The Russian Empire: A Portrait in Photographs
Windows on the River Neva: A Memoir Books, Wellfleet, Massachusetts 026677)
The art of the camera, if it is an art, is subject more than any other art to the laws of nostalgia. It needs only ten years for an advertisement in a magazine to acquire charm of a quaint, retrospective kind. Pictures with more pretension live in a limbo of modernism, of art deco. Family snapshots carry the strongest charge of emotion reconstituted in tranquility, as analyzed in Philip Larkin’s poem “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.” The camera confers on reality all the immunities possessed by art: every contingency is caught and held inside the magic circle, becoming “smaller and clearer as the years go by.”
The case of Russia is a special one. The world of Chekhov, Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” the feverish dreams of Raskolnikov and the Underground Man, Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero” seem already to anticipate the world of film, as does the black and white perspective of Petersburg itself. Many Russian novels have particularly strong and idiosyncratic visual elements. And by ending an epoch abruptly, the revolution caused everything on the far side of it to appear in a different light. Chloe Obolensky has had the admirably imaginative idea of compiling a history in photographs of the last years of the Russian empire. The result is “nutritious”—to use Philip Larkin’s epithet for old photos—to an almost incredible degree.
One could spend days greedily ingesting every detail of dress and expression, among all classes and nationalities of the immense society we find in this book. Its past is that of a foreign country where things are done differently, and yet every nuance of human behavior as we know it can also be instantly recognized. In a curious way the combination of unknown details and tantalizing suggestions, the juxtaposition of copious artifacts and unfamiliar settings, anticipate some of the complex satisfactions of successful abstract art, as if abstraction were both the partner and successor of the great photographic era, profiting from the training to which it has accustomed the eye, and also supplying the dimension which photography has devitalized in representational art.
In her introduction Chloe Obolensky tells us that her sources “ranged from salvaged family albums to photographic societies, geographical archives and ethnographic collections in a dozen or so European countries (including the Soviet Union) and in the United States. To watch this heterogeneous material slowly form into a picture which, however incomplete, possessed both coherence and truth was a moving and at times even a startling experience.” Virtually none of the pictures had been published before, and she decided to plan the book as a journey, eastward from the two capitals, “across the Volga, the Ural Mountains and Siberia, to the farthest confines of the empire on the Pacific Ocean—and back.” This topographical approach gives a unique picture of primitive Russia before the revolution. Some of the most striking photographs are of Pushkin’s “wild Tungus,” of the Voguls, fishermen and hunters between the Ob …