soviet photography

Book Review: Gvido Kajons "Theme 011"

One-sentence review: The first half relies too heavily on soviet propaganda slogans, the other half has historical value for Latvian culture.

Gvido Kajons is one of the Latvian photographers whose work I saw at "Cool Water" exhibition (together with Andrejs Grants and Inta Ruka). I reviewed Grants' book here should you be interested.

Kajons's book was quite hard to find, his website is in Latvian, but using Google Translate I understood that the book is sold by some gallery in Riga. I contacted the gallery in Facebook (they have a page) and they indeed sold me the book. Not the usual way to get a book.

First of all, the book is solid hardcover, printed on nice paper and the reproduction quality seems to be very good for me. But I'm saying that without seeing any original prints, so I don't have a reference to compare to other than my own experience with similar photo books. Oh well, I did see the prints at the exhibition, but that was too long ago to compare the quality.

The book is divided into two parts - the first and unnamed part starts right after intro essay and then somewhere in the middle there's a separate page with subtitle "Portraits".

The first part relies heavily on various Soviet propaganda slogans, posters, signs, roadside banners written in either Russian (which I understand to some extent) or Latvian (which I don't understand at all). Frankly, most of these pictures just fail to impress despite the fact that the texts are translated in the captions. I think the picture has to say everything without relying much on texts in the picture (I can think of exceptions but that's another topic). I found myself desperately waiting for the next picture without any texts. When I try to remember the pictures from the exhibition, I think all of them stood on their own - so the author has more and better work, it's just a matter of edit. Then again, I totally fail to understand the choice of pictures in the book.

Some small things I noticed: I very much like the picture of a parade in the snow on page 12 and it was an interesting realization how the sky is left completely blank white without any details on some pictures - it would be totally unacceptable nowadays, during the digital age, when you must get absolutely everything out of the dynamic range of the sensor (and you must have a bad sensor if your skies are blank white). I'm intrigued to try white sky now.

There's picture from London titled (and showing) Tower Bridge (on page 106) in a book where the rest of the pictures are from Soviet Latvia, at least as far as I can identify. I hope it's a human error during editing and not a choice knowingly made, this picture really doesn't belong there.

The second part contains mostly portraits of Latvian writers, musicians, journalists, actors, etc. I can't help but think if I'd find the portraits more interesting if I knew the people. I found myself thinking how would I connect to the work of, say, Jim Marshall if I knew absolutely nothing of the people on his pictures? I'm not even comparing the pictures, because Kajons is not nearly Marshall, but just as an intellectual exercise. All in all, it is history of Latvian culture, just as Kalju Suur's work is valued because it's history of Estonian culture, but the pictures don't stand on their own, mostly. I have another book by Latvian portrait photographer Inta Ruka (whose portrait is also among Kajons's portraits) in my to-be-reviewed list and I find the pictures there lightyears ahead of Kajons's.

Kajons's book makes me think how should I photograph, say, the streets of Tartu in a way that this work would make any sense in 30 years, in a way that it would tell something about life around 2015.

Book Review: Andrejs Grants "Fotografijas"

I've noticed a tendency to be more interested in the work of photographers with somewhat similar background as myself. For example I connect more with the work of photographers from the Soviet block than to, say, the work about social issues in US Midwest. Not that the latter was bad or anything (I have to write a review of Bryan Schutmaat's fabulous "Grays The Mountain Sends" to balance this statement), but as I said - I tend to connect more to the topics that are close to me - geographically, historically, spiritually.

So after visiting a group exhibition "Cool Water" showing Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian photography from the nineties I bought the books of Andrejs Grants and Inta Ruka. Neither are available new, but good options exist on Ebay.

Grants's works remind me a little bit of Koudelka (sometimes even to the point where I'd suspect he had seen and copied Koudelka - for example the landscape with hand and wristwatch), but in general are not as dark as his.

The book is divided into three parts - Impressions, Around Latvia and Colleagues, Friends and Acquaintances. I salute to the separation - having seen rather mediocre book with portraits mixed with nudes and industrial views from an Estonian author of the same time.

I liked the works of Grants on the exhibition - I wouldn't have bought the book otherwise - but the first part honestly fails to impress. The pictures are indeed impressions, with fairly little to connect to. You can rarely guess the time or place and although one can argue they're not important, it is why I become interested in his works in the first place. The photographs of Berlin seem to be out of place for me - one showing a graffiti in German and the other one with huge Marlboro banner among pictures of eighties Latvia. Not to mention one square format picture among the 2:3-s.

The second part pushes hard on the nostalgia buttons and seems also the strongest photography in this book - for me. The details are distinctly Soviet - the cars and buses, moped, clothing, etc, although europlastic makes it's way into the newer pictures too. The pictures show more signs of life than the first part, there're people on almost every picture. The situations vary from sad to humorously absurd, as on the front cover photo. It comes through as everyday life, found rather than staged. It's not depressing, but it's mostly not upbeat either.

The third part, Colleagues, Friends and Acquaintances, seems to be the weakest. The selection seems just random for me, studio work mixed with environmental portraits and hardly portraits at all. There're some interesting photos, I mostly like the ones that stretch the portrait category, again likely found and not staged.

My overall impression is positive, I'm happy to have this book on my shelf. More importantly, I'm glad this type of work - about life in Soviet Union - exists and has found it's way into the form of book making it more accessible. I'd have never been able to make myself familiar with Grants's works if this book didn't exist.

(Added 13.11.15): Now that I've had a bit more time to think about this book - I like that it's not melancholic, it's not outsiders view in, it's insiders view. It doesn't make things overly dramatic, these seem to be the pictures of a person who knew what life is like in Soviet Union.

PS: I like printing the negative borders, they frame the pictures nicely and underline the fact that the photos are uncropped. But leaving them out on 3-4 pictures in the book makes it a bit weird.