“The painter who does not feel attuned to the aspirations of the masses-this man may not produce a work of art” - Diego Rivera
The Russian-American photographer 1 Vladimir Frumin has a unique and broad visual diversity in his images that are haunted by an intense interest in people on the fringes of society. Frumin’s work ranges from a traditional social documentary style to a very avant-guard commentary on a person’s sense of identity and place. 2 Prolific in his expression, Frumin works primarily with black & white film, scanning and reworking the images digitally. However, the imagery he uses is unlike the work of any of his contemporaries.
Speaking with Frumin about his work, and the photographers that influenced him, spans a diverse range of photographic history. 3 His traditional images, which are discussed in this Commentary, are primarily influenced, he would say, by Manuel Alvarez Bravo 4 , Josef Koudelka, and Alexander M. Rodchenko. While he would say about his work: “I don’t have the capacity to portray other people’s lives. I am portraying my own”, a viewer might disagree. If no man is an island, as is often said, then Frumin forces us to examine ourselves and the sea of others around us. Josef Koudelka, himself previously an engineer turned photographer like Frumin, said something similar: “I am not interested in talking.. explaining anything…why or how. … leave it to others to say what they (the images) mean”. 5 Frumin suggested that Bravo doesn’t explain his image to a viewer either because the artist’s explanation would be different from what the viewer sees. “A photographer's main instrument is his eyes. Strange as this may seem, many photographers choose to use the eyes of another photographer, past or present, instead of their own. These photographers are blind.” 6 Bravo went on to say “I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics”. 7 Frumin would feel the same.
The image “The Shaman”, from Frumin’s “Russia” portfolio, is an image that melds time, location and culture. Like Bravo, Frumin appreciates the soft, not too contrasty style, in which Bravo’s images are shot. Frumin said that for him, Bravo chose the technique to support his subject matter; something very important to Frumin. For Frumin, its critical that he feel his technique is in support of the image. He feels, as other commentators have also expressed in referring to Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s work, that Bravo saw what others did not. Surrealism was a strong influence for Bravo, which is also an influence evident in Frumin’s work. This image was taken in a remote region of Siberia close to the Arctic. The Shaman is a person who actually practiced a very real mysticism that the people in this region very much believed in. This woman was sought out for dealing with an entire range of issues from healing to marriage counseling. Her “magic” was considered more relevant than traditional medical facilities, and in this remote area, easier to access. Frumin was attending a “gathering” of indigenous people from the different villages in this area, an event that occurs every couple of years. This woman was crossing a field toward Frumin in a light drizzling rain covered in a bear fur coat hung with squirrels carrying an umbrella. Somehow there is something surreal in the sorceress in her world of incantations walking around with an umbrella that symbolizes a more traditional modern era.
The “untitled” image from his series “Portraits: Unintended Expressions” captures, in one image, all the lost souls of any city. It’s an expression of the people who disappear from the mainstreams of society. For Frumin, it is his visualization of those who deal unsuccessfully with life’s challenges, and who look to escape from their reality through drugs, self-imposed isolation, or retreating into the canyons of their own mind. For some of his subjects, they are no longer even on the margins society, but mentally in a very different world. With his images, the viewer wonders whether there is a pathway back into society (or reality); but, for some, there is no way back. In this image there is a sadness in the little of the facial expression we are allowed to see. We have a hint of a missing standard of care and cleanliness when we look at the roughened skin from exposure and the tortured fingernails. The body appears drawn into a fetal position, squeezing herself into a small space, the hands drawing her knees up close, into a subconscious balled position of protection from the external world. It reminds me of the powerful work not only of Bravo, but of Josef Koudelka. Like Frumin, 8 Koudelka gave up a career in engineering to work as a photographer. “Koudelka has (the) ability to capture the presence of the human spirit amidst dark landscapes. Desolation, waste, departure, despair and alienation are common themes in his work.” 9 We could just as well have heard Frumin’s work described the same way.
A girl, a doll and a shattered school bus was the staging for this “Untitled” image, from Frumin’s series “Dislocated Day”. Frumin again turns his lens into a narrative about lost souls. In the photograph displayed above, Frumin took the scene from an un-staged environment and “seeing” what was around him. The next setting, in the broken, abandoned school bus, the scene was purposeful and staged to create a visual scream around the social issues that concern him. School, an education, is an essential institution for our entrance into any society. It is where we learn our history, government, examine our “social contract”, and get exposed to coexisting with others. The doll may be symbolic of how even at our earliest moments of life, we are learning, absorbing and taking mental cues from those around us. The connections between each person, institution, society, community and country can breakdown at any juncture. Once we get “off-track” , some cannot find their way back. M. Darcie Alexander, the Curatorial Assistant at MOMA at the time of an exhibition on Bravo, wrote: “… Bravo creates… enthusiasm for mysterious imagery that drew upon the relationship between animate and inanimate elements easily found in urban settings. .. Grasping the meaning of a photograph, he suggests, involves looking into hidden recesses that may escape the eyes of the casual observer.” 10 While some of these lost souls to whom Frumin visually introduces us stay lost, his image allows us to examine these recesses, and hear a voice.
What is interesting about Frumin’s work is the number of different visual narratives he creates to express his message. The “Still Life” series created by Frumin is very different from his other work. This work represents for him a visual fairy tale. It was created as a statement for the freedom of thought: “Fairy tales helped me escape the lack of political freedom (in the former Soviet Union) where the people did and lived as they were told, but where they did not realize they lacked the information for freedom of thought and vision.” He was heavily influenced by another Russian artist and photographer, born in St. Petersburg Russia, as was Frumin, Alexander Rodchenko. Rodchenko was a leader in creating abstract images and using photography with other media. Rodchenko believed in the art as a driving force for social transformation as he was coming of age during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In Frumin’s “Still Life” series, we also learn that the writer, composer and jurist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (Wilhelm) Hoffman also influenced Frumin’s work. E.T.A. Hoffman “was known for his stories in which supernatural and sinister characters move in and out of men’s lives, ironically revealing tragic or grotesque sides of human nature.” 11 The darkness in Hoffman’s tales inspired Frumin. Frumin believes that Hoffman was expressing some from of Romantic Period ideal that could never be reached. In Frumin’s images, one sees people that will not only not achieve what they or others view as an ideal state; but also who choose to walk away from it.
In his “Still Life” series, Frumin makes an assemblage of objects, that are difficult for a viewer to appreciate outright. This is with purpose. He wants the viewer to seek their own explanation for the image in its parts and as a whole. In this still life, “Illusion of Past Happiness”, Frumin points to a sense of time in the central placement of the clock; the limited time we have in life. He makes his cynicism evident with the elephant, a strong powerful creature, that is shown as a puppet in this image. There are parts of a musical instrument, evidence, that music might exist, is silent and disassembled. Prosperity, represented by the fruit, will rot because there is no one there to eat it. The mask, evidence of a person, is not a real person, as people hide behind masks, and there as there are hands to hold and help, that are fake, and provide no assistance. In Hoffman’s stories there was a guardian or champion, like the Nutcracker in the ballet by Tchaikovsky, to come to life and help. 12 So Frumin places the child into the image with the dog, man’s best friend and guardian. But there is a darkness to the story told by this image. The camera in Frumin’s visual allegory, symbolizes the belief at the moment of death, one can see the other side of life, in this last slice of time recorded in this world. What Frumin does in these still life images is to force a viewer to examine each object closely and think about what each piece represents and how the parts work into the whole. Flores and Mosquera, curators of an exhibition on Bravo, wrote: “the photographer seems to be using pictures to ask himself questions about the relationships between images and words, bodies and objects”. 13 Frumin asks a similar questions. The clue in Frumin’s work for understanding these still life assemblages is appreciating his passion for looking at life on the margin’s of society and his cynicism about how many people live their lives.
This cynicism is very evident in his series “I Am American” that was chosen for exhibition in London at the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards. 14 These images contrast people from different countries, backgrounds and intellectual levels that now call America home. The people are shown with and without clothes to emphasize that despite their common humanity, they are more different, than the same. Clothes convey a message about who we are, and create certain stereotypes, and that is not what these images are about. Without clothes, the viewer is only left face-to-face with another human. These images are a visual expression of the common saying “that one size does not fit all”. The viewer is engaged to accept that these are Americans, as they have labeled themselves, tempting a familiarity and commonality between the viewer and the person in the image. It is commonly said that America is a “melting pot”, but this is true only to a degree. Yet, as each person and the objects with which they engage are different, the viewer needs to accept and tolerate differences as we do daily, because we are, after all, all Americans. But we also exist in a world community demonstrated by the visual differences in these people; but this “I am American” portfolio focuses only on the American people and our society (The viewer’s dialogue with these images may be totally different if the viewer is not an American.) We can also see the influence in these images of Joel-Peter Witkin, another photographer that Frumin studied. “Mr. Witkin’s photographs depend for their effect on their ability to attract and repel at the same time… Mr. Witkin tries to shape the meaning of his pictures through his use of props and costumes and his alternations of the prints.” 15 While Witkin has a very different agenda and subject matter, I can imagine that these comments could have been describing Frumin.
In the series “Everybody’s Fifth Ward”, 16 Frumin seeks out people who, for many reasons or circumstances, become invisible to most of us. There are areas of each community that house people existing at a level that we don’t really want to see. Yet, this is an affliction in all societies, everywhere. These are real people that society tends to objectify and dehumanize; even though this is a layer within all of our lives. In looking at these images, we find, whatever the reason, the layers in a community are not all pleasing ones that invoke the beautiful illusion that we call life.
Frumin’s social activism takes place with real people on the streets, whether photographed as they live, acted out or staged in the studio or constructed as a still life allegory. For Frumin, as with Manuel Alvarez Bravo, we would associate the words “surrealism”, and “the spirit of … urban life”. 17 He uses traditional and non-traditional approaches to image construction with techniques he believes are in harmony with the tune of the everyday people he seeks to give a voice. What is interesting is that Frumin may have never left the field of engineering nor his Russian roots in becoming a photographic artist. It was written about Rodchenko that he taught “art had to match the revolutionary transformations then taking place in Russian politics and society. … (and) the promotion of the idea of an artist as an engineer, a key creative force at the service of the masses. 18 Even though a photographer, and not a painter, Vladimir Frumin seems to have become attuned, as Diego Rivera had spoken, to the aspirations of the masses.