Homeland: a generation of photographers has gone looking for the real Russia. What have they found?
As a new show of contemporary Russian photography opens in London, Anastasiia Fedorova asks what the life of modern Russia looks like seen through the camera lens
When I try to imagine how big Russia is, I think of my favourite family story; a story about geography. My mother is from St Petersburg in the north-west; my father is from Grozny in Chechnya, two thousand kilometres to the south. They met in St Petersburg and after my father graduated from the naval academy, they were sent to a small military town called Pacific Ocean Village, in the Far East, roughly six and a half thousand kilometres from where they met. That was normal in the USSR: relocating for work, for studies, for the greater good. In my mind what brought my parents together across this distance was love, or chance, or that inexplicable energy which made Soviet people try to reverse the course of rivers. In 1988 they came back to St Petersburg, making a seven-day trans-Siberian train journey through a state on the verge of collapse, so that I could be born, a child who would never really know her own country, unlike my parents.
Like most Russians of my age, raised in a time of atrophied infrastructure and foreign holidays, I am not well travelled in my own country, and the two-thirds of the national map east of the Urals is, to me, a large chunk of the unknown. But this unknown is gradually being unveiled by a new generation of photographers who have voluntarily gone in search of their homeland, travelling the country to capture this unseen country and its people.
This desire to reveal what is not seen is most evident in the work of Max Sher. At 38, Sher is one of the oldest exponents of this tendency. With his ambitious project, Russian Palimpsest, he aims to visit every single town and city in the country, in order to create a visual catalogue of Russia. In his focus on the Everyday, from regional airports to petrol stations, his work may recall landmark US photographers like Stephen Shore or Robert Adams or their European counterparts in the Düsseldorf School of photography. But his most important precursor is Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky who travelled across Russia for a decade from 1909 onwards, taking colour photos of people and places across the empire (a unique technological feat at the time). More than a hundred years later, Russia has yet to be documented so exhaustively again. “During the Soviet period, official photography produced feel-good images that obscured reality,” says Sher. “In contrast, the unofficial 'democratic' photography that emerged during the last two decades of the Soviet Union focused on portraying the darkest sides of reality in a bid to lift the lid on the so-called truth. In both cases, few were interested in recording the landscape with a detached, scientific eye.” Both Sher and, with an eye to the past, Prokudin-Gorsky are featured in the exhibition Close and Far opening this week in London, which examines the preoccupation with place and identity in new Russian photography.
"There are indeed rivers and forests, but there are also ugly malls, concrete fences and tacky shop windows"
With its deliberate lack of drama and emotion, Sher's work is crucial for defining the new image of Russia because it breaks with the visual convention of Russia as a land of wide rivers, golden wheat fields and endless forests. There are indeed rivers and forests, but there are also ugly malls, concrete fences and tacky shop windows. It is this mundanity that Sher captures so expertly. He is interested in the visual culture of cities caught in a particular historical moment, the transition from communist utopia to a homegrown version of consumer capitalism. He tries to capture the signs of transition, that which is considered “ugly” in the Russian landscape.
While Sher reappropriates the landscape with dry seriousness, other younger photographers treat it as something personal, something surreal, melancholic or poetic. Egor Rogalev, from St Petersburg, traces the shared visual identity of the countries of the post-Soviet space: through maps, landscapes, architectural relics of the empire and touching portraits of youth. Alexander Gronsky composes an ode to Russian wastelands: towering high-rises in the suburbs, the semi-deserted industrial north buried in endless night, the melancholy of the metropolis. Liza Faktor delves into the mystery of Siberian fields and forests, discovering something rudimentary and powerful in burnt-out fields and fragile blue glaciers, in human structures that seem like the work of ancient gods.
The undocumented landscape was there for the taking, in all its vastness and variety. But there might be another reason why it’s become such a frequent target for the camera. There are two ways to love, understand and relate to your country: through history and through geography. Russian history has been rewritten too many times in the 20th century, and it’s happening again now. History has been corrupted by political regimes, while geography clings to innocence. Landscape photography takes the neutral matter of geography and charges it with artistic value, with the photographer’s feelings and perspective, with a sense of motion, providing the most intimate connection to the otherwise elusive idea of the enormous motherland.
But there is, perhaps, a third way to love and understand your country: through people. You hardly see people in Max Sher’s or Alexander Gronsky’s pictures — they are too small for the scale — but Russia’s 17 sq km of mountains, rivers and metropolis is inhabited by 142 million people. When he travelled round Russia early last century, Prokudin-Gorsky recorded the way of life, the clothes, the faces of the diverse society of the Russian empire. This ethnographic legacy is also being resurrected today but with a less imperialist feel. It’s essentially a Russian analogue of what Martin Parr did for the UK in the 1970s: capturing small communities and telling stories which are excluded from the mainstream and from the new narrative of the state.
However hard the government tries to inculcate the idea of Russia as white, Orthodox and Slavic, you can’t get round the fact that the country is a blend of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews, of hundreds of nationalities, with everyone’s family tree spanning the former Soviet republics. Fedor Telkov and Sergey Poteryaev from Yekaterinburg in the Urals explore the fragile culture of the indigenous peoples of the North — the Mari, the Khanty and the Mansi — the last of whom are under imminent threat of being erased by oil companies. Olya Ivanova’s village portraits evoke this same feeling of trying to preserve something delicate. Her most celebrated project, Kich Village, combines historical family photos from a village archive with contemporary portraits of its inhabitants shot in the same plain and simple style. Another project, Invisible Cities (Monogoroda) created by a collective of seven photographers, is a study of small towns built in Soviet times to service large factories. The factories have mostly closed but the towns are still in place, largely forgotten, like jetsam tossed on to the shore by the retreating wave of Soviet industrialization.
In the end, however different the projects are, they share the same mechanics: photographers have to move like dots across the map of Russia, physically experiencing the distance which, one way or another, determines the national identity. It seems sometimes that all Russians were born for overnight train journeys. We are destined for the lumpy mattress and the heartbeat of the wheels – for hours and hours and hours on the move. The car is no easier. Travelling in Russia is a cathartic experience which after hours of discomfort and despair leads you into a stoic calmness. You look out of the train window and you belong, like a blade of grass, to the bland green of these numb beautiful fields.
Travelling in Russia can also be difficult to arrange, expensive, uncomfortable, and sometimes impossible. I've been to Grozny, my father’s native city, many times in my mind, looking at the cherry tree he climbed as a child and the ruins of his house, meeting my relatives, with their dark eyes and black hair, none of which I inherited. But most likely I will never go there. In the end, there will always be unvisited places in Russia, and always some undiscovered corner of our own country that we do not know, a strange, boring and beautiful bit of Russia waiting for a photographer.
Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is at Calvert 22 Gallery from 18 June to 17 August.