Russia, nowhere special

Rob Hornstra, 101 Billionaires (front cover)Or rather, nowhere special as far as vacation guides and so forth are concerned. They are, of course, special for those who live there.

I’ve just reread Rob Hornstra’s book 101 Billionaires. The rereading was prompted in part by a second book, Olya Ivanova’s Gorelkova & Kich Gorodok. They complement each other, so let’s look at both.

This copy of 101 Billionaires is of the second edition, which Hornstra refers to (and which its obi announces) as the “crisis edition”. (We’ll get to this crisis soon.) When the first edition of the book was being planned or put together, Russia had 101 (dollar) billionaires. None of these, and nobody likely to join them, is depicted in this book. This is not Martin Parr’s preferred territory. On the front cover is a punching-bag, which gives a clue.

The thousand copies of the original 101 Billionaires sold out quickly, and the number of billionaires fell too (to 49). Marking this lurch towards species extinction (a crisis indeed!), this second edition is in smaller format and lacks the gatefolds of the first edition, and its text shows obvious updates here and there. (It’s also a hardback whereas I think its predecessor, which I haven’t seen, is a paperback.) Perhaps because the printing (by Die Keure in Bruges) is excellent and detail isn’t dissipated in dots, its small format isn’t disappointing and indeed is refreshing.

101 Billionaires starts intriguingly. After what looks like a boldly lettered half-title, there are several pages of photographs. One presumes that a proper title page is on its way; but no, the first heading (on a verso) is “Cement Town”. So that had been the title page, appropriately minimal for a book that lacks a preface, introduction, afterword, etc. On the verso following “Cement Town”, an elaboration: In the centre of Angarsk, Cement Town is considered a ‘no-go’ area. ‘Nothing more than junkies and thugs!’ Yes we are in Angarsk, and the text is about such matters as a local DJ and his punching bag in a secret cellar of a dingy building. After a few more pages of photographs, there’s one suggesting that we’re about to see some conspicuous consumption — but no time is wasted over yachts and furs, we instead get captions for some of the photographs, and then we’re on to a new story, “Credit”.

Rob Hornstra, 101 Billionaires

There’s a certain amount of bouncing forward and back involved in reading through this book. The photographs aren’t directly captioned, but thumbnails of a lot of them are gathered here and there, where they’re accompanied by texts, many but not all of which are captioned. The design of the book, by SYB, may sound irritating, but in practice it’s not; it’s absorbing. (Perhaps it’s less of a pleasure with the larger pages of the first edition).

Rob Hornstra, 101 Billionaires

The colophon tells us that the writers are Hans Loos (who is surely this man) and Arnold van Bruggen. Most, perhaps all of the longer texts are signed “HL”; most, perhaps all of the shorter ones are unsigned. Whoever wrote this or that part of the text, it’s all excellent: perceptive (as far as I’m qualified to judge) and a pleasure to read. Don’t believe the accepted wisdom about how text degrades photobooks; of course crass text/captions can do this, but here the text helps.

The book can be dispiriting. Hard drugs (without clean needles), alcohol binges, official corruption, misogyny and general hopelessness run through it. Indeed, the first time I tackled it I gave up before the halfway point as it was simply too depressing. But if hopelessness is endemic it’s not pandemic; and the book repays reading.

Rob Hornstra, 101 Billionaires

Rob Hornstra, 101 Billionaires

And this is primarily a photobook. It succeeds as one thanks to a combination of factors: the dignity with which the people are depicted (whether they are war veterans or drug addicts dying of AIDS), the incongruity of what is depicted, and the colours. Before 101 Billionaires, I’d never been much interested in colour in photobooks. Putting aside pedestrian books that are in colour merely because that’s what the publishers expected — or more recently because that was the default setting on the digicam, or because good B/W printing is now harder to find than good colour printing — I’d sometimes appreciated either colourfulness or the mutedness of colours, but that was about it. Here, the colour combinations are superb.

Rob Hornstra. 101 Billionaires. 2nd ed. Utrecht: Borotov Photography, 2009. No ISBN. OCLC 489056569 (Worldcat). Text by Hans Loos and Arnold van Bruggen.

The book isn’t sold distributed via forklifts and middlemen. Various “specialist” dealers will happily sell you a copy for a lot more than what Hornstra himself is (now) asking (here) — but as his stock goes down, he’d be justified in raising the price; and once his stock has finished, then if there’s a parallel with his earlier book Roots of the Rúntur, dealers’ prices will go bananas.

For more on this book and other work by Hornstra, a good first stop is this interview at Vimeo.

As noted above, I reread 101 Billionaires when prompted by a different book, Olya Ivanova’s Gorelkova & Kich Gorodok. Here you see the front cover of Kich Gorodok:

Olya Ivanova, Kich Gorodok

In Ivanova’s words, the work presents: Portraits of local people living in dying villages around Kichmengsky Town (locals call it Kich Gorodok), a district center in Vologda Region, Russia. That’s the English-language introduction to the book, in its entirety. (There’s also the equivalent in Catalan.) Care to look it up? Here’s Kichmengsky Gorodok at Geohack.

Ivanova has obligingly uploaded the photographs that make up the book (here), but below are a couple of my lazy photographs of page spreads all the same:

Olya Ivanova, Kich Gorodok

Olya Ivanova, Kich Gorodok

Interiors, portraits: unpretentious stuff. It wasn’t just that it too is about the “forgotten Russia”, its use of colours also made me think of 101 Billionaires.

Flip the book over and what do you get?

Olya Ivanova, Gorelovka

The front cover of Kich Gorodok, that’s what. Yes, this is a book that only reaches its physical middle, whereupon you arrive at the end of another book; the term is tête-bêche.

Again, Ivanova has considerately uploaded the photographs that make up the book (here), but below are a couple of my poor photographs of page spreads anyway:

Olya Ivanova, Gorelovka

Olya Ivanova, Gorelovka

According to Ivanova, Gorelovka is a small village in the middle of the taiga 800 km from Novosibirsk. This place is hard to find even in Google Map. (I’ve reworded slightly.) The challenge was of course irresistible: Here it is at Google Map, and in order to escape the Googleverse here it is at Geohack. This time I shan’t copy the whole introduction; if you investigate a little further (see the links I provide) you’ll understand its significance.

People, interiors, exteriors — again, great colours.

If you’re wondering how the two halves of a tête-bêche (its two bêches) collide, here’s what it looks like:

last pages of two books that meet in the middle

(I’d have forgone one of those colophon pages and put in a page of captions instead. But Ivanova’s website does offer very short captions to the photographs.)

Olya Ivanova. Gorelovka & Kich Gorodok. Coŀlecció AtemKristall. [La Bisbal d’Empordà]: Atem Books, 2011. ISBN 978-84-938480-9-5. (This is where it should appear in WorldCat, but it doesn’t do so yet.)

The print run is very small, so if you want a copy, move quickly. Here is its page at the enterprising Atem Books; here is Atem Books’ breathless 23-second video of the book.

More: Photographs of Kich Gorodok, together with an introduction that’s slightly longer than the one in the book, are also here at the OSE Project. They’re under the name Olga Ivanova — not to be confused with a California-based commercial photographer. Russian readers: Here is Olya Ivanova (Ольга Иванова)’s Russian-language blog.

Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the respective photographer or publisher, not to me.

December PS: Ivanova writes here about the photograph used as the front cover of Kich Gorodok.

One Comment on “Russia, nowhere special”

  1. Thanks for the review! :))

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