Since the birth of modern photography in the 19th century photobooks have provided a medium for photographers to consolidate their work and use image in a narrative fashion. While the culture of self-published photobooks is well developed in many countries around the world, Russia has been lagging behind. Alexander Rodchenko’s experiments with photography in the journal LEF provided a solid foundation, yet few photobooks have been published since then. Until now that is. Although you can still count the number of publications on one hand, the past few years has seen photographers taking up the cause with enthusiasm — and with sparkling results. Igor Samolet’s Be Happy was included in volume three of The Photobook: A History edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. And others, such as Ekaterina Anokhina and Kirill Savchenkov have won international acclaim for their work.
The Calvert Journal brings you the best photobooks to come out of Russia in recent years.
Kirill Savchenkov - Iceberg
Kirill Savchenkov’s phantasmagoric photobook Iceberg is part-autobiography, part-fiction. Together, the photos and words tell the story of a young Muscovite, a skateboarder and photographer, in a non-linear fashion. From an image of a naked girl to a close up of a face, to a view across a sea, the narrator switches from one fragment to another. The narrator is “a drifting man … moving among memories, images and pictures from the past, down the stream”. For Savchenkov, the word iceberg is more than just a title for his book: it’s a metaphor through which the artist defines himself in a private dialogue and which has influenced the drifting structure of the layout.
Irina Popova - If You Have a Secret
In 2009, Irina Popova left Russia for Holland. Her book If You Have a Secret, a mix of images and text, is an autobiographical account of her life, based on a Russian children’s game called “secrets”. The game involves the simple act of burying everyday items such as a leaf or a sweet wrapper into the earth to transform them into a secret. Popova’s book brings together seven years of photographs from before her departure to tell the story of her life and family. Although deeply personal, her story is also that of a lost generation, caught “between the ruined Soviet Union, the chaos of the 1990s and the development of a new authoritarian unit”. The photos move from pictures of dachas and interiors to homeless people in no particular order and with no particular plot. There is only the recognition that your secrets are my secrets too.
Jana Romanova - ShviliShvili
Jana Romanova’s ShviliShvili (Georgian for “grandchild”) is a meditation on kinship. The book considers how an archive of photographs can influence what it means to be a family. Romanova’s work has a clear structure. The concertina-fold book features her Georgian relatives: each image contains one person from the previous photograph, creating an uninterrupted chain of family portraits. Geographically, the book moves from a series of Georgian villages and cities before arriving in Russia. Flip the book over and you’ll see photos belonging to Romanova’s grandmother, Keto, which she discovered at various family members’ houses while conducting her research. The book serves as a kind of “anti-family album”, revealing the problems experienced by relatives divided by geography as well as other, much darker personal tragedies.
Julia Borissova - Running to the Edge
Running to the Edge, a book dedicated to the first wave of Russian emigrants, is a wistful and fictional tale of a woman who lived during the 1920s. The book, which was shortlisted in the conceptual category of 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, resembles a diary, comprising old black-and-white portraits from Borissova’s private archive and those collected at flea markets with colourful flowers superimposed on top. Running to the Edge contemplates the gulf between the past and the present, exploring how memories are reconstituted each time they are retrieved.
Elena Kholkina - Doorways
Legendary photographer and curator John Szarkowski once said that photography could be seen as a window through which the exterior world is explored. This is particularly applicable to Elena Kholkina’s book Doorways, an exploration of colour, shape and light. After studying her own archive of photography, Kholkina was struck by the similarities between her images: it was as if one image followed on from the other quite naturally. For Kholkina, each photograph is a “doorway” to another, a concept captured perfectly in her book of doors, floors and other spaces. After it was nominated for a 2013 Unseen Dummy award for unpublished photobooks Kholkina redesigned the book to enable readers to literally look through it as if through a doorway.