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60 Years of Russian Photography

From Stalin to Putin

Also of note at Spring Street are Valery Shchekoldin's poignant black-and-white photos, which mine the Soviet/Russian vein of bleakness and tragedy. His 1990 portrait of a man with a shaved head sitting at an ancient industrial sewing machine was taken in a Murmansk prison camp. The polluted city of Murmansk, with its near-arctic cold, was once characterized by a BBC reporter as "the most hellish place on earth." The man stares back at the camera with self-possession. You wonder if he's a criminal or a dissident. How did he wind up here?

Other bleak Shchekoldin images capture inmates in the dirt courtyard of what appears to be an insane asylum, and heartbreaking scenes of warehoused children with Down syndrome, leg braces and crutches. His 1981 image captures scared and miserable-looking conscripts lined up at a recruiting station for their two-year mandatory service, a universally atrocious experience that is reportedly still rife today with abuse and hazing. Conscripts would be sent as far from home as possible. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg was shipped out to serve in Sakhalin, an island just north of Japan. The theory at the time, as explained to me, was that you'd be more apt to fire on civilians if they weren't your friends and family. Today, the service is reduced to 12 months, and the connected, clever and cash-flush have more options to avoid it.

Photographer Alexander Chernogrivov offers a comparatively cheerful respite. Works from his 2004-2007 series Fairy-Tales fancifully alter images of St. Petersburg. Done in the darkroom rather than digitally, Chernogrivov's highly silhouetted photos place a giant spider hanging over a canal bridge, or the goofy outline of a plastic tyrannosaurus rex striding open-jawed over another bridge, oblivious to other pedestrians. The wobbly images look like they were shot from reflections in the canal, adding to the charmingly otherworldly feel.

Alexander Abaza's 1973 photo of the stark black silhouettes of workers is a wonderful, graphically powerful image.
Courtesy of FotoFest
Alexander Abaza's 1973 photo of the stark black silhouettes of workers is a wonderful, graphically powerful image.
Emanuil Evzerikhin's dramatic 1950 photo depicts a parade celebrating the October Revolution.
Courtesy of FotoFest
Emanuil Evzerikhin's dramatic 1950 photo depicts a parade celebrating the October Revolution.

Details

FotoFest 2012 Biennial

All exhibitions run through April 29, 713-223-5522.

"After Stalin, 'The Thaw,' The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice (Late 1940s-1970s)"
Williams Tower Gallery, 2800 Post Oak.

"Perestroika: Liberalization and Experimentation — The mid/late 1980s-2010s"
Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St.
Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter St.

"The Young Generation (2007-2012)"
FotoFest Headquarters at Vine Street Studios, 1113 Vine St.

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There is a wealth of other work from "Perestroika" at Winter Street, and Sergey Maximishin's color photographs capture contemporary Russia. His chiaroscuro portrait of Russian leader Vladimir Putin looks just like an amalgam of every James Bond villain ever. His image of Young Pioneers (Communist boy scouts) saluting an elderly Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) veteran in Lenin's old apartment documents the Soviet nostalgia felt by some. Meanwhile the photograph shot in the St. Petersburg restaurant Illyich's Call shows a young woman in a sexy, short-skirted USSR-esque uniform polishing the head of Lenin in the Soviet-red decor. It sums up the irony and camp that marks many young Russians' view of the Soviet period.

Also at Winter Street are Russian photojournalist Yury Kozyrev's 2011 images of Libya. Their non-Russian content may feel a little off in the context of all the other work, but the images are fabulous. The dynamic images of Libyans in street clothes and random bits of camouflage powerfully convey the rag-tag chaos of the revolution and the participation of average citizens.

The most recent work by emerging artists is on at FotoFest headquarters in "The Young Generation (2007-2012)." Although it features some strong images, I found this the least interesting of the Russian exhibitions. Some of the work just came across as run-of-the mill in the larger international context of contemporary photography. Anna Skladmann's portraits of privileged young Russians — children of the wealthy New Russians — posing themselves rely too heavily on the novelty and stereotype of the oligarchs. This kind of thing has been done before and better in Daniela Rossell's "Ricas y Famosas," which tackled the same topic in Mexico with more interesting results.

Denis Tarasov's series is more interesting. Russian Cossacks Patrol photographs a summer training camp organized by a sort of paramilitary organization trying to tie itself to the Cossack tradition. The images of camo, kids, rifles and an Orthodox priest firing a handgun capture a blend of nationalism, religion and militarism with very American parallels.

Images from Ivan Mikhailov's 2009-2010 series "Playground" capture bittersweet nostalgia. Mikhailov photographs space race-era play structures from the Soviet period. Brightly colored rocket-shaped jungle gyms, slides and playhouses stand forlorn and worse for the wear in unpeopled public parks. They read as memories of, and monuments to, the faded hopes and dreams of childhood.

From Stalin and political propaganda to images of the overprivileged spawn of oligarchs, this year's FotoFest is a fast-forward through 60-plus years of Russian photography and history. It's a lot to take in, but it's worth it. The Biennial's shows close this Sunday, and with 142 artists on view in these three exhibitions, there is so much more to see. Hurry.

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