Capturing beauty and desire with pictures and words

Ariel Peng Liu Xiaolin
"I am rooted but I flow," Virginia Woolf once wrote. It perhaps also best characterizes Belarus photographer Valery Katsuba and his work.
Ariel Peng Liu Xiaolin

With experiences working for fashion and archive houses, Katsuba draws inspiration not only from his culture but also from the history, culture and art from everywhere he's set his eyes on.

"I am rooted but I flow," Virginia Woolf once wrote. It perhaps also best characterizes Belarusian photographer Valery Katsuba and his work.

With experiences working for fashion and archive houses, Katsuba draws inspiration not only from his culture but also from the history, culture and art from everywhere he's set his eyes on.

He's an artist who simply wishes to provide a medium to showcase the beauty of his attraction and object of desire.

Some 40 photographs selected from 10 major series by Katsuba are currently on display at the Shanghai Center of Photography. The exhibition "Valery Katsuba: Russian Romantic Realism" is intended to offer insight into the subtle power and calmness of the Belarusian's work.  

The body and its power

Sportsmen and dancers seem to be the most prominent models in Katsuba's photographs.

"This is really hard work that they do," the 56-year-old reiterated in a Zoom interview from Madrid, Spain. "And this is why I love to work with people in the field of sports, because they concentrate so hard. When they are flying in the air, they are so focused and become so attractive and inspirational to see."

However, whether they are gymnasts doing flying stunts in "Air Flight Series," ballet dancers jumping and extending their limbs in "Nijinsky and the Diamonds," or his friends waking up and drinking coffee in "Morning" series, Katsuba calls all his models and subjects "heroes."

When asked if he had ever considered the limits of the human body, he said he never really thought about limits.

"I've been thinking more of achievements, where we can aspire to be. It is about how to develop and present yourself," he said. "And I hope that our time is a time of eclecticism in the presentation of our figures. If you feel that a certain body type works better for you, then you can appreciate it, respect it and work toward it."

At SCOP, a photograph from the series "The Model: Classic and Contemporary" is set to a floor-to-ceiling scale that takes up an entire side of a striking orange red wall.

Overwhelmingly presented, the photo captures an athlete posing against the bas-relief of Fight of the Gods with Giants, both muscular and back to audience.

This rather bold approach by Karen Smith, curator at SCOP, is unprecedented for Katsuba, which has made him a little nervous. "But it is so brave and monumental, and I love it!" he exclaimed.

"For the Greek sculptures, thousands of years later we are still attracted to and appreciating them, so I wanted to find out their secrets for withstanding time," he explained. "I thought about who the models were that had posed for the sculptors back then, and I wondered how we, as contemporary people, would look alike next to these sculptures. It is like an antique research, which is about the way we see the human figures."

"Katsuba has shown how we, as human beings, evolve from one generation to another, learn from traditions, and use them to establish a time of our own," Karen said in the online tour, when referring to the series.

Onto his current project plans, Katsuba disclosed that he had been working on a book that would document his journeys meeting different people and taking pictures at different places around the world.

"I would like to go to China and take pictures of people who are art students, sports students and ballet dancers to add to my project," he said.

On the other hand, fewer people know about Katsuba's role as a writer.

As Smith has said, while some photographers liked to keep the message behind their pictures open-ended, Katsuba, a literature lover from a young age, always had a clear goal in sending his, as his pictures work rather like a visual novel that require viewers to see the specific stories told.

"If I see a person dance, I see eyes, hair, and the movements of the body. How can I write about it? No, I'd better take a picture. However, when I see the ocean, taking a picture can't tell exactly how I feel, the wind on my face, the power of the ocean," he said.

Katsuba illustrated rather passionately when asked about his choice of either medium.

"I'm often thinking that why sometimes I write and sometimes I take pictures, and I was thinking about it again yesterday when I was taking a walk along the water here in Madrid."

He lost a bit in thought, and continued with how literature becomes a complement to and a catalyst for his visual creations.

He recalled a visit to Lisbon to see a friend he hadn't seen for a few years. "Sometimes you haven't seen someone for a long time, and then you see this person and wonder if the friendship still exists or if it has gone away," he said.

They were siting on a terrace, having lunch by the sea. It was in December, just a few hours before the new year, and he remembered "the daylight was beautiful, with the wind blowing from the sea."

His friend was helping him insert a new SIM card into his phone, but he dropped it.

"We both got a bit nervous," Katsuba said, thinking back the moment. "Then I saw the SIM card shining on the surface of the ocean, and a big fish just came out of nowhere to swallow the card. This whole thing was so strange, plus the awkward feeling of meeting an old friend."

Eventually, they had no choice but to return to the shop to buy a new SIM card, when the salesperson said they were given the wrong card.

"It was like a fairy tale. There was no way to tell this story in photos, so I wrote about it, about this moment, these feelings," he said. "Because words would be the perfect way to capture it."

In the end, he took a portrait of his friend, which later became a separate picture in the series "Far Away from Home."

"Together with the story about the SIM card I wrote, and then the ideas jumped out to me, though sort of independently and inconsistently. In the end, everything came together like a movie."

Special Reports