The fragility and diversity of masculinity

Photographer Alexander Veryovkin spent the last two years capturing monumental Soviet architecture for Polish design studio Zupagrafika, snapping urban landscapes at temperatures plummeting below -30 degrees Celsius.

But the St Petersburg-based photographer has also been turning his lens elsewhere — shooting tender portraits of strangers and friends for a new untitled series. The project seeks to take a fresh look at the idea of male beauty, a subject long underexplored in Russia’s patriarchal society. “I think in the here and now, the majority of people accept the standard masculine image as being quite brutal,” Veryovkin told The Calvert Journal. “I’m more interested in the opposite: trying to capture fragility and a greater diversity of images in general.”

Veryovkin studied astrophysics at university, and spent his free time catching up on movies or NASA reports. Both shaped his vision as a photographer. Cinematography nurtured his interest towards chance encounters and storytelling, while space exploration pushed him to study digital photography, with its high definition and instant magic. Veryovkin began taking images on his Sony Ericsson smartphone back in 2005, but truly took to photography two years later, when he bought his first professional camera for an astrophysics expedition in the Caucasus. Over the next few years, he first studied documentary and then contemporary photography, focusing mainly on the notions of borders and boundaries, and communication in the digital age.

In his latest series, Veryovkin confronts social barriers: looking beyond socially-accepted ideas of strong and steadfast male beauty. But he also tried to document a generational gap that he himself felt keenly. He had just turned 30, and felt a certain loss of his own youth. In his images, Veryovkin seeks to capture what otherwise goes unseen: in this case, the feeling that his freedom and naivety slipping away. “I focused on teenagers as they, just like me, seemed to be in an in-between state, shifting from childhood to youth,” the photographer explains.

Veryovkin started photographing Russia’s youth in 2014, when he spent a night documenting the celebration known as the Scarlet Sails. In a tradition that dates back to 1968, the celebration sees several schools in St Petersburg mark the end of the school year by sailing boats with red hangings down the Neva river— a nod to the popular 1922 children’s book Scarlet Sails by Alexander Grin. In Russia, graduation is seen as a farewell to childhood. “The idea of capturing students at the gate of youth seemed intuitively appealing to me,” remembers Veryovkin, who later compiled the images into a zine. The sweeping beauty of such interim states have quickly became woven throughout Veryovkin’s practice.

The portraits depict a mix of both Veryovkin’s friends and complete strangers, scouted on the streets of St Petersburg. Veryovkin considers his curiosity and thirst for observation a natural part of living in the city: “St Petersburg is located by the sea. The endless horizon feels like an invitation to stare at the unknown,” he says. As a result, Veryovkin says, he often finds himself scanning the streets for faces, features, details or places that seem out of place.

When photographing friends, Veryovkin often needs to find the perfect setting, but for his street-cast models, what counts are his first impressions. “When I come across the perfect stranger to photograph, I feel it straight away,” he says. “I grasp a feature or a small detail that is both familiar and forgotten, as if popping out from a distant past, a dream, or subconsciousness.”