Dear Leonardo, everything was much more serious, namely: I was at one of the stages of disappearing. You know, a human being cannot disappear instantly and completely; s/he first turns into something different in shape and essence, for example, into a waltz – a remote, barely audible evening waltz, that is, s/he disappears in part and only then does s/he disappear entirely. - Sasha Sokolov, ‘A School for Fools’
Photographs and text – Max Sher
Last fall, my architect friends have discovered a huge abandoned family photo archive that belonged to a man who had recently died. They found it in his former communal apartment that had been sold by the man’s heirs who then took out everything of value for them but left behind, among useless ties and shoes, a huge archive of color slides. They seemed not to have bothered to browse throught it as it was all packed in boxes and corded carefully. Before the apartment was converted for a new use and all that remained thrown away, my friends suggesed I take pictures and browse through the archive. I spent about three weeks photographing the apartment where luxurious ceilings, a built-in 1912 US-made safe and wallpapers dating back to 1940s still remained. We also found a lot of documents that allowed us to retrace the family history in broad strokes.
The man was born in 1916 and died in 2009. His wife was born in this very apartment in 1922 and died here as well in 2001. The wife’s mother was apparently married to someone from the family who had owned the entire building before the communists exproriated it after the 1917 revolution. After serving as a firefighter during WWII, the man became an engineer and his wife worked as a researcher at the Museum of Ethnography. They did not have children together, it seems, although the man had a daugther from a previous relationship. Both were avid photographers with a very similar vision, so similar that it is sometimes impossible to understand where whose pictures were. It took me about 6 months to make a selection of about 120 photos out of a few thousands of color slides depicting the long and seemingly happy life of this couple.
What is interesting about this archive is that these color photographs made between early 1960s and late 1980s reflect a huge layer of Russian amateur photography that’s virtually absent from the public conscience (for most Russians, a historical photo is the one in black and white). Many have seen such color images in their own family or friends’ archives but almost never in the public space or media. While there existed an official Soviet photography that served the state propaganda and a non-conformist fine art photography that opposed the former, thousands of amateurs have been taking pictures out of a simple desire to record what they thought was interesting and beautiful around them. They had little access to any serious photography comtemporary to them. Photo exhibitions were a rarity and state-sponsored anyway, photo books were available but again were rather propagandistic, as were the photography magazines.
The series I ended up with is a curatorial experiment about how amateur photrography made 30-40 years ago is perceived today when edited by another photographer, put in context with his own photographs and then published as a book and exhibited. The pictures of the couple’s long and seemingly happy life are complemented with those of nonbeing, nothingness, depicting their empty apartment with a few old and useless things that remained for a while before disappearing forever.
The series also poses the question of visual talent. On the one hand, these found photographs were made by someone visually talented. On the other, it is a small selection made out of thousands and thousands of rather ordinary images, and those of them that seem interesting to us today might have been made accidentally, as it often happens, or were not considered as interesting at the time when they were taken. But isn’t it what sometimes happens to great masters as well: a few dozens of great images out of thousands and thousands, and sometimes even those few dozens only appreciated after some time.