Close and Far: Russian Photography Now at Calvert 22

Filed in Reviews by on July 13, 2014

Close and Far. Russian Photography Now

Calvert 22 Gallery

Until 17 August


I have to look again at the date of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs. I can’t quite believe that the vibrant images hail from 1905 to 1915. They do. Lined up on slanted viewing platforms, the square photographs read like a brilliantly coloured testimony to imperialist Russia. Colours sing off the surface. Royal blues adorn the silken floral robes of a ruler in Bakhura. A flatbread vendor sits in dusky heat. Greek women harvesting tea stand to face the camera, all in differently coloured striped fabrics. The technical processes of printing leave coloured stripes around the edges and accidental flecks of colour.

It is easy to get lost in this magically coloured world, where crowds gather to watch horse racing on the sand dunes, where children sit in the fields. We forget that this was a project entirely funded by the Tsar, an expedition for Prokudin-Gorsky enabled by travel permits. What we are seeing is very much what the Russian autocracy wanted to project of itself and its empire. Power and image are intertwined in these luminous snippets.

In the intervening years, both the Romanov and the Soviet empires have collapsed. We move away from idealised landscapes, to uncensored portrayals of Russia, its towns and the edges of its cities, its people and their routines. A very straight set of documentary photographs by Max Sher run along the centre of one wall. The focus is very much on buildings and transport. Banks, petrol stations, cars, houses. Each afforded its own photograph, the inscription beneath each the pinpointed geographical location. An ongoing series entitled ‘Palimpsest’, something being erased, and inscribed afresh with something new.

Alexander Gronsky photographs the city edges. Sand dunes and reservoirs are filled with people at play, swimming and sleeping in the sun. In every photograph there is the forbearing industrial presence of the city in the background. The composition of each photograph, reflections of buildings softened in the water and the warmth of the light, reminds me of traditional landscape painting. It is this traditional stance that runs through to the work of Olya Ivanova, who faithfully photographs the citizens of a small Russian village, as they pose in their Sunday best, or on their porches. Through these very conventional approaches to photography, we see straight into Russia, into the changes that have taken place. Religious iconography is replaced with pop culture; the industry is repositioned as an object of aesthetic pleasure.

In all the changes that we are made privy to, we can see a new generation coming to terms with the political and social upheavals of the last century. In one video a lone figure dressed in black stands atop a crumbling building in the hills, performing a slow and deliberate choreography. His surroundings are empty and dilapidated. You can imagine once they were thriving, imbued with order and activity. I imagine his movements to be a way of trying to understand what has come before.

This exhibition provides us with the bookends of Russia, life in the early twentieth century to life today. We see a genuine insight into daily life, which we are not afforded by the media portrayal of Russia that has been stigmatised for events in Sochi and the Ukraine. The work not only documents but also questions the post Soviet era. It is this that represents the freedom that Russian artists can now enjoy, and for this I truly think this is an important and celebratory exhibition. Power and image are no longer bound in each other, but there is a definite power in the images on show.

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Ann-Marie Rayney

About the Author ()

Ann-Marie Rayney is a printmaker based in London. Recently graduated from Goldsmiths with a Fine Art and Art History degree, she will most likely be found exploring London's cultural offerings or covered in ink at Sonsoles Print Studio in Peckham. To see some of her work, have a sneaky peak at her website here.

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