Andrew Kezzyn: interview with the tooth fairy

Some questions to the renowned Russian photographer.

By Nicola Maronga


Sometimes all of us get those weird dreams in which you say “wtf?!” when you wake up. A mix of real life experiences and fantastic characters that we wonder how our brains were able to create. Seems like Andrew Kezzyn has the ability to frame all this in a picture. And he spend quite a lot of time to make that shareable with the world around him.

In each of his works, Andrew has an opinion to share, his point of view. His interpretation on the weirder parts of our existence, or against whatever our brains has been filled with since we born.

Or maybe, this is just my own conjecture.

Let’s see what he has to say.

It’s always a pleasure to chat with a colleague. Only difference is that I make moving images, while you focus on the still frames.

I was born in Leningrad, USSR, in the city and country you won’t find on the world map today. There only were several options for kids’ clubs in the area where I lived, and they were drawing, freestyle wrestling, football and photography. I failed in the first three but managed to stay for a longer time in a photography club. Photography was a very common hobby for Soviet people, my grandfather took pictures and then developed films and printed them in the bathroom, which was temporarily converted into a darkroom. So I can say that I have been doing photography for nearly 30 years. When you stick to a still image for such a long time, you gradually start thinking that having made your image move you will be able to say much more and express a lot more significant things.

That is why I of course tried to work with moving images as many photographers eventually do. And I found out one thing. Yes, with moving images you can express much more but you usually have nothing more to say. What is inside can be easily framed in a single picture. I quickly lose interest and don’t like getting deeper or further. Just like a camera shutter. Click-cluck. I can even draw a graph of my perception of the reality and my own life. So I didn’t make a mistake that many other photographers turning themselves into directors. I tired and I stopped for a while. Perhaps to take a longer run-up.

We met first time at MIA Photo Fair 2016 in Milan but we hadn’t too much of a talk.

Yes, it was my first time in Italy at MIA 2016. I like it there in Milan. A lot of beautiful people, especially men, the best coffee ever, the top class ogranisation of the fair.

It was the first big fair I went to myself and I was very surprised with the choice of photographs. 90 per cent of them were only about composition, some of them were about light, very few of them were about costumes and none of them were about the set. When I saw 2-to-3-metre pictures of textures and cleverly composed combinations of two matching colours, I said to myself, ‘You’re fucked, man, you’re not going to sell anything here’. But the Italian viewers turned out to be very open and perceptive public with a good sense of humour. They liked my pictures. And we had a very nice Italian girl, Chiara, who worked as a volunteer at our booth, I called her Topolino, and she even cried when we were saying goodbye to each other. So it was a very good experience. I would like to come back, perhaps in a year.

I froze in front of your prints as I recognize a lot of myself in it. Absurdity, provocation, judgement, sarcasm…

Well, absurdity. Let’s start with it. I think it is the right word but perhaps for Europeans and for me who had lived most of his life in Russia the level of absurdity differs, and what seems absurd to you might not be absurd to me as this might be a usual way of life. Provocation. I have several provocative pictures to shoot but they are still in my head and waiting to be produced. Now I don’t have enough financing or may be courage to finish them. The rest of my pictures can be called provocative as long as they provoke the viewer to stop and think for a while or they provoke them smile or laugh. In that way yes, I can say they are provocative. Is there judgement? Yes, there is, as a sort of reflection exercise over the events, absurd at times, over myself and over my own past experience. Over some things I have or haven’t done. One of the examples of that is How You Like Me Now? (picture below). A judgement, a contemplation over my own life turned into a picture. What about sarcasm? I don’t’ like it, this word is too angry for me. I’m not an angry person. Irony, yes.

Sarcasm, no. Tragicomedy is the genre I have in mind and am heading to. I’m not trying to insult anyone apart from maybe religious orthodox churchmen who are waving their flags at every corner and saying all that bullshit. I despise them although I’m a believer myself. What is a formula of my inspiration?

First of all, here we’re lost in translation because in Russian ‘inspiration’ is a very posh word. Only geniuses of the past could have an inspiration, you know. Caravaggio, for example. I’m not used to saying it regarding to myself. Anyway, I’m now on a crossroad. I stopped being inspired by simple things like music, films or books and start getting inspired from inside. My inspiration is the sort of life material I have gone through in a certain place at a certain time.

Since the first time I saw your work I thought about La Chapelle.

When it comes to staged or tableau photography, the process itself of taking a picture is rather technical and boring. The most important and interesting thing is pre-production, which is the real process of making a staged photo. It should be all-encompassing and it shouldn’t be too long at the same time. If you take too much time to finish it, you will forget the emotions and perceptions you have when you only start feeling for the picture.

Pre-production process should be as long as it is enough for your characters to start living. Slow for a while, and you won’t be able to control anything. There is a scene in the Amelie film by my favourite director Jean-Pierre Jeuner with an old man who has been reproducing paintings all his life, and he has already figured out all the character of a painting but he can’t figure out the face of a girl. He has been waiting for too long, and now he doesn’t know who she is. And he will never know. As for La Chapelle, I spend much less time thinking about him than about Erwin Olaf but more than about Annie Leibovitz. But yes, actually I like crazy people with big budgets.

One of my writer colleagues just went to a Tiger Lillies Concert in London and did find out about a collaboration between you guys.

The story of my acquaintance with the Tiger Lillies is a chain of co-incidences which began more than twelve years ago when I met my at that time future wife. And I’m sure it isn’t finished yet. Our work with them is my pleasure and my sadness simultaneously. It’s like challenge thrown by me to myself, a sort of exam. It’s been four years since we started working together, and every year I have to take a better picture while the previous one shouldn’t become worse after the next one, and each picture should be different. And I’m still waiting for the day when I finally get an ‘A’ from Martyn and he will take one of my pictures as a CD cover.

Any comments on Masters of Photography reality show on SkyTV?

I haven’t seen the show and know nothing about it. The idea seemed to me a bit strange at first. When you mentioned your friend Gabriele and I looked through his website, I thought how could a photographer of such a high level take part in a reality show where he is given tasks to do and someone is going to look at his works and say what is good or bad in them. I thought that Gabriele could easily give tasks himself and teach anyone how to take good pictures. His win is absolutely well-deserved.

As an artist I can say I live hard as much as I work hard.

Oh, it’s so complicated now. All my life is a preparation for the next picture. I tried to separate work and home and failed. Even when we go out with the family, we keep talking about photography, future projects and other things. When I have a beer in a pub, I draw a sketch or prepare a shoot writing emails and messages. We used to get together a lot with friends, now I don’t have time for that. I only have time to discuss a frame, the way to change or improve it, where to take it, who to show and so on.

I hope I can be part of your work in the future, I rather stay behind the camera, but for you I would get naked in no time.

If I could speak other languages well, I would gladly share my work process all the time. I like showing the way I work. I’m much more keen on everything which comes before the shoot itself, as soon as the picture is ready, I instantly loose interest. I used to like showing off and being in other people’s photographs but now I understand what you say about staying behind the camera. The other day I suddenly felt an invisible barrier which didn’t let me go from behind the camera to the other side. And naked men are always good for a picture, much better than naked women so welcome!

Mother Russia is fascinating me since ever, but I never had the pleasure to visit.

At the moment my country is the people I work with: actors, make-up artists, stylists, technicians. I used to depend a lot on places but it is the thing of the past now. I have made my way from a certain location to a stage setting, which I often construct myself. Since recently my country has also become a significant obstacle because of many people’s inadequate reaction to the things I do, that’s why I have moved to Berlin. I have already organized a couple of shoots in Berlin and that was another proof for me that I don’t depend anymore on the place where I work.

I only depend very much on financing. And here comes first as you said mother Russia, because staged photography is expensive there but it is five times more expensive here, in Europe. As for reflections of my country in my works… I don’t know really. It’s hard to say because I’m neither here nor there, perhaps I will see later. When I look at Olaf’s pictures, I can perfectly understand them as they speak a universal language. I don’t think my picture are that Russian, I think they’re more of an international type.

It was a real pleasure, Andrew. I really hope to have a larger conversation together soon than just “hi man, what’s up”.

Now I have a commission from a Dutch gallery, or to be more precise a curatorial project, and I am working on a series of pictures for them. It’s hard work and demands a lot of patience as I’m used to working on my own. Then we’re organizing two exhibitions in Germany, in Dusseldorf and Essen. What is further is rather vague; I don’t know what’s going to happen. Something will come up I’m sure.

Go to the Territorial webpage to see the full interview