It’s far easier to reduce complex subjects to clichés than to attempt to tackle that complexity head on. This is something which plagues photographic representation, and leads to lots of repetition of tedious stereotypes about certain people and places. Russia is one such place, invariably represented as a post-industrial wasteland, encumbered by history, peopled by the sick and dying, and preyed on by the ruthless and corrupt. To be sure Russia has big problems, but even in my very brief visits I’ve seen that there is far more to it than we usually see in documentary projects.
I was excited then to discover ‘Close and Far’, an exhibition of work about Russia, by Russian photographers, hoping that here was a show which would dispense with the clichés, and offer some views of the country I hadn’t seen before. To some extent my hopes were met, but in other ways I found many of the same subjects, treated in the same ways. The show features works by five contemporary photographers, alongside a series of images by the Russian colour photography pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. The inclusion of Prokudin-Gorsky (while welcome in the sense that I love his photographs) was strange, and seemed a little unfair to all involved. For that reason I’ll be reviewing his work in a separate post later in the week.
In terms of contemporary photography there were some great pictures on show from some interesting projects. One of my favourites was Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Reconstruction’ series, depicting large scale re-enactments of battles from the Second World War. Photographs of these types of events are a well-trodden path, but Gronsky employs several techniques to give new interest. For one he photographs the events as triptychs which can be viewed as one continuous panorama, despite the events in each frame occurring at different moments in the battle, or as three single images. Similarly rather than attempting to create the illusion of historical authenticity as many photographers of such events do, Gronsky sneaks in moments of incongruity including distant audience members, families sledging nearby and in one a Russian soldier carrying a digital camera.
Olya Ivanova’s ‘Village Day’ was another nice series, in which the photographer focuses on a small rural village on the day that migrants return to celebrate the village’s founding. The series consists of a series of portraits of women and girls, a reference to the large and growing population imbalance in Russian society, and also it’s complex and at times confusing gender roles. On the one hand outwardly a highly patriarchal society, on the other hand one with more than it’s share of remarkable strong women. I also enjoyed Dimitri Venkov’s video piece ‘Mad Mimes’, a fiction which masquerades as a legitimate anthropological study of a hitherto unknown subculture living on the edge of Moscow’s vast ring road, and surviving by scavenging off the rubbish thrown from passing cars.
As I hinted at the start of this piece it was a little disappointing to see a certain repetition of familiar depictions of Russia in this show. For example another Alexander Gronsky series titled ‘Pastoral’ depicts Moscow suburbanites at rest on desolate patches of land outside their vast, monolithic tower blocks. Of course the fact these same tropes appear even in photography by Russians may suggest a number of interesting things. It may be this is how they too see their own country, it may be that they repeat the same clichés they see in photography by non-Russian photographers. Or, taking the most cynical attitude, it may be that this is just the vision of Russia that sells best.
Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is on at Calvert 22 until 17th August 2014.