A Russian Journal
The balance between embracing
the future and preserving the past
is always on the verge of collapse.
After World War II, a generation of
Russian men were missing. Young
women filled the empty boots of
farmers, technicians, managers,
and fathers who died in the war.
Sixty five years later, I wondered
how the war generation relates
to cell phones, Facebook, and
For those teenagers who lived, fought, and survived World War II, I find there are two types of people which emerged. There are those who talk about the War and those who do not. The psychological effects of walking through Hiroshima, like my grandfather did as a nineteen year old, or the widowed life of my great aunt, whose husband died in the Italian army, are beyond my imagination. Growing up, the stories about the war or life afterwards, simply did not register. The ways of my grandparents seemed forever at odds with way we live. Why is it that a generation can raise children and create a new world where, in the end, they don’t fit in?
-The Great Divide-
For simplicity, photography is taught in opposites. There is black and white, foreground and background, and sharp and blurry. Comparing opposites will instantly start a dialogue within an image. By setting the parameters, shades of gray begin to take on meaning and open the doors of interpretation. If a picture is worth the paper its printed on, the ping pong efforts to pin down a definitive answer only lead to another bounce of the paddle. The best statement a photograph can make is a well formed question.
When photographers first start making pictures the dominant features are vertical and horizontal. Why? Buildings, trees, and sunsets are easy to recognize, they don’t move, and the give predictable results. Once we get past the obsession of a perfectly level horizon, the next step is understanding diagonal lines. When a line travels from one corner to an other corner, it will add a feeling of action to any image.
In “Image ” the scene is sliced in half and starts the conversation of opposites. The gray band of the street draws our eye across the entire image. Along the way we pick up bits of information. An old woman, a car in a city, trucks in the background; they all land on either side of a huge diagonal. As the divisions build on each other we are not given any answers, but led to a list of possible comparisons.
- Old World vs New World
- Human vs Machine
- Tradition vs Progress
- Hand Made vs Tradition
- Dark vs Light
- Feminine vs Masculine
As a stand alone picture “Image ” never reaches an final answer. It poses contrasting elements which are part of a larger conversation on how we preserve and respect the past while moving into the future.
Painters are taught to squint their eyes when observing still lives. It allows the brain to see general impressions without being hung up on the details. Its the artist way to avoid micro management. A blurred version of this pictures makes two elements in the composition crystal clear.
1. There are two pairs of eyes in the picture: the woman and the car.
2. All of the important contrast happens in the foreground. This is where most lenses are at their best.
When we look at a portrait, the face is the most important part of the picture. The background, is usually secondary, but will often support the picture with its general feeling. Its can add a sense of place, weather, or intangible quality not available in a studio setting. Its the reason why taking pictures outside is so challenging, but can be quite rewarding. The key is to draw attention to the main subject without removing the background entirely. This is why using an F 2.0 lenses or slower is advisable before moving to faster F 1.4 lenses. The shallow depth of field of a faster lens can render a background unrecognizable.
There are two pairs of eyes in the picture. The mechanical eyes, bright and steady shine off in the distance. The passing car cruises down the wide boulevard typical of Russian streets built after the war. The woman, possibly waiting for a safe moment, looks off screen. She is not rushing or even moving for that matter. She waits, carved in place by her blank, marble expression. Her scarf and tight lips are reserved. She is not excited by the passing cars or the changing times.
“Image ” contains very little information. There is a old woman, a car, and a city. She has no name and not even a body. The car is the only hint at a time frame. The low fog lights betray the pictures antique feel. And the city, with its power lines and two story homes could be almost anywhere in the world. The three line stanza is like a Russian haiku. From only a few lines, we are able to deduce an entire conversation that took place as the world tried to look behind the Iron Curtain and understand what daily life looks like in Russia.
In 1946 the writer John Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa went to Russia on a forty day journey. Their only goal was to see, with their own eyes (and Capa’s lenses) how real Russians lived. They wanted to fill in the gaps between the stories they had heard from returning diplomats and friends. Steinbeck commented:
“The most dangerous tendency in the world is the desire to believe
a rumor rather than to pin down a fact.” (Russian Journal, p. 7)
In their travels from Moscow to Georgia, they discovered Russians and Americans were not all that different. This led to a mixed response by the American public, who accused Steinbeck and Capa of either being Pro-Russian Communists or Anti-Russian Capitalists. But after a few decades, the real story is that Russian’s, after the war, were a lot like Americans. The average Russians they wanted to re-build a better country for themselves and their children. Sounds very similar to the American dream.
All of the rhetoric about the Russians being enemies looked like non-sense from the perspective of a typical factory worker, farmer, or manager. In fact they discovered in many of the factories, where Capa was unable to take pictures, much of the machinery was American made and set up by American engineers. In the end the differences between being inside and outside the Iron Curtain had more to do with propaganda than actual facts.
-Clarity and Focus-
The success of “Image ” lies in its simplicity and restraint. It combines the essentials of a good story and leaves the last chapter to the viewer. The composition is strong without being rigid. Sometimes when things line up too perfectly the effect is predictable and boring. But here, we have no idea how this woman will end up. Are we looking at a deceptive picture of a woman seamless living in a modern city or does she truly lament the loss of the old ways? We will never know and that is the exciting part.
When Capa and Steinbeck set off to unwrap the stigmas of east versus west, photographs were still considered to be truthful representations. While photography in the digital era is no longer the “proof” of a scene, it catch our attention and be reason enough to explore the world. Whether this is in your own back yard or across the globe, Image  encourages us to dig in the dirt with their own two hands. Its is kind of ironic when you think about it. While we need people to look at and buy our images, our personal impulse is to go see the world in person.
Either way, the images we bring back might only invite more questions. But, this cycle of question, observation, and more questions can inspire other people to buy their next plane ticket to a country they have only seen in magazines. I would like to thank Valery Titievsky for “Image ” which still has me wondering if the old and the new will ever share a mutual appreciation for each other.
“An unknown woman at a crossroad.”
Zeiss Planar ZM 50mm f 2.0
Valery Titievsky’s images can be found on his website and at Leica Images, links below: