DATE: January 18, 2008
Traveling through the former Soviet Union between
1990 and 1994, the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen used an
automatic camera to snap pictures of people in and around their homes.
The photographs were collected in a book of the same title as this show
(now out of print), but they were never exhibited in New York. Viewed
today, her portrait of a society in transition is a welcome counterpoint
to the oligarch-dominated public image of the New Russia.
van Manen may have undertaken her journey in the spirit of Robert
Frank, but the seductive proximity of her photographs is more
reminiscent of Nan Goldin. Many of them appear to have been taken in
bedrooms, or beds in communal living rooms. As in a separate series on
French immigrants, Ms. van Manen also pays close attention to still
lifes of domestic clutter — family portraits, lace doilies, postcards
pinned to faded wallpaper — all of which gives her photographs a
St. Petersburg, (Two Soldiers Running), 1991, 16 x 20 inch
chromogenic print, Edition of 10. Courtesy Yancey Richardson
The series does not shy away from the sheer gloominess (to a Western
eye) of post-Soviet life: an elderly woman curled up next to a radiator
in a railway station, a rickety gray Ping-Pong table in an uninviting
recreation center. More often, however, Ms. van Manen captures brief
flares of exuberance: men and women standing naked in the snow outside a
bathhouse, or a boy playing the accordion at a gypsy camp.
In a photograph taken toward the end of the trip, a bearded man tosses
his baby high into the air. It is tempting to interpret this sunlit
infant, limbs extended and dramatically foreshortened, as a national
symbol. Ms. van Manen's casually intimate camerawork, however, pulls the
scene back down to earth.
By Karen Rosenberg
For The New York Times