On the edge: how Alexander Gronsky explores the limits of photography

On the edge: how Alexander Gronsky explores the limits of photography

As a solo exhibition of Alexander Gronsky's work goes on show in London, The Calvert Journal talks to the acclaimed landscape photographer about his practice and career

1 May 2015

Landscape photographer Alexander Gronsky was born in Estonia in 1980 and is now based in Latvia, but has spent a large part of his career living and working in Russia. For four years, Gronsky captured the outskirts of Moscow, where the city meets the wild, and where many Muscovites go swimming, sunbathing or camping. He has also travelled to Norilsk, documenting its industrial wastelands, and further afield to China.

Gronsky is a self-taught photographer and shoots on film. Two of his projects, Pastoral and Reconstruction, are currently on display at The Wapping Project Bankside in London until 29 May. One of the pleasures of seeing his series side by side is that you can trace his development as an artist. But there are similarities between the two in that they were both shot in the suburbs. Whether its Russian edgelands or riverbanks in China, the edge is a recurring theme in his work (and the title of one of his earliest projects). As he expands the scope of his practice, The Calvert Journal caught up with him about his evolving career.

<em>Siege of Leningrad</em> (2013) from the <em>Reconstruction</em> series by Alexander Gronsky

Siege of Leningrad (2013) from the Reconstruction series by Alexander Gronsky

Reconstruction, a recent series on historic battle re-enactments, includes figures such as performers and viewers. Is this a move away from traditional landscape photography as seen in Pastoral?

For me [Pastoral] wasn’t about landscape photography. It was more that the landscapes I had encountered I wanted to execute in a very academic way. I don’t think I ever wanted to put myself in as precise a framework as landscape photography. I’m still referenced as an Estonian photographer even though I haven’t lived in Estonia for 20 years! My process is very intuitive: I’m interested in the photographic image in general, and it’s important for me to question its forms. For Reconstruction I was interested in historical panoramas. There are museums where you can see a panorama of a particular battle presented as a 360-degree landscape with objects in the foreground. I was trying to achieve this totality of landscape.

Why did you decide to split your work into triptychs?

I started exploring this in China while working on Mountains and Waters. It felt quite natural. At some point I wanted to extend both the space captured and the photograph on the wall, and think about how each piece can interact with another. Having two or three panels enables me to explore space in more complex ways, and adds layers of observation and contemplation for the viewer. In the series I am currently working on I have up to 16 panels.

Is it also a way of disrupting the experience of the work?

An important part of my exploration is testing the limits of the photographic image. For Reconstruction I tried to manipulate both space and the time. I’m currently working on the book of the project and it’s clearer now than ever before that it really is about reconstruction, reassembling images that happen at different places and times. For some of the triptychs I used parts of other landscapes or other re-enactments. Sometimes there was a big gap between images, or I would take one image an hour after another. There’s a kind of conflict or narrative that occurs between images separated by a period of time.

Did you have any control over the staging of these re-enactments?

It wasn’t important for me. I was taking pictures of all the reconstructions I could visit. At one point I decided I wanted them to be in snowy conditions. It is easier to reassemble different landscapes when the backdrop is snow.

<em>Breach of blockade</em> (2013) from the <em>Reconstruction</em> series by Alexander Gronsky

Breach of blockade (2013) from the Reconstruction series by Alexander Gronsky

You began your career as a photojournalist. Would you consider Reconstruction as a return to storytelling?

It’s more of a pseudo-narrative, a narrative that originates from the pictures themselves. You look at the pictures and presume they are connected in some way, and that there’s a story behind this connection. I never give any particular detail of what is going on, so that the viewer can try to interpret it in any way. For me it isn’t necessary that the thing in the photograph should somehow explain reality, it should be misleading as well.

What is next for you?

I’m starting to explore digital photography. Although I’m interested in the technology, and the freedom it allows, for me it’s still an exploration of the image itself.

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