interview by Anna Chetvergova
Yuri Molodkovets is the official photographer of the State Hermitage and member of the Association of Designers of Russia, and the Union of Artists of Russia. Yuri has captured photographs that illustrate more than 200 catalogs and albums devoted to the collections of the Hermitage, as well as books on history and architecture of St. Petersburg. He's also the creator of more than 30 personal large-scale photo projects, which have been exhibited in some of the most famous venues in Europe.
How long have you held this position? Has photography always been your primary occupation?
Soon I’ll be celebrating my 25th anniversary with the museum — although in the Hermitage terms, that isn't such a big number. I feel very blessed to be working in one of the most beautiful places in the world, working with all those masterpieces and rare collections of art — It’s a great honour. I first became fond of photography when I was in school, and soon my passion grew to become my profession. Now I can't imagine my life without it.
What does a day in the life of the official photographer of State Hermitage look like?
I like to think I keep a very creative approach to my profession. Today my direction in photography at the museum is quite different to when I started. For a long time I've been doing museum photography to create albums, catalogs and other printed media that represents the museum collections for the outside world, but most recently I've been working to make museum photography a kind of fine art on its own. This is what I am doing individually, for instance, by managing the official Instagram account of the Hermitage сreating and bringing artistic photo projects to life.
Recently the General Staff (ed. Part of the State Hermitage Museum) has hosted Steve McCurry's exhibition, and several years ago there was a marvellous exhibition of the famed Annie Leibovitz. Is this a certain trend in the development of a classical museum and the evidence of the fact that photography more and more considered to be high art?
Photography exhibitions in the Hermitage are not limited to these two names - There have been exhibitions of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Dennis Hopper, Boris Smelov. The Hermitage is a huge museum, which collects photography as well, and this collection is growing. For instance, it has acquired Roger Fenton's works – he was a photojournalist who was among the first to take pictures of the Crimean War campaign, using a wooden camera. The photo collection of the Hermitage is getting richer, which is the logical development process for a big museum.
It is important for me that every element of the project corresponds to my idea.
Which exhibitions would you like to see at the museum?
There are many names. Although the history of photography is still rather short (no more than 170 years), it is very dynamic and boasts a huge number of names. We now live in a time when there are no institutions that could name all the brilliant photographers, because there's such a huge amount of images emerging, and it is really challenging to screen them all. So that's why it is important to not concentrate on names but on images themselves. Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Josef Sudek as well as Russian photographers Vyatkin, Kozyrev, and Maksimishin are all worth our attention I often come across unique pictures and I don't know the names of their authors, so I understand there are many more names out there than just those listed in Top-100.
The readers of our magazine are mostly experts in live communication, would you be able to briefly explain about some of your projects from the idea to the photo exhibition. Do you think through everything on your own or do you work with a creative team and agency? How do you select suppliers?
The idea is usually my own, but sometimes I seek assistants' help during shootings. After the shootings it is important to carefully select the right material, as content is definitely is the core of any exhibition. Usually I ask for the advice of photographers with a good visual culture, the ones I can find myself in a discussion with. The final decision is up to me, but I also need to understand an external point of view. Next, all the printing work needs to be carried out. I always go into specific detail with the printing process, and I love to work together with professionals because I know they are great on subtleties. It is important for me that every element of the project corresponds to my idea. It’s the same with the organization of exhibitions – I invite designers to collaborate with in order to better understand how the artworks will live in a certain space, how can we make the project absolutely harmonious.
Tell us a few words about the “Seclusion: The Hermitage at Night” series. How did you arrange the working process of that project?
It is one of the most important series’ I've ever shot in my life. This is a story about the secret life of the great museum, the life which nobody really sees. These are stories about masterpieces talking to each other, when there are no visitors and no light in the halls. The idea emerged a very long time ago, one evening when I was coming back home from my studio, and I saw the museum space in this special ambience, very intimate, very private, very intriguing. I wanted to capture it immediately. Actually, finding a territory where no one has taken pictures yet is one of the key tasks of a photographer. I understood back then that I couldn't do it on my own. The idea had remained, about 12 years had passed, and only then I realized I was ready to shoot. I've spent about 9 month wandering about the Hermitage at night together with the security service. We'd planned night routes, opened the rooms, and when I would enter another dark hall and see something interesting, I would start shooting.
The exhibition itself was quite special, right?
Yes, some of the pictures were printed on photographic paper and these were shown in 3 rooms. One of the halls was made to be a hall at night — to create this feeling, some of the pictures were printed on slides and put into thin light boxes that had just appeared back then. The hall was obscured, and people would kind of enter the museum at night.
Apart from being a gifted artist, you are also is really socially responsible person. One of your recent projects “In_Inbreathe” which features stories of 12 Paralympians. Can you tell us more about it?
The initiative came from the 'Tochka Opory' (Foothold) charity fund, which helps people with limited abilities. They contacted me along with documentary photographer Ksenia Diodorova. We worked with 12 Paralympians and thought up a pattern, where we would spend a day with each of them, visit their homes, observe their training, and just their everyday activities. Quite unexpectedly for us, we've met very strong people, the ones who help others even more than you can help them. This was an important humanitarian story for me. Each of our heroes impressed and inspired me deeply.
What about the official Instagram account of the Hermitage State Museum. You are taking a good care of it and this year you’ve been named among top 50 most famous people of Saint-Petersburg for the great work you’ve been doing on social media. Who came up with the idea to start the Instagram account of the Hermitage?
This was my idea and I do 99% of it on my own, but our PR experts, who manage official pages of the Hermitage in social media, have access to it as well. So, it’s not really my personal project, but I create 99% of the content. When we had just started, I didn't entirely understand everything, and I was working by trial and error. There was a moment when I was extremely interested in what visitors do at the museum, so I searched by the hashtags for the content they shared in their social and made reposts. I was doing kind of the scientific research, studying what people are most interested in, what pictures they take, how they feel in the museum, what are their likes and concerns. At the same time I was forming my own content, discovering several key topics. One of them is the masterpieces, usually these are fragments of pictures. I think it is not really interesting for a photographer to reshoot the picture in its entirety, it's much better to find a special fragment and show it. This fragment intrigues the spectators, they'll come to the museum to see the picture.
Another topic is the exhibition ‘Life of the museum’ in which I show all the upcoming temporary exhibitions and announce their openings. I often post pictures where you can see children as I think it is very important for kids to go to the museum. When adults go there, they should take children with them. Such posts always trigger a storm of discussions — whether the kids should be taken to the museum as they are often loud and don't understand anything etc. But I like these discussions, hearing how people think differently, and all the reasoning comes from the subscribers' side.
Another topic is the sun in the museum. On the one hand, in terms of its preservation, we know art should be kept far from the reach of direct sunlight. But, on the other hand, the Hermitage was created not only as a space for the art, but mainly as a place to live in. That's why I think it's very important and very beautiful when rays of sun reach the interiors of the Hermitage. Then there's a smaller topic — Monday at the museum. This is the day when the museum is closed for visitors, but it’s always interesting what's going on inside such as the cleaning works and restorations taking place.
Hermitage was created not only as a space for the art, but mainly as a place to live in.
The last by not least, what project are you working on now?
We've got many interesting plans for the museum. There's a story we've already tried to partially bring to life and now we are thinking to continue developing it in a digital project, called “The point of presence”. This project is about shooting spherical panoramas with a 360 degree angle which would allow the spectator to visit unreachable spots. For instance, we already have a short video in which a person is inside the peacock cage. There are a lot of spots like that at our museum, spots where no one can actually get to, and now thanks to this technology there is a great opportunity to be there