The Defaced and Obscured Portraits of Stepan Chubaev

Stepan Chubaev’s work is anything but classic portraiture. Rather than capturing his subjects in a soft and flattering light, he presents their features boldly and bizarrely, often with highly saturated colours and overexposed light.

Chubaev hails from the cultural capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg. Born in 1999, Chubaev has made some impressive feats as an artist, especially given his young age. His images have been featured on platforms like PhotoVogue, Ignant, Nakid magazine, CICA museum, The State Russian Museum Photobiennale, Average Art, Noice magazine and the Latent Image magazine – and he shows no signs of stopping there.

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Chubaev’s bright whites and heavy darks burn themselves into the viewer’s eye. Unlike a more classic approach to portraiture, which often aims to illuminate details and nuances of the subject’s face, Chubaev at times almost obliterates the subject’s countenance entirely. This defacing, or obscuring of his subjects is a key marker of Chubaev’s unique style.

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Here, the subject is masterfully framed in a way that makes her skirt melt into the red-orange hue of the iconic towers in the distance. However, even with such impressive architecture sitting almost directly on the lower right crash point of the image, the woman in the foreground remains the main focal point. The way her skirt is lifted up – seemingly caught on the corner one of the towers – almost manages to act as a grungy, non-american alternative to the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe posing playfully over the steamy grate in New York City.

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Although Chubaev often uses natural elements as tools to obscure his subjects, he also makes use of common household items to do so. This creates an intriguing contrast within the artist’s body of work, as powerful raw elements like blazing flames and crashing waves obscure the subject in a grandiose, almost god-like way, while commonplace objects like mirrors and vases contort the subject’s visage in a way that is much more intimate, close and down-to-earth.

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Here, we see another example of Chubaev’s skillful framing at work, as he again uses a natural occurrence to distort his subject. Perhaps distort isn’t the right word, as the face is hardly visible at all – perhaps delete is more fitting. In any case, the way that Chubaev meticulously frames his subjects and times his photos is impressive – and it a way, it creates an illusion, that prompts viewers to question – even if only for a moment – whether Chubaev is merely a fortunate observer to fantastic coincidences rather than a patient and poised photographer. However, upon sifting through more of the artist’s photos, we are quickly reminded that the latter is true.

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Here, we are moved from a watery distortion to a fiery one, and the subject is transformed into the likes of a human candlestick. The green wiring stands out, highly contrasted against the black jacket, leading the viewer to picture the figure as a human bomb. The image is just out of focus, making it that much more intriguing. Is this simply a staged, abstract portrait? Or is there a story to be told?

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Another aspect of Chubaev’s work that is certainly worth noting is the way that he frames women within his shots. Anyone who has ever picked up a fashion magazine will be familiar with many of the tropes that are often present in the portrayal of female subjects. Time and time again, mainstream photographers often make the more “desirable” physical traits of women’s bodies the main focus of the image, while using angles and lighting to conceal or mute the “less desirable” traits. Another habit in this same vein of photography is the tendency to shoot women from above, arguably in an attempt to portray them as fragile and helpless, being viewed from a stance of dominance.

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Chubaev does the opposite in many of his shots, shooting women from below or head on, thus removing himself from the overlooking, leering stance. Whether or not Chubaev is aware of this tendency,  it invites and encourages viewers to interpret the subjects as powerful women who are consenting and comfortable being photographed, while simultaneously striking down hackneyed (and often problematic) habits of mainstream portraiture.

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Again using natural props in order to stage his photo, Chubaev paints another sort of image entirely – one that takes on a new level of intimacy. The above image, quite literally, drips with sexual innuendo, and uses the contrast of light and shadow to bring fourth a theme of conflicting facets of the self.

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In the above set of photos, Chubaev moves from abstract portrayals of his subject to a more personal one. In these Vogue-esque shots, what the viewer may initially expect to be a flowing veil, is in fact plastic sheeting. Chubaev manages to create two narratives for the short series – one being a parody of a high-fashion shoot, the other, an intimate and subtle comment on the accessibility of fashion photography and portraiture: a showcasing of how high quality, eye-catching images can come from readily available props. One needn’t have closets full of Gucci and Prada at the ready in order to use material to tell a story. In this way, Chubaev creates a playful call-to-action for his viewers: get out and shoot, regardless of the equipment (or lack-thereof) you possess.

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Chubaev’s body of work lingers in the viewer’s eye long after they have glanced away from his photos, not only for the boldness and brightness of his work, but also for the stories that these intriguing photos imply.

To see more of Chubaev’s work, you can visit his Instagram profile here.

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