In: russian photography
Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Leningrad, USSR | Masha Ivashintsova |1977July 21, 2023
Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Leningrad, USSR | Masha Ivashintsova | 1977
I was not born
to amuse the
— Alexander Pushkin
I loved without memory: is that not an epigraph to the book, which does not exist? I never had a memory for myself, but always for others.
— Masha Ivashintsova
Masha Ivashintsova has been described as a ‘Russian Vivian Maier‘ as she took so many photographs – creating a world, in a way, of her city – in her lifetime but most of them have only been shared since her death. Her eye for contemporary life under the Soviet regime – especially in St. Petersburg later Petrograd later Leningrad then again St. Petersburg (the shift in name and what that entails in the socio political sphere is a good place to stand, when considering Ivashintsova’s photographs) – was an honest and personal portrait of her life and times. One might argue that the veracity of these experiences captured with her lens were – are – so honest and powerful that we can understand why she held them to herself for so long. Her own personal history was also painful, and that was surely a factor, too.
Or, perhaps as I allude to with the quote from Pushkin, autocratic, authoritarian societies prefer facile propaganda and punish uncomfortable truths….
Ivashintsova (1942 − 2000) was a photographer based in Saint – Petersburg (then Leningrad, in the USSR) “who was heavily engaged in the Leningrad poetic and photography underground movement of the 1960−80s. Masha photographed prolifically throughout most of her life, but she hoarded her photo-films in the attic and rarely developed them. Only when her daughter Asya found some 30,000 negatives in their attic in 2017 did Masha’s works become public.”(from here)
“Struggling with life under Communism, by the mid-1980s Masha was committed to a mental hospital against her will, as a way to get her in line with the USSR’s philosophies. Working throughout her life as a theater critic, librarian, cloakroom attendant, design engineer, elevator mechanic, and security guard/riflewoman, she was a chameleon, always camouflaging her inner artist. Only through her diaries and photographs was she able to show her true self.”
A fine article – and interview – with her daughter Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan can be enjoyed here. A site devoted to Ivashintsova’s amazing archive can be seen here : as well, there is a social media page that shares her work at regular intervals here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Elena Chernyshova | Days of Night / Nights of Day, 2012-2013December 8, 2022
Elena Chernyshova | Days of Night / Nights of Day, 2012-2013
‘I was with my people then, there, where my people, unfortunately, were.’
(Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, 1935 – 1961, writing of her times in the soviet gulag)
When I lived in Saskatoon, an acquaintance who’d spent time in Eastern Europe once commented that that city in winter was like Siberia, but without the cachet of being that place (which exists as much in our imaginations as it does in reality, one might say – as a ‘great part of the imagination of the world is attached to that site’), nor with architecture that was anything but a failed brutalism (this was during a period with the ‘economic boom’ in Saskatoon where a number of heritage buildings were lost and the banal taupe of others rose like mottled angular tumours….)
Elena Chernyshova’s work is aesthetically stunning: not just for the evocative quality of the images, but also for the scenes they present to us, that seem to blend exotica and danger, a chronicle of sites that remind us of the irrelevance of humanity in the face of nature.
But her notes and comments bring the human element back, as this is not just a ‘pretty’ image, but a site of – of course – contested narratives, that looks back to the history of the USSR and some of the ideas of industrialization and ‘progress’ that have human costs.
Chernyshova’s own words are a powerful adjunct to her lens: “Days of Night / Nights of Day is about the daily life of the inhabitants of Norilsk. Norilsk is a mining city, with a population of more than 170,000. It is the northernmost city (100,000+ people) in the world. The average temperature is -10° C and reaches lows of -55° C in the winter. For two months of the year, the city is plunged into polar night when there are zero hours of sunlight.
The entire city, its mines and its metallurgical factories were constructed by prisoners of the nearby gulag, Norillag, in the 1920s and 30s. 60% of the present population is involved with the city’s industrial processes: mining, smelting, metallurgy and so on. The city sits on the world’s largest deposit of nickel-copper-palladium. Nearly half of the world’s palladium is mined in Norilsk. Accordingly, Norilsk is the 7th most polluted city in the world.
This documentary project aims to investigate human adaptation to extreme climate, environmental disaster and isolation. The living conditions of the people of Norilsk are unique, making them an incomparable subject for such a study.”
Chernyshova offers the following about the image of monumental architecture (with a blue suffusing light): The construction plan of Norilsk was established in 1940, by architects imprisoned in the nearby Gulag. The idea was to create an ideal city. The most “ancient” buildings are constructed in the Stalinist style. The next step of construction happened in the 60s, when the prevailing method in the USSR was to use pre-built panels.
Her other writings also allude to the disputed, if not adversarial, stories that meet and intersect in Days of Night / Nights of Day. The scene with the car and hazy clouds the colour of sulfur has the following notation: In the summer, there is a period when the sun doesn’t go under the horizon. This continues from the end of May till the end of July. It is accompanied by good weather and pleasant temperatures. Around 3 am, while the city sleeps, it is still illuminated by the sun. The city seems like a ghost town, emptied of its inhabitants.
One of the images I’ve included from Chernyshova’s series is unlike the others: and its difference helps to offer insight into the whole. Again, Chernyshova’s voice must be borrowed: Anna Vasilievna Bigus, 88, [who] spent ten years of her youth in the Gulag. At age 19, she was separated from her family and sent into the Arctic Circle. “The only joy we could have in Gulag was singing. We sang a lot. And this gave us the strength to survive…” Her daughter became a music teacher and her grandchildren sing in opera.
The complete series (produced with the support of The Jean-Luc Lagardère Foundation) can be seen here and a feature from LensCulture (where Chernyshova offers some words about many of the images I’ve shared here, that offer more nuance and depth to her vision) can be enjoyed here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Around the Red | Viktor BalaguarApril 14, 2022
Around the Red | Viktor Balaguar
Balaguer’s series Around the Red (which includes the image shared here) is perhaps my favourite of his series (a hard decision, though, as Teriberka or Street Photography for Xiaomi are enchanting, too).
Often, his images of St. Petersburg and Moscow suggest a perpetual winter in Russia, but these are less so of that style. The vibrant reds – which never seem forced and hold your eye without overly dominating the scene – run through these works, which are captured moments of places and people. The title implicates historical factors, of course, as Russia and the world are still negotiating the rise and fall of the USSR, in contemporary Russia and beyond those borders (sometimes acknowledging what happened, sometimes not, as we dance ‘around the red’). There is no point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins in sites of contested narratives (like St. Petersburg or Moscow, Eastern Europe or even in a larger world history), and Balaguer’s Around the Red sometimes hints – and sometimes hammers – at that, visually.
I should add that I began writing this post prior to the most recent acts of war by Russia, but that simply adds more weight to the geo – political insinuations of Balaguer’s scenes….perhaps, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned us in his The Gulag Archipelago if you “dwell on the past…you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” To be honest, I had mixed feelings about sharing this work, considering the current political climate, but will temper that with the recommendation of Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010…..
From here : French photographer, architect and interior designer Viktor Balaguer fell in love at first sight with the ‘Venice of the North’ where he has settled with his family. “Saint Petersburg is a romantic city where you can go from a narrow street to wide avenues, where you follow the sublime and immense Neva River that is completely frozen for part of the year,” he said, calling it “A city of strong contrasts, with a succession of magical palaces and imperial facades whose entrance gates you must cross and visit the dark backyards of the Soviet era. A city deeply melancholic by nature, immersed in a relaxing rhythm of life and permanently open to contemplation.”
In selecting this image, I had a difficult time, as any of the vignettes in Around the Red by Balaguer are worthy of consideration: you can see more of them here, and many of his other fine images at both his IG: @viktor_balaguer and his site.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
trunkdrunkJuly 31, 2021
Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of Pagliacci, the clown consumed by sadness he hides to make the audiences laugh. I will admit it will always be tied, for me, with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In that graphic novel, Rorschach offers something of a lonely graveside eulogy for the character The Comedian (who ‘evolves’ from a snide position of ‘Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense’ to a weeping lament of “I mean, what’s so funny? What’s so goddamned funny?”). Rorshach recites a ‘joke’ about Pagliacci’s visit to a doctor, decrying his despair, only to be told by the well meaning doctor to visit the ‘famous clown’ to be cheered up. Pagliacci bursts into tears, revealing to the well meaning but unaware doctor that he is, in fact, the clown, and an empty shell who can’t even help himself…
The self described ‘comedian’ trunkdrunk occupies that same space. His Instagram page offers only that “I don’t even ask for happiness, just a little less pain.” An article on his work has the following spare and succinct comment: “trunkdrunk takes photos in Russia’s saddest places. As this was not sad enough, he takes pictures in full head overhead elephant mask. Images are captured in different places of Russia; mostly in gloomy and depressing surroundings.”
More of trunkdrunk’s images can be found on Instagram often accompanied by long swathes of text in Russian, that meld dourness, humour and memory. This image was originally posted to his IG account in October, 2016, with the following reminiscence: “Indian tea, the same – with an elephant. I remember him from my Soviet childhood. when my mother poured this Indo-Georgian mixture into a glass from a cardboard box, and then poured boiling water – the smell was stunning throughout the apartment!”
A previous Curator’s Pick of mine was a wonderful image by Alexey Titarenko: this could be said to have documented the fall of the Soviet Empire, in real time, with very real people as the unwilling players. Looking at trunkdrunk’s world, nearly forty years later, offers a new chapter to Russia history, perhaps attempting to laugh as one has no other choice, except to cry. ~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Amber Lee WIlliams – Femina Bulla Est #9August 18, 2021
The work of Amber Lee Williams, an artist from the Niagara Region of Southern Ontario, almost always concerns itself with motherhood and children, exploring the concepts of life within, the constancy of change, attachment and removal, and notions of femininity.
Femina Bulla Est (Woman is a Bubble), is a sequence of macro photographs of pink bubblegum. Amber deftly takes the binary state of man’s being, as depicted by the soap bubble in Dutch Renaissance Vanitas paintings (homo bulla est) and turns it on its ear… where man is either strong or broken, women have a strength and flexibility that allows them to persevere.
“I thought I would begin by simply blowing soap bubbles, photographing them, and seeing what happened. I asked (my daughter) if she wanted to help me blow bubbles and she thought I meant bubblegum bubbles. As soon as she mentioned the bubblegum it was a total lightbulb moment, and I have to give her credit for the idea.”
Femina Bulla Est #9 is incredibly organic, suggesting a beating heart, or the crepe-like tissue of placenta. Partially inflated, one gathers that there is life within, flush with blood and good health. One could also perceive the darker top section as a scab, protecting the soft tissue below as it heals from a trauma.
“The original bubble in Vanitas paintings suddenly pops and life ends, but in my version the bubble inflates and deflates again and again. The bubble is both fragile and resilient. Beyond the more obvious, and my personal connections to motherhood (carrying a child within my body, that body stretching…), I also think of the inflated and deflated, not just as physical states but also states of mind and related to mental health.”Read More