Today, Dmitry Konradt is an artist who specializes in abstract photography of urban life, architecture, and organic shapes. The textures of cement block walls, the geometry of spiral staircases, the beauty in decay of abandoned buildings – Konradt shoots it all.
But in the 1980s, Konradt had very different subject material. He was one of the Soviet Union’s foremost rock photographers, documenting the growing St. Petersburg underground rock scene, creating a visual history of one of the most dynamic periods in Russian music. Konradt, born in Leningrad in 1954, came of age during the advent of Beatlemania, which the USSR wasn’t immune to, however the Soviet leadership tried to suppress the fad. As rock music caught on and found its audience, new bands sprung up, taking their cue from Britain’s Fab Four and Western rock ‘n roll – and giving Konradt motivation to pick up a camera.
The Soviet government had attempted to regulate music in the country by establishing a state-run record label called Melodiya, thereby pushing underground the unsigned, unofficial rock acts. However, through the 70s and 80s, Soviet citizens found that they could increasingly make, record, duplicate, and distribute music one their own with the help of newly-introduced cassette tapes and other technology. Despite governmental restrictions on bands unsponsored by the state, rock ‘n roll found its footing in the USSR and created intrigue with its brand of raucous music that would later become an outlet for social criticism and a vehicle for cultural shift. Back then, as the music scene was experiencing its first waves of rock’s influence, Konradt says “a man with a guitar looked like someone carrying a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) in the street.”
The intention behind the restrictions was to keep Western influence and values out of the Soviet Union. But in 1981, the state allowed the first legal rock club to open in Leningrad – called the Leningrad Rock Club – and Konradt saw his opportunity to make full-time what had formerly been just a hobby. This easing – thought not complete repeal – of restrictions encouraged more bands to join the scene, boosted by the “legalization” of rock and the fact that Melodiya had begun signing a few rock acts, allowing these acts to legally perform and distribute their music.
Avtomaticheskiye Udovletvoriteli performing at the Leningrad Rock Club
The largest rock club in the Soviet Union, the Leningrad Rock Club was overseen by the KGB, but still became a place for dissidence. The club drew a loyal crowd that participated in helping to select and support certain acts, and operated on a membership system. In its retrospective about the club, Russian Reporter magazine says the club was “the first successful experiment in creating a non-Soviet society within the Soviet Union – a kind of model for “another Russia.” Here, artists, poets, journalists, and photographers like Konradt were able to gather and in a way participate in a form of rebellion and individuality not celebrated, but now partially tolerated, by the state. In another Russian Reporter retrospective of important bands from this era, Konstantin Kinchev, leader of the metal band Alisa, remembered the club as a place where “[W]e all survived together. All helped and supported each other. One was for all and all was for one.”
It was this era after the legalization of the first rock club that’s the focus of Konradt’s photo exhibition “From the Rock Archives of the 1980s.” Open now through June 30 at the Timiryazev Library, the collection boasts nearly 30 of Konradt’s favorite images from the era, including images of rock giants Viktor Tsoi and Kino, Akvarium and its now legendary front man Boris Grebenshchikov, DDT, Sergei Kuryokhin’s Pop Mechanics, and many more.
Today, mega groups like Kino occupy a special place in the hearts of many who grew up in the “golden age of Russian rock,” and graffiti reading “Kino lives” and “Tsoi lives” can be found in many Russian cities. But their genesis came as the Leningrad Rock Club was just opening its doors, and as Konradt was delving deeper into his photography. With this new exhibition, viewers can see giants in the making.
Uninspired by what he says is a lack of originality and innovation in today’s Russian music scene, Konradt is no longer a club photographer, focusing on his abstract urban photography. “I am into different things now,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “But I don’t renounce (this part of my work). It’s an important part of my life.”
Grebenshchikov, leader of the still-active Akvarium (though he is the only original member), remarked to Russian Reporter, “Now, everything is different. Russia is changing and music is changing. But it (Russian rock) will always be there, as long as there is a Russian people and a Russian language.”
“From the Rock Archives of the 1980s,”
Dmitry Konradt photography exhibition
Timiryazev Library, 6 Ulitsa Shkapina
Runs through June 30