First Rob Hornstra was refused a visa for Russia, then Arnold van Bruggen was refused one, then the Moscow exhibition of the Sochi Project was cancelled.
On Friday 18 October at 5pm, two alternative openings of The Sochi Project’s cancelled Moscow exhibition will be organised simultaneously in the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam (Pleinfoyer) and the Sakharov Centre / Fotodok Центр Документальной Фотографии (in collaboration with Lenta.Ru) in Moscow. A small part of the cancelled exhibition will be shown in Moscow. At the same time, an online version of the cancelled exhibition will go live on Russia’s largest news portal, Lenta.ru.
For more, see this.
If (unlike me) you’re somewhere between Yaroslavl and Kiev, or somewhere between Bretagne (regular or grand) and Copenhagen, then consider going along and seeing some photos. And if (unlike me) you’re into “social media”, then book the face of the exhibitions or twatter them or something.
Meanwhile, from darkest Tokyo, I raise a glass of Dutch beer to the success of the exhibitions. (Or rather, I’ll do so twelve hours from now.)
The Sochi Project’s website has been revamped (English; Dutch), so that it displays what must surely be the content of the upcoming book, An atlas of war and tourism in the Caucasus. (If the Sochi Project is entirely new to you, then for a quick introduction try this at HuffPo.)
Rob Hornstra (photographer) and Arnold van Bruggen (writer) have already produced a book about the north Caucasus that for me is the best photobook of the year so far. But Rob can’t return to Russia (even for an exhibition starting less than three weeks from now), because his visa application has been turned down. (Arnold’s application is still being processed.)
If I knew any Russian diplomat, I’d ask about this matter.
Meanwhile, I’m reminded of a much older book.
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.
Or rather, nowhere special as far as vacation guides and so forth are concerned. They are, of course, special for those who live there.
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”.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
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?
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:
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:
(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.)
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.