Nikolaï Kossikoff, Industrial photographer

In Ghent (Belgium) there is a grayish, deserted, old industrial street referring to the modernist photographer Nikolaï Kossikoff. This desolate street is situated in the Seaport neighbourhood.
From this place you look at the port of Ghent, which is the major subject in Kossikoff's photography.


In the 1930's Kossikoff made photographs of the activities in the port on an almost day-to-day basis. The port was his world and major theme. Kossikoff's work remained unknown until recently.
Presently, you can discover his work in museums and in private collections. After more than 40 years Kossikoff finally gets the recognition he deserved.

Visit the online exhibition

From Kharkoff to Ghent

Nikolaï Kossikoff came to Belgium as a Russian immigrant after the Russian Revolution. Photography wasn't his primary profession but with his skills in mechanics and engineering he rapidly acquired the art of photography.

Those are the facts. But reading the biography by his own hand (it is conserved in the Fotomuseum of Antwerp) the story is a little different and his interest in photography came from his father who was an amateur photographer. His father hunted geese and images and Nikolaï did the same.

Kossikoff was born in 1898 in Kharkoff, White Russia, he escaped to North Africa after the Russian Revolution and later to Paris. He used to belong to the rich Russian aristocracy but due to his flight he had to interrupt his studies in engineering in order to survive on heavy manual labour. During his stay in Paris Nikolaï Kossikoff came into contact with the avant-garde art movement of the Twenties.

In 1923 he arrived in Ghent where he first worked as an artist painter in the restauration works of churches. Only in 1935 he took back up his old hobby of photography, now in order to survive. Being self-educated he developed his own technique and style.

From 1935 until the Second World War he worked on the documentary of the port. During the war he was forced to go into hiding. After the war he started up a portrait studio where he tried to make spontaneous portraits full of character. His portrait photography was quite successful. He stopped with photography in 1954 and died in 1975 in Ghent.

Cranes, docks and ships

One of his first assignments was a documentary on the Sea Port of Ghent. This subject offered him the possibility to combine his two major fields of interest : engineering and art. Many of his photographs were published in the year books of the port.

In the 1930's the port of Ghent was a regional port on its way to a large expansion due to the many industrial developments. Ghent was becoming an important industrial port. The more than a thousand photograhs he made over a period of 5 years clearly illustrate this evolution of the port.

Cranes, docks and ships are major themes in industrial photography. The rise of the heavy industry was a favourite subject of many photographers. An ode to the new machinery. The geometric shapes photographed from an alienating point of view and printed blurly was a wide spread way of presenting the new industry artistically.

Extreme points of view were his fascination. As he writes in his biography:
"In order to have the most interesting points of view I climbed all the cranes of the port with an old view camera under a black blancket, despite heavy prostesting from my wife. It was a strange experience when the crane I was on started to swing to the right as if it was trying to shake me off! But I loved the sport and I was fascinated by the result depite the huge difficulties waiting for me at home : at the time I didn't have the right camera , no dark room, no enlarger and certainly not the money to buy them."

A contemporary photo journalist would also picture the workers and the people in the port. Not Kossikoff. The cranes and boats are the actors in his play. The cranes are the giants and the workers are the dwarfs or the slaves of the machines. This is highly contradictory to the ideas of the Russian Revolution.
Kossikoffs' work is a tribute to modern technique and evolution, the result of his fascination for engineering. Only in a later stage he became a portrait photographer.

You could interprete his images as being under the influence of the Russian avant-garde photographers but in his biography Kossikoff only vaguely refers to cubism and abstract photography.
He wasn't really into the modernist trends, although his work is clearly in this category.

Misonne, Keighley, Mortimer and Cartier-Bresson were his examples and yet the contrast between Kossikoff's work in the port and for example Misonne's "artistic photography" is enormous. According to Kossikoff photography should be art and not the simple reproduction of the things everyone can see. The foundations of his artistic aspirations lie in his education: at the age of 15 his parents sent him to Italy to discover art.

A very personal style

In Kossikoff's industrial photography the tension between the engineer and the artist is remarkable.

Kossikoff's prints are of a strange beauty: darker prints with deep beautiful blacks full of details.

Most of his photographs were made on a typically Belgian cloudy day. Heavy skies and cranes in contre-jour are his trademark.
In combination with extreme points of view his photographs become monumental.

The negatives are highly contrasted and a little bit under exposed and as a result the prints are darker. He needed to push the skies heavily to get some detail. This technique could be seen as an error, but Kossikoff turned it into a personal language. This way of working became his trade mark.

His style is a mixture of modernist compositions with pictorialist printing techniques. The field of tension between a modernist shot and a pictorialist print results in my opinion in the most interesting images.

© Xavier Debeerst, 14/03/2009

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