Donetskhas seen a very rapid development of photography lately. The point is not only in that you can take pictures now by means of a cell phone, a tablet computer, a simple old-style or a modern semi- or fully professional camera. Clubs and amateur photography groups are being formed, and photo exhibits are being mounted. But, in addition to the “young movement,” Donetsk has had a museum of photo journalism for several years now. Our interview with Oleksandr VITKOV, founder and director of the Museum of Photo Journalism, and, since February, lecturer in the history and techniques of photography, is about the history of photography in Donetsk.
What makes the Donetsk Museum of Photo Journalism unique?
“There are photography-related museums in Minsk, Russia, Western Europe, and also in Ukraine. But they only display the photo equipment, while we are taking an integrated approach to this subject. After all, people go, archives are thrown out, and memory passes. We have gathered what has remained behind. We only display the works of photo journalists rather than studio photographers, landscapists, or advertisers.”
The works of which photographers does the museum keep?
“The Donetsk photography school was famous even in the Soviet era. There was such a mixture here, such an ocean of ethnicities, that the region itself offered a lot of themes. Many Moscow correspondents would come here to make a name for themselves. Reportages on working-class life were often made in the Donetsk region. The hallmark of our museum is, of course, Khaldei. He is one of the world’s top ten photo correspondents. He was the one who photographed the Flag of Victory, the Nuremberg Trial, and the Potsdam Conference. Besides, there are also photo works by Yukhym Komm. He would photograph throughout the wartime, especially when the country was being liberated from the Nazis. You can see a man with a 50-mm-lens camera and a rifle in hand taking a picture during a battle. His photo camera and decorations are kept in Kyiv’s Museum, of the Great Patriotic War. The museum also displays the works of my father Borys Vitkov. He had his works printed in all USSR newspapers, including Komsomolets Donbassa and Moskovskiy komsomolets, to which he reported from all corners of the Soviet Union. He only photographed. Photos were not signed at the time. It is Vasily Peskov who is considered founder of the signed-photograph genre. He was the first to photograph ordinary people and write essays.”
Where are all these works now? Are they part of the exposition?
“They are both in the archives and on the exposition. We have newspapers that date back to the 1940s, 1950s, and so on – up to and including perestroika. We collect photo albums now. It is interesting for us because they are no longer republished. We have technical literature published back in the 1950s. We digitize photographs but do not destroy negatives. It has been proved that a negative can be kept for 300 years, but we do not know how the photo medium will behave. All we are doing is a nonprofit affair – it is just for history. Professor Horevalov (Serhii Horevalov, a professor at Kyiv National University’s Institute of Journalism. – Ed.) has brought out a book, Ukrainian Photo Journalism. But it does not have a chapter or even a word about the Donetsk school! He promised to write about it in the second edition.” (smiles)
In addition to photo works, the museum keeps a collection of the photo equipment. How many photo cameras did you manage to collect on the whole?
“We have about 500 of them. But we also keep such accessories as vintage flashbulbs, lenses, light filters, and exposure meters. The oldest items are German cameras made in 1925-26. We recently acquired a 1932 German lens. The oldest Soviet item is Fotokor, one of the first mass-scale Soviet photo cameras, made in 1930. We are trying to keep them in a good condition. As any other machine, a photo camera must work. But, naturally, the equipment gradually goes defective. But, in our case, everything should work.”
And how did you collect all these items?
“In different ways. All began with a little table: a photo enlarger and a few cameras. Then we saw that it was interesting for people and began to expand the facility. We would buy some implements and take others from the people who brought them. Ours is a people’s museum. People from as far away as Kyiv and the Crimea would present us with photo cameras.”
How often is the museum visited? Is the history of photography in demand?
“We often receive groups of schoolchildren, industrial employees, and student journalists. Very many people come from other places of the region, the rest of Ukraine, and other ex-Soviet republics. There were even guests from London. The Englishmen found it interesting here. Most strikingly, once they saw a [Communist] Party membership card and a Party member’s record card, they lost interest in the photo equipment. They had never seen a Party membership card” (laughs).
The museum was opened in 2009 and expanded in May 2012. How does the museum fare? Who funds it?
“Well, there was one room, then the equipment increased in number and we opened two more rooms. It is high time we installed new showcases because there are more and more items to display. It must be done right now – otherwise, we will have to throw them all out 3 or 4 years later. We could also display the modern-day digital equipment, such as first-generation Canon cameras without a [memory] card. We collect cards, too.
“We survive because we publish books. We are doing the project Donetsk in Faces – we have already turned out five volumes. And we are denied budgetary money. Yet the City Council’s Executive Committee helped us establish the museum by allotting some funds. When we started, we received support from Volodymyr Rybak (previous mayor of Donetsk. – Ed.) – thanks to him, we managed to virtually make a photo museum out of the ruins. It is now Oleksandr Lukianchenko who is backing us.”
There is now a surge of interest in film photography among youth. Young people begin to buy or take from house attics old cameras and buy the film that is still on sale. What is your attitude to this?
“I could not even imagine that young people would show so much interest in film photography. But I think this complies with human essence. One is fed up with what machines do. Whenever we photographed on the film, we were very careful about every shot. We knew that we had 36 frames, so we would immediately begin to frame and lay out the image. There was no such thing as 700 or 800 frames. I am against too much ‘tech.’ I think there should be a good camera, but photography is done with brains, not with the equipment.”
It is also all the vogue today to establish photo schools. You have rich experience in working with the equipment, and you know very much about its history. Have you ever mulled over establishing a photo school?
“Yes, I have – and for a very long time. I decided to do this because people come and say that they studied, paid money, but in fact can do nothing. We have drawn up a program – from the layout of a photo camera to electronic data processing. It is for the beginners. There is also a course for professionals. The school was set up on the basis of the museum. I think it is a good idea because photography is the ‘most fruitful drug’ in the world. But, at the moment, photography is predominantly a white verse: I photograph what I see. But even a white verse should be photographed adequately.”