access to special software and can perfectly do this editing on one’s own laptop, but I prefer the manual, rather than the digital process. It feels like creating something anew every time – the notion which is close to my heart. I also view this as my own specialty: from the point of view of today’s mainstream photography, it is absolutely unnecessary, and therefore, more treasured.
Of course, nowadays, ironically, the original photography techniques are called alternative photography processes, and their proponents are viewed with some suspicion. Perhaps, for a good reason, as the alternative techniques have recently become the refuge of photo amateurs and enthusiasts who produce poor-quality or average works. However, that said, I like bromoil, no matter how it might be perceived by the critics. I love it, I am very good at it and I keep discovering new creative possibilities in it.
It looks like your technique spans photography, graphics and even painting.
Well, I have certain works, alternating between painting and photography on a rarely achievable level. Normally, the painterly layer would be imposed over a photographic image, but it is difficult to overlay a photograph on top of the painterly layer. Technically, it is a challenging task, but bromoil transfer method allows one to achieve this, which means that the layers can alternate. It is a very rare quality, which appeals to me, but I have rarely exhibited such works outside Russia – they get sold out, once they are done. Besides, they rarely attract the attention of the contemporary conceptual art world.
Obviously, I am aware that one can simply purchase special equipment for archival pigment printing. Sometimes, it is, indeed, of very high quality. However, with time, such prints lose their appeal. One has yet to see what they are going to look like in decades to come. Will they fade? Bromoil is tried and tested, and much more reliable in this regard – a proven long-lasting method. It is all paints and pigments, after all, and this is what matters to me a lot.
Well, moving from craft to content, one often sees irony in your works.
Ah, it is your perception! I do not know whether it is irony or laughter through tears. Or, perhaps, even an attempt to portray something tragic that goes awry. There are as many readings and interpretations of my work, as there are viewers, who interpret them or offer their projections. I tell you, there are two parallel dimensions: one is what the artist has originally intended and the other is how his art is being interpreted by the viewer. It is quite unpredictable and individual. And all perceptions depend on the background, be it cultural, educational or even national. Take, for instance, this print with the bear which was exhibited at the RA: there you can see a bear (a real bear, by the way, not photoshopped) reading Lenin’s writings. Clearly, for someone who was born in the Soviet times, the slogan "Lenin’s science strengthens hands and minds" will refer to certain instantly recognisable things, but for those who were born in the post-Communist era, it is a totally different story and a new set of references. Cultural layers, or interpreting communities, centered around something, are sufficiently isolated, and it may be very difficult to move from one community to another, shift from one context to a different one, and make the original meaning understandable. I think that understanding each other is the biggest challenge. That is, some things seem to be obvious to me, but then I see that people speak different languages, not just linguistically, but contextually and culturally, relying on different points of reference.
And how would you comment on your presence in London at the Royal Academy?
I hope that it will become stronger and more conspicuous over time. Of course, I was very grateful that I had been noticed and appreciated by the British connoisseurs! It is nice that the RA decided to go on with producing a postcard featuring my work – they have sold a few thousand already.
Speaking of Photo London, as far as I understand, it will mostly feature your latest works from the Mixed Reality series and some select older works. Why in your new Mixed Reality series the AR headsets play such an important role?
Generally, a situation, where one relies on a device or an algorithm, can shape our attitudes towards reality. In this case, I view these headsets (which are masks, really) as a very appropriate visual symbol: the represented person is seen in our midst and among our settings, and yet, he or she is absent, -- they are somewhere else, and this ‘somewhere else’ is of paramount importance.
As you see, when a work is visually conceived in one’s imagination: it has to be staged in front of the camera lens, and after this has been successfully achieved, the final stage arrives, which is the creation of the very object that will then be presented at the exhibition. Sometimes finding the right way of presentation, the scale, the frame, takes a long time. At my show in 2019, many works were displayed as trial versions. Now, after some time, I have found new ways of visual presentation that seem to work best. And the ones going on display at Photo London are especially successful versions, both, in terms of concept and execution. It is a whole body of new experimental material.
Your new work appears to reference some old archetypal images: a character in Pierrot costume may refer to Nadar, some other characters could be perceived as Bergman-esque.
In the new series, unlike in The Taste for Russian Ballet (2017) or other images with bears, I deal with the subjects that are familiar. The situations staged in front of the camera, the whole theatre of photography, also seems to be somewhat identifiable and recognisable. General audiences can see something familiar in the images they look at it, although there are some absolutely fantastic finds there – like images with horsemen, for example. They will not be shown at Photo London, but there will be other interesting works. Mixed Reality was completed in 2019, but the project itself began in 2018. The works were presented at an exhibition, which ran late in 2019 - early 2020, followed by the onset of pandemic. Everything halted and came to a standstill.
A remarkable coincidence, given that during the pandemic lockdowns, many people were left to their own devices (quite literally sometimes). Many felt lonely and alienated from their friends and family, trying to escape from their loneliness into virtual reality! At least, in the light of the events of 2020-2021, your work may also read on this level.
Those people, who spend their lives in front of a laptop screen or in social media are a whole new class. It is exactly this mode of existence that I am referring to in my series Mixed Reality. For them, little has changed – they might have barely even noticed. However, the pandemic has badly hit the ones, who used to work outside their homes.
What really happens at the moment is difficult to comprehend – the reality is confusing. Its interpretation and perception depend almost entirely, on what kind of a headset (or any other contraption) is worn on each individual’s head and what exactly it broadcasts. The same situation can be viewed and interpreted very differently. It is the headset that filters and structures the entire flow of information that assaults us.
This series is also an attempt to demonstrate how people can be discriminated against these days. Take, for example, the scene where mother demonstrates a grenade to her son and comments that only dummies are available to them, while the more affluent may afford to own the advanced original equipment. However, poor people have no access to the real thing – only dummies.
Overall, the new series comprises about 30 pieces. I view ‘We May Have Access to Dummies Only and The Digital as my best works.
Well, The Digital, the breastfeeding mum, how did this one come about?
It seems to me that The Digital, or the Digital Mum, as I call it, will probably be the luckiest. There has been a lot of interest in it over the last few months. By the way, I was extremely fortunate to find a nursing mother who agreed to become my model. She was breastfeeding at that stage, and we had such a good rapport on the set!
So, what is the art of photography? First comes the initial idea that will later translate into the image. However, everything lies in these small details, the nuances, that can either ruin or enhance the photographic image. And sometimes, these nuances are beyond one’s control. The tiny baby boy, who was breastfed by his mother, was twisting and turning all the time! He could not stay still for a second and obviously could not pose in the strict sense of the word. But the way he was captured, just the way his arm or legs were positioned, the way his torso turned – it all came out so well! So, this composition is an example of my great photographic luck. There were many things which turned out unpredictably well. I had a similar lucky experience with some scenes featuring a live bear. Such combinations of the staged and the spontaneous are of particular interest to me! I would define this as my general creative approach. Sometimes, those who I work with, offer me the opportunity to achieve the most amazing results!
There were also digital pensioners in this series.
Yes, the Retired Couple in Survival Mode. Do remember that in Russia the retired couples were and are rather struggling to survive! Especially, if we consider the whole notion of a ‘Russian pensioner’ and how these people live in comparison to their average Western peers. Again, different viewers will rely on completely different notions and points of reference here!
Those people, who posed for me, did a very good job. By the way, despite the fact that they are already in their 80s, they are still working! And they cannot be called pensioners in the strict sense of the word – so, they played the roles of those struggling Russian pensioners. The whole world is a stage and it is all theatre.
Ok, turning to the theatre, or rather a circus, how did it feel to work with a bear as your model?
I have a series called Proverbs, where the referred proverbs are steeped in different historical eras, contexts and languages. All accompanying images correspond to each other to their own proverb. It is an interaction between the text and image, their working in synergy. However, the images are not illustrations to the text. As it turned out, some of the proverbs are universal and some are specific to a certain culture or language. Some are tied up to a certain historical era, like the bear with a book (Lenin’s science strengthens hands and minds). I conjured this composition up in my imagination after finding a book titled A Collection of Russian Folk Proverbs and Sayings', dating 1956. There were some incredible things there!
Adversity Makes Strange Bedfellows is a completely different story: it features a girl and a bear sitting on a bed together. It obviously is a visual take on the English proverb, which has no corresponding equivalent in Russian. This work is memorable to me, for it has brought a bear named Funt (meaning Pound) into my life. I did not know what to expect of him, or how he would behave. I once met the circus man who trained him, and who was open to my ideas. And at that time, I had a wish to capture a human sitting next to a bear on a bed. Obviously, not every person, not every trainer and not every bear would collaborate with an artist on a project like this. However, in that case, it all worked out perfectly well, and the bear started to appear in my staged compositions as a character and protagonist. ‘Strange Bedfellows’ was the first work in the series of many. Overall, we had about six or seven sessions with Funt in the course of ten years.
Talking of The Taste for the Russian Ballet (2017) series, which featured the bear and a ballet dancer, it was inspired by my earlier project, the ‘Proverbs’. There is a Russian proverb saying, “Even a bear can learn to dance with time.” So, I wished to capture the bear and the ballerina in a single frame to correlate the image with the saying. It turned out that, at that point, I had already photographed the bear several times and knew that, in principle, he could stand with his paw raised. And the idea was to harmonize the pose of the ballerina with her raised hand with that of the bear with his raised paw. It was followed by a little improvisation: I decided to turn the bear into a viewer: we sat him at the table, the ballerina danced in front of him and that is how it all came about. It is probably one of my most successful artworks.
Luckily, I had a hunch that it would work out, so I turned my camera on and filmed the whole scene. Most people think that the bear is either Photoshopped or impersonated by an actor wearing a convincing bear suit. No! It is a real bear! It is a real bear reading Lenin’s works and playing the harp, and all without needing a muzzle. But they won’t believe me! So, fortunately, I have something to prove my words with.
What is more important, these works were completely original in their concept and visual range – there is nothing to compare or refer them to. And I believe, it is this rare inherent quality that makes them look so striking, unusual and memorable.
1 Gregory Maiofis is going to exhibit his new and old signature works at Photo London Art Fair in Somerset House, Strand, between 9-12 September.