The Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch is currently hosting an exhibition called Close and Far: Russian Photography Now. Curated by Kate Bush, it is running until the 17th of August, and is a must-see for anyone interested in Russian culture over the past century.
The exhibition is made up of two contrasting parts, with a common thread of the representation of Russian society via the medium of colour photography. One part involves the display of work by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, an early pioneer of colour photography. His most famous image is a 1908 picture of Leo Tolstoy. Nicholas II, the last Tsar, commissioned him to document the vast Russian Empire; he aimed to create an encyclopaedic record of the whole of Russia. Prokudin-Gorsky travelled all over the vast Empire, via boat, train, horse-drawn carriage and a specially-equipped Pullman railroad coach fitted with a darkroom. Between 1909 and 1915, when the First World War forced him to stop travelling and give up his Pullman coach, he visited places as diverse as St Petersburg and Moscow, Murmansk and Perm, Yekaterinburg, Uzbekistan, Azerbajan and Georgia. At that time, little freedom of movement was permitted within Russia, and he was only able to travel so widely with the express permission of the Tsar. With the Revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky left Russia, emigrating in 1919.
During the Soviet era, travel and photography were both severely restricted, and it is only comparatively recently that photographers have been able to enjoy more freedom. The second part of the exhibition displays work by modern photographers. Max Sher’s Russian Palimpsest is a methodical record of forty cities, while Olya Ivanova recorded individuals living in Kich Gorodok, a village in northern Russia, over a long period of time. I particularly liked Alexander Gronsky’s Pastoral, a series of photographs taken at the edge of the city as people sunbathed, swam, socialised and picnicked against a backdrop of tower blocks. He also worked on Reconstruction, pictures of amateur war re-enactors.
Video works were also included, such as Taus Makhacheva’s Gamsutl, a reference to historical war paintings, and Dimitri Venkov’s Mad Mimes. However it was the photography, both early and modern, that really captured my imagination.