Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Conversation with Yola Monakhov

Young Men from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Yola Monakhov's solo show Photography After Dante opens tonight at Sasha Wolf Gallery. Yola was kind enough to take the time out in her busy schedule to share the thoughts and the ideas behind Photography After Dante with us.

Alfredo at Home from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Police from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

YM: I was born in Moscow, USSR, and immigrated to the States with my parents at the age of seven. I grew up in Jersey City and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My parents lived in Jersey City, but since the schools in New York City were better, I officially resided with my grandmother in a government building on Madison Street (not Avenue), and then on Cherry Street, by the Manhattan bridge, and attended what is now called the Chelsea School for Writers and Artists, and then the Bronx High School of Science.

Bartender from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Girl with Plane from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

NP: How did you discover photography?

YM: I discovered photography at Bronx Science. At that time I was a lackluster student, but when I took photography my junior year, the comment "student especially gifted in this field" appeared for the first and only time on my report card from a drop-down menu of comments. I used my father's partly manual Nikon with a zoom lens and no aperture control, the kind of camera I now discourage students from using. Later on, my good friend's boyfriend, a young man sometimes on the wrong side of the law, sold me an F3 with a satchel of accoutrements. I knew it to be stolen, but this did not bother me until later. In college, at Madison, WI, I worked for the student paper as a photographer and reporter, but had no notion of photography as a life. I studied literature, and proceeded to a PhD program in Italian at Columbia.

Man with children from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Paola from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

YM: I don't think about inspiration as a practical part of my work, although there are certainly times when I seem to have better results and productivity. I think my work became stronger when I started to work from internal motivation and all the time, regardless of how I felt. A friend of mine who is an actor and writer in Hollywood once told me that the difficulty in acting was that you couldn't just act on your own, outside of a production. You needed a vehicle. In photography, one invents vehicles for oneself, or counts on assignments, but I find it important to make work regardless of whether the vehicle is there. It's small enough a medium that I can go out on my own even if I have only a vague notion of what I am looking for. Or I can have a very specific project. And when not making pictures, there is plenty to do with printing, developing, researching, teaching, organizing, and planning. That said, I find my education and my interest in the world, literature, politics, and culture to provide both a starting point, and a framework for what I do. And let's not discount the importance of love, and a spiritual and emotional life.

Cows from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Ragazzi di Siena from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

NP: How did this project come about?

YM: I think of this project as something like the closing of a circle. Seven years after leaving my PhD program, I came back to Columbia for my MFA, and then had the opportunity to teach there. In early 2008, I attended a university lecture about Dante by my former professor, Teo Barolini, in which she drew attention to the poet's eye for detail, what she called his "non-stereotyping imagination," and how, as a result of seeing the particular, he was able to acknowledge and create of "Multiplicities of History, Identity, and Belief," as her lecture was called. This made a bell go off in my head, as teaching photography had launched me into thinking about the structure of the medium. Certainly, the fact that meaning stemmed from the particular thing before the camera was big. And I was interested in the truism that photographs are like poems. It occurred to me that I could have a very interesting conversation with Dante's poem in my work, and that it could be a fruitful collaboration. (Choosing collaborators, why not go for the top!?) I applied for and received a small fellowship from La Macina di San Cresci in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany, and travelled there last summer to initiate the project. I consider this show to be the first part. Ultimately, I intend to spend more time with this project and complete a book that brings the two subjects together.

Pantheon from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

Piazza from Photography After Dante © Yola Monakhov

NP: What's next?

YM: I have a full semester of teaching ahead of me. Once this show is up, I will get back to my New York project, "Empire Pictures." Now that I have done something in which I brought a set of constraints into my work, and, I think, activated the subject in a new way for me, I wish to continue on this path. Something that came out of the Dante work was that everyone I photographed, when I told them what I was doing, had their own understanding of my project, got it, so to speak, and, commented on it in some way, whether verbally, or in how they expressed themselves before the camera, or both. This dimension, akin to oral history, but perhaps something different, seems worthy of exploration. I think that the documentary genre in photography has long had a troubled, or perhaps undefined, relationship to its subject. Witness the reception of two new Dorothea Lange biographies, in The New York Review of Books recently, where Jonathan Raban labels her work an "American Pastoral." Or the sort of revisionism or violence that Walker Evans' work has undergone, with Sherrie Levine, now on view at the Met, or Allie Mae Burroughs resurfacing as an older woman. Or even something like National Geographic sending Steve McCurry to find the woman who, as a girl, posed for its most famous picture of all time, only to have her voice discomfort with what had happened, and to demonstrate that, as a grown woman with a hard life, it is only with the face of a little girl that she could have had the appeal that readers found so mesmerizing. That relationship between a photographer's mastery (when the photographer does indeed possess it), and the lives of its subjects (when not before the camera), and questions of the picturesque, of how the camera shapes the subject, is an ongoing concern. And of course, there is the question of how culture, that ubiquitous thing, filters through, and then assimilates the products of that encounter. This is a concern I intend for my work to continue to address.

Thank you Yola! For more images in the Photography After Dante series and other projects please visit

Photography After Dante
Sasha Wolf Gallery
10 Leonard St.
New York, NY 10013
January 14 though March 6


nina corvallo said...

Thanks to you both for this interview!

Unknown said...

I've been familiar with Yola's work for a while now, and hearing her voice just makes me appreciate it all the more. Love to see a proper liberal arts education work its magic. Looking forward to seeing more of Empire State!

Anonymous said...

As a former student, Yola's work is always refreshingly inspirational. Talking about inspiration, I agree that to work even when lacking this motivational aspect is important. It shows a maturity in the artist who somehow understands his/her own fluctuating emotions and feelings, and finds sources beyond inspiration as Yola describes.