I bought Jarret Schecter’s book Russia off Track because I was ordering a pile of other stuff anyway, the subject interested me, the book was from Trolley (which had never disappointed), and it was going very cheap.
This book starts rockily. The preface by Schecter tells us: Although purported to be one-dimensional, a rich photograph laden with past stillness and future motion, is multi-layered by time, space and meaningful consequence.
One-dimensional? (And that’s just for starters.)
Schecter goes on to say that the land between Moscow and Vladivostok, besides being dominated by forests and fields, is littered with poor villages, dilapidated industrial plants, and a smattering of non-descript cities and so on. He draws parallels between the heartlands of Russia and the US, the latter being the subject of an earlier book of his (which I haven’t seen), America off Track.
Well, yes. And of course both the US and Russia are off the rails and run by robber barons. And I’m all for photography that shows this, if it’s good.
Let’s put aside the preface and see what we have here.
On each recto is one photograph, facing it is its caption. There are no page numbers and no section breaks.
The first photograph, “Dusk on the Siberian plains”, is indeed of a nondescript landscape. Fine, it puts me in the mood.
Next, “Lake and village in Siberia” and then “Village in the Far East region of Russia”. The former shows camera shake, but not enough for any interesting effect. Both have pleasing blues and greens.
An “old factory” and then an “industrial complex”. The former is a study in beiges, but there’s enough of a spherical blue object in the foreground to interfere yet not really enough of it to do more than interfere. Though the “complex” is dirty, its windows are still in place. (Trackside Russia isn’t as bad as trackside Britain!)
An “apartment building” (very slightly blurred). Now, this building is rather jolly. I’d change the framing somehow, or wait till the two cars in the front had gone — but of course one’s options are limited when in a train.
A blurry scene at a train station near Omsk. Oh come on — this was one for the delete button.
Next, a good one of five people waiting on the platform of Petrovsk-Zabaykalsky station:
Now a bit of a disappointment: a differently angled photograph of the same platform, emphasizing a huge and splendid mural. But the mural doesn’t help what’s in the foreground or vice versa. If we want a photograph of the mural (yes please, as none is easily googlable), then let’s have an uncluttered photograph of the mural. Except of course this isn’t possible, for a photographer stuck in the train (even though the ticket allows breaks in the journey).
And then a major problem starts for me, with the caption “Anonymous apartment buildings in the Ural region”:
“Anonymous” is surely metaphorical: these are cookie-cutter buildings, the Soviet prole equivalent of Levittowns. Hang on: there are attractive little red stripes near the roof, and a sunrise design for the window grilles in the foreground. And look closely and you see that the inhabitants don’t merely differ by satellite dish; they’ve done different things with their balconies. But no, Schecter says the buildings are “anonymous”.
And such gloomy descriptions continue. Just a few pages later, we get: “Nameless apartment towers in Central Russia”, “Car speeding away from a lonely Siberian village”, “Deserted street in a Siberian village”, and “Desolate town in Eastern Siberia”. Schecter seems to be trying to tell me what impression I should get. But he fails, partly because I’m not happy to be told what impression to get, and partly because I’ve no reason to think he knows any more than I do.
What does residential “anonymity” tell us? Turn to Bill Owens’ 1973 book Suburbia:
Caption to the photograph on the right (p.9 of the “new & improved” 1999 edition): I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs…. You assume the mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do.
Some food for serious thought there.
Let’s ignore the captions, and accept that what goes on in buildings within view of the Trans-Siberian Railway is something that we can only guess at.
The route is very long. (An excellent map is provided at the front.) Stamina permitting, there’s a lot of time during which one can point a camera through the window, and Schecter indeed shows stamina and at times the results are striking.
(For more examples, see Trolley’s page about the book — which may take some time to load.)
The book contains roughly a hundred photographs. There’s a good, small, differently-captioned, thirty-photograph book in it. Or Schecter might combine the thirty with other views of Russia. (For suggestions, see further below.)
Laurent Chardon’s Tangente (shown above upside down) is a lot smaller.
The French word tangente has pretty much the same range of meanings as the English tangent; but the English translation (supplied as a separate sheet) of the preface glosses it as on a limb.
The quote-dropping preface (Debord, Merleau-Ponty) — reproduced here — tells us that . . . Chardon shows how the link between the temporal and the spatial operates as a continuum, a “non-interruption” of the world etc etc; it’s somniferous stuff, but it does say that he went by train from Moscow to his point de contact [?] and destination of Ulan Bator. And it points out that he used a toy camera (as is pretty obvious, though I suppose Photoshop has a “Holga” setting).
The book has 23 photographs, without captions or further explanation. A little sample of what may or may not be Ulan Bator:
Towards the end of the book, Chardon is on the train:
So maybe this is not Chardon’s journey to and stay in Ulan Bator, but instead his stay there and journey back. Or maybe the photographs are presented in reverse chronological order. Or again perhaps the order is arbitrary. (But there definitely are yurts on display, so no this isn’t just something wittily cooked up in Transylvania or wherever.) Being more conventional than I usually like to admit, I would like to know which photos were taken in Ulan Bator, which from the train within Mongolia, and which within Russia.
Even with no explanation, these are splendidly dark and gloomy photographs. We’re very far from tourist-bureau Mongolia. But Chardon doesn’t tell us this, and so much the better for this blackly delightful little book.
Let’s return from Mongolia to Russia. The unsigned afterword to Russia off Track concludes: . . . Russia’s future trajectory is perhaps best contemplated peering out of the window on the world’s longest train ride.
I really wonder. And as for Russia’s present, one could photograph life directly visible in and from the train, or one could just get off the train and look around.
And away from the track? Writing about Owens’ Suburbia, Cynthia Morrill asks: In 2000, would a California visual anthropologist be welcomed as Owens was, or would she be escorted out of the gated community by a private security force?
Bieke Depoorter went ahead and tried the Russian equivalent — indeed, something much more daring. The story is written up in various places (e.g. here). The excellent results are here and here. They’re already in a book. And yes, she’s done it in the US too (see this), and another book is said to be in the works.
Just photographing the view from the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t easy. I’m enjoying the view via a set of videos presented by Russian Railways and Google.ru: here in English (though with the book readings still in Russian) and here in Russian. Here are the photographs by Anton Lange (Антон Ланге) that accompany this; because it is after all a PR exercise, they’re rather postcardy, but they’re worthwhile all the same. It’s just part of a bigger project to photograph the whole of Russia from/with the railway; the project’s multilingual site is here, and Lange is interviewed about it here.
Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the respective photographer or publisher, not to me.