Last week, while walking down Marylebone Road, i saw a sign pointing to an exhibition of works by graduating students from the University of Westminster MA Photojournalism. I'm not one to miss a photo show when i pass by it.
One of the most stunning photo series was In the Shadow of Faded Dreams by Zlata Rodionova. The young photo reporter traveled to Star City, a small town near Moscow that hosts the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, the heart of the Russia Space Programme. She encountered nostalgia for a time when the USSR was a Space Superpower, poor living conditions, impressive machinery and an inextinguishable passion for the cosmos.
The idealism of the Soviet Space programme speaks of serving humanity and a belief in peaceful future. However, politics has left a negative trace on these ideas and we often associate Gagarin with the tense atmosphere of the Cold War. Still, for people working at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre, a military complex where all cosmonauts have been trained since the 1960s, Gagarin remains a hero while space is the only reality they know, almost blending with the surreal machines they work with, they seem to be trapped in a window of time. In the shadow of faded dreams, thus sheds the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the decaying legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
I contacted Zlata to know more about the conditions in which she made the photo series. I suspected that the stories she'd tell me would be as fascinating as her images. And i haven't been disappointed...
In the past, Star City was a highly secret military installation and access to it was restricted. This is not the case anymore. How easy was it for you to visit the training rooms, talk with people working there, and document what you saw? Did you need to obtain special permissions? Could you roam free and photograph as you wanted?
Indeed during Soviet Times, Star City's location was kept secret. Most ordinary Russians had only vague ideas about its location. The lucky few that had the chance to visit it (through jobs or rare state organised 'excursions') revealed that Communist's ideals promised by the State could only be seen and enjoyed there.
Today it is very different as you can visit it as a tourist, pretty much everyone in Russia knows where it is, however it is quite expensive.
For instance, the 'Russian Space Museum Tour' cost $165. You basically have to choose what exactly you want to see within the city or the centre but there is not really a tour that encompasses everything. So for me it quickly became evident that for my story to be told the way I wanted I would need to obtain a special press access.
It was very difficult to get. While explaining my project I often said that going there felt like travelling back in time to the Soviet era. For me this journey started at the very early stages, as when obtaining papers I had to deal with proper Soviet style administration. One call to one office led to another. I had to obtain different permissions to live in the city's hotel, be able to walk around the city freely and a separate one for the training centre. As in soviet times the person on the desk could not give me any information as long as the head or deputy-head of the administration was not there. If the person in question was on holiday I would have to wait for days. I don't know what it would have been like for a foreign photographer, as the first question I would be asked was "Do you have Russian passport?", which fortunately I do.
The process became a bit easier when I commissioned my story to the Russian political weekly magazine Profile which regularly runs photo-reportages alongside more political and business orientated articles. With their support (they were more keen on working with an accredited photographer than an MA student), I was given access and allowed to live within Star City in the hotel Orbita for two weeks. In the whole it took me a month to get all the papers I needed.
Once on site, I could walk around freely in the residential area and document it in depth as well as discover its spirit and people but the training facility remained a closed zone. I was only allowed to be there on particular times, specific areas and always accompanied by someone from the media team or one of the instructors. Also when international crews would be training I was not allowed to photograph as it meant I would have to get another authorisation from NASA.
How big is Star City? How many people are living and working there? I'm interested in the size of the place because many of the photos show huge rooms with machines, cockpits, training simulators but there is no animation, no people busy working on it, getting in or out of the capsules for example. You mostly show people posing for a portrait. Is Star City so vast and desolate? Or was it just your choice to depict it like that?
Star City itself is a small town about 25km of Moscow, it is within this town that you can find the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre but they are two distinct areas and have two distinct administrations. They divided in 2009 when the town itself became subordinate to Moscow Oblast (Moscow region) while the centre is administrated by Roscosmos.
The city has about 6,500 inhabitants. Approximately one-third of whom are pensioners aged 60 to 90 years. This year the city will even celebrate the 100th birthday of one of its citizens. Most of them are former employers of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC).
The city was an intriguing place. To me it felt as if I was in an Soviet sanatorium or pensioner's retreat but one dedicated to Gagarin, his statues and portraits gaze at you from every corner while you can buy your groceries at the supermarket Little Star or go for lunch at the cafeteria Little Sun. On the days where I couldn't photograph there were old people sitting by the lake sun bathing. But the glory of the olden days is definitely gone. The town has not received any funding since the nineties, and the flats have not been renovated since the sixties. For many residents hot water or heating is a treat that only occurs on occasional days.
The training facility itself is a place of visual contradictions - colourless decaying buildings are aligned in an orderly way, however inside you discover machines that you could only expect to encounter in Stanislav Lem's science-fiction novels.
For my project, I decided to focus predominantly on the training centre, as Star City's residents' lives revolve around it and it is there that you can see all the commitment, relationship between men and machines as well as the last glimpses of the Soviet Space dream. While walking around it, you can see people are working and it is more active than shown in my pictures, however as the physical space and machines are huge it always seems pretty empty. The atmosphere that comes out of this gives you the impression of walking through a dream that is slowly fading away, I wanted to capture the strange magic locked beneath the surface in order to reveal the nostalgia associated to the USSR's status of Space superpower and shed the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
Thanks to the use of my medium format camera, the Leica S2, 30 x 45 mm in size, which often had to be used on a tripod due to poor lighting conditions within the training centre, I managed to create a distance both physical and psychological between myself and my subjects. The aim was to create a surreal, respectfully distanced and neutral mood leaving the viewer to make his own opinion about my pictures and this particular place.
Being motivated by the desire to uncover the unknown, understand its purpose, and display its majesty this format also permitted me to show all the surrealism and grandeur of these gigantic training devices. Finally, this camera, does not allow you to take photographs in an instant, it requires more installation and planning, which gave me two advantages. First, it offered time for my subjects to open themselves up to me, and gave me the opportunity to shed the light on individuals that traditionally do not receive such attention. Second, the photograph produced is still, detailed and frozen, which helped me to suggest a community and place fixed in time in a volatile moment in the country's history.
The Russian space program seems to be pretty active though. I was reading this morning about the Soyuz capsule returning to Earth. Did your visit to Star City and the discussions you had with the people working there make you perceive space missions as adventurous and glamorous as ever? How much has your experience there changed or reinforced your perception of space travel?
One of the Russian space industry's main problems is financing. A third of the industry's enterprises are practically bankrupt. Compared to developed countries, Russia invests ten times less in research and development in the industry, and five times less in basic assets and personnel training.
Every single person that I spoke with: trainer, engineer, cosmonaut said that no one comes into this industry for money.
Also there is simply a loss of interest, if in the Soviet era cosmonauts were considered heroes and every single child dreamed of flying in the outer-space nowadays Russian schools don't run programs like astronomy anymore. I was amazed to find out that a cosmonaut who finished his military service, finished an MA in aerospace engineering, spent about 15 years training and 164 days in the outer space only received around $350 a month as well an allocated room within a shared flat for him, his wife and child. Another one told me he worked as a part-time taxi driver to make ends meet.
So the image I got out of there was definitely not the glossy one you get from US blockbusters with big rooms full of flat screens, and sleek looking man running around with perfectly ironed white shirts and coal black suits. The GCTC's people you see are probably from the most ordinary archetype you could imagine. Chubby smiling middle-aged men, or on the contrary older very dignified veterans, resembling the ones you see on postcards from the Soviet times. I also gained new respect for them, they really all are people of dreams. When asking the question what brought them here, most of them replied that they still remembered the day Gagarin was sent into space or the fact that they've been dreaming of flying to the stars since childhood. One of the trainers who works in the Hydrolab and couldn't qualify to be a cosmonaut said that after training cosmonauts for long hours under-water, at night he sometimes dreamed that he was himself walking in the outer-space.
They are all very aware of the crisis within the industry but no one wants to change jobs because it's simply their passion and they couldn't imagine their life without it. It does seem like they live in a bubble where time is standing still.
What are you going to do now that you've graduated?
My main problem is that I have too many interests. Besides photography I have a real passion for writing. For me they complete themselves.
So right now I am really hoping to find a job as a writer on photography, and finish to build my online portfolio and website, which I couldn't concentrate on while doing my MA. I am also hoping to promote and sell my project to a magazines as I really want my story to get out there.
Once I build up a portfolio strong enough and wider range of contact I would ultimately like to become a foreign correspondent.
Thank you Zlata!
I must have been pretty desperate for distraction the day i went to see Island Stories: Fifty Years of Photography in Britain at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This Summer now seems like it has been a long, relentless photo exhibition dedicated to London, England and/or Great Britain. I thought that even an anglophile like me wouldn't stomach yet another exhibition celebrating the joys and wonder of the country. But Island Stories: Fifty Years of Photography in Britain is such a gem of a little show, i'm on my way to see it for the second time. Incidentally, i'm left hoping that one day my own country will develop such propensity for navel-gazing, but that's another story.
Drawn exclusively from the V&A collections, this display features a selection of more than 80 photographs made in the UK since the 1950s. It focuses on individual projects, each of which tells a story. Collectively, they give a picture of life in Britain that reflects upon subjects ranging from landscape and industry to family and community.
There are work by Jeremy Deller, by Don McCullin and by Martin Paar but most photographers were new to me. I loved the show and i'll keep the comment short:
Maurice Broomfield's prints of post-war British industry are particularly fascinating. For 30 years, his images celebrated as much as they documented the labour of factory workers. Most photo series were commissioned by industrial clients. Most of them I suspect have now outsourced their assembly lines to other shores.
I think you're not supposed to laugh at this one:
Elsbeth Juda's 1952 series Milling around Lancashire also takes the factory floors as its main setting and the photos are as staged and polished as Broomfield's. This time however, the industrial context serves only as a backdrop for fashion shoots.
The text accompanying Grace Robertson's photos at the museum says "Using a compact Leica camera, Robertson was able to capture the unrestrained and unselfconscious mood of a women's annual pub outing." Annual? I'd better keep the snarky comment to myself. The photo below is based on this one by Kurt Hutton. But Robertson's models are middle-aged and wearing, i read, whalebone corsets.
In 1999, Peter Fraser photographed from up-close details of the apparatus used for the study of matter at the Physics and Applied Physics department at the University of Strathclyde, where research was being undertaken into the fundamental nature of matter at a subatomic level.
There you go! A lovely show, entrance is free.
Another London, an exhibition which opened a few weeks ago at Tate Britain, reminded me of my schooldays. I was 12 and started to learn english and about the English in illustrated text books. There were the bobbies, the bowler hats, Big Ben and the changing of the guard, the red buses, the red phone boxes, the smog. Clichés that screamed Great Britain for foreigners. When i first visited London, i looked for them. I didn't spot any bowler hat but, hey, i went to Piccadilly Circus to 'see the punks'!
Another London is a collection of pictures taken in London by foreign photographers between 1930 and 1980. Either many of them read the same text book as me or they were hired to fill its pages with their images.
But the show is no postcard pictures party. It is less about the parks and monuments than it is about the Londoners. The photographs selected in the exhibition depict the social history of the city in black and white. I guess i'll never cease to be amazed by the photos of Shoreditch before the hipsters and by the sartorial audacity of Londoners (though i can't imagine anyone nowadays loitering around town with 'Destroy London" written on the back of their leather jacket.)
Here are some of the images you can see at Tate Britain. In no particular order:
This one wasn't in the show, i found it looking for photos by Al Vandenberg:
The photographs come from a collection created over 20 years by Eric and Louise Franck. Most of them were donated by the couple to the Tate. I hope that means that Tate is going to pay even more attention to photography in the coming years.
Another London is at Tate Britain until 16 September 2012.
An exhibition as smartly titled as Mind the System, Find the Gap deserved a short trip on the Eurostar.
That's why on Tuesday, i was once again at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt to see the work of artists who are 'seeking out the gaps in the system.' I'll come back to it with a detailed review of the exhibition in the next few days. But let's kick of the show with Sebastian Stumpf's photo documentation of his performances in the 'gaps' (in japanese sukima) of Tokyo architecture. The artist is literally filling in the hiatus in the dense architectural structure of the city, squeezing his body in the overlooked spaces between the buildings. The action makes us suddenly aware of this 'urbanism interrupted', and calls our attention to what is in-between, behind, or beyond.
A very Pasta & Vinegar work....
Mind the System, Find the Gap remains open until 30 September 2012 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
Foto8 is my go-to gallery for documentary and photojournalism. Whatever they have up, i go and see it. Right now, the gallery is presenting the 159 photo works selected for its fifth annual Summershow. There are portraits of homeless people, of Palestinian girls dreaming of peace, documentation of the Libyan civil war, stories from the war, stories from some of the coldest parts of the globe, disorder in the streets of London. Mundane moments and dramas.
The public is invited to vote for their favourite image. My favourite is the lion behind bars from Felicity Crawshaw's Captivity and Rescue series. But i can't bear to watch the image again nor read the story associated to it.
So no photo of the lion in this post, just this quick selection:
Kryziu Kalnas (Hill of Crosses): Set in Northern Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses has become a site of national pilgrimage. Hundreds of thousands of crosses have been planted on the site.
3 years have passed since the economic crisis in Italy forced Nicola to sleep at the train station in Rome. "I was a musician, a composer. I have been working for years on a project about Christmas songs. The record company was happy about it. Then my mother suddenly died. Our house was from a social housing project. The government took it back. I was confused and depressed and my record company dropped me. I eventually couldn't find any other opportunity to integrate. I live on the street. I sleep here, on the floor just outside the big train terminal of Rome".
6 miles North of Whitstable, 5 derelict Maunsell Sea Forts lie on a sand bank called Shovering Sands. The Thames Estuary Army Forts were constructed in 1942 to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower.
Early in the morning, after a 12-hour nightshift, Vladimir Vladimirovich Paltyshev cleans out the stove of the local community heating system. From a project about Teriberka - the dying out village could soon become the natural gas capital of Europe.
A flooded building in the city of Yeni Halfeti on the Euphrates river. The city was partially submerged by the Birecik Dam in 1999 and the majority of its inhabitants were relocated in a new nearby city. The Birecik Dam is part of the 22 dams of the GAP project (Guneydoglu Anadolu Projesi), a development plan launched in the 80s by the Turkish government that aims to enhance a social stability and economic growth in the Southeastern Anatolia, the poorest region in Turkey.
Turkish Blue Gold represents the consequences of the exploitation of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by Turkey, such as the flooding of villages and the reduction of water supplies for Syria and Iraq.
No photo competition would be complete without some images of socialist buildings in various states of preservation. Tim Allen's photos from his visit to the abandoned Buzludzha Monument are nevertheless stunning. The structure was designed by architect Guéorguy Stoilov and opened in 1981 by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement.
Mack Moore, in his 80's, started off his working career in funeral homes and cemeteries. But both he and his wife had a desire to move to Las Vegas and in 1997 he bought 80 acres of land outside Beatty, Nevada. The land came with a 100 year old brothel, called Angel's Ladies. Mack ended up running the brothel and currently has eight girls working there. Prostitution in Las Vegas itself is illegal, but many visitors on the convention circuit will head into the desert and across county lines to find the legal brothels. In 2005 his brothel had 4,500 customers. (via)
Watson, the 23-year-old boss of his gang, peeks out of his shack during a gang battle.
Yesterday, i went to the Saatchi Gallery to see Korean Eye and the most charitable comment i'm willing to make about the show is that it has a few good moments. However, the exhibition on the top floor, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, is worth the trip to King's Road.
The nine eyes are the cameras mounted on the pole on top of each vehicle that Google sent around the world 5 years ago. The technology of Google Street View has sparkled moments of deep humiliation, interest from the press photography community, privacy concerns and brilliant artistic reactions.
Jon Rafman was one of the first artists who spent hours looking at the images collected by the cars and searching not just for the amusing, the ridiculous and the fortuitous but also for postcard perfect moments. And does he have an eye for stunning images...
As the artist writes: With its supposedly neutral gaze, the Street View photography had a spontaneous quality unspoiled by the sensitivities or agendas of a human photographer... capturing fragments of reality stripped of all cultural intentions.
Without indication of their location:
Looks like Trellick Tower in North Kensington, London.
Probably my favourite:
Previously: Community Performance in Google Street View, Aaron Hobson's Cinemascapes: Google Street View Edition which i discovered at the London Festival of Photography, and Michael Wolf, We are watching you...