City of Shadows, City of Tears
It is interesting to speculate how Boris Smelov might have responded to the digital revolution in photography, which had only begun to spread its all-enveloping wings in 1998, when the artist died. On the one hand, he was consistently intrigued by new developments in the medium and frequently deplored the difficulty of obtaining the latest tools and materials in the Soviet Union, where only journalistic and amateur photography were officially recognized. Nonetheless, he owned first-rate cameras and always printed on high-quality paper, and he acknowledged that technical advances naturally bring about changes in quality. When it became available, he himself made interesting experiments with infrared film. In an interview published in 1988, Smelov reflected that devices like automatic cameras and new techniques for developing and printing “have widened the cultural horizon, enriched the stock of available images and even the point of view of photographers.” Yet his enthusiasm was not unqualified: “The ability to achieve high-quality images without using either brains or culture has the potential to diminish photography.” Not surprisingly, he anticipated what many would see as the downside of the digital aesthetic that swamped the art market at the end of the last century: without a firm authorial viewpoint, the results are “empty and cold.”
In Smelov’s reflections on photography, the crucial word is always “culture.” When asked about the ideal education of photographers, he responded that the most fruitful approach would be less technical than liberal, including the study of philosophy, psychology and the fine arts. Given the common faith that “pictures speak louder than words,” it is worth noting that Smelov included the study of foreign languages as an important element to the photographic curriculum. One can also reflect on the distinctive “language” he created in his own works. Those were the testament of a committed auteur who loved the philosophy of Dostoevsky, the paintings of Van Gogh and the music of Mozart, but who likewise read the theoretical writings of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes and was generous in appraising the work of his colleagues. Within the field of Photography, he had special praise for Henri Cartier-Bresson and for Josef Sudek, who taught him the consummate lesson that “every object in the physical world has its own soul.” Capturing the evanescent presence with the aid of the camera was less a question of art than one of intuition – of seizing what Cartier-Bresson described as the “decisive moment.”
Early in his career, Smelov made portraits of non-official writers and artists, including of himself, and he occasionally worked – with enormous success – in the genre of the still life. His Still Life with Pomegranate (1988) and Still Life with Distorting Mirror (1991) are true masterworks in that genre, and they underscore his knowledge of Renaissance painting. Nonetheless, Smelov remains quintessentially a chronicler of the city. And not just of any city, but of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, where he was born and died. He thus continues a great tradition of urban photography that began in the nineteenth century, when the medium itself was born. It was a time of rapid urbanization and industrialization that witnessed the building of Hausmann’s broad Parisian boulevards but also the growth of sweatshops and slums throughout Europe and America. The contrast between rich and poor, between sunny boulevards and dark alleyways, between palatial public buildings and decrepit tenements offered seemingly inexhaustible subjects for the camera eye.
Smelov’s Tuchkov Alley (1995) confirms the continuing validity of such dichotomies. Structured in strict geometries, the work shows us an elderly woman with a cane, moving gingerly along a narrow strip of light that parallels the anonymous rectangle of a building. Her path intersects with a darkened lane that reveals a group of trees in the distance – possibly a park, which was one of the photographer’s fondest subjects. The shadows in the foreground are plainly those of a tree unseen in the picture. The dichotomous vocabulary is simple but richly expressive: light and dark, architecture and nature, the individual and the anonymous cityscape. Other works, including the grim studies of Man with a Bucket (1974) and The Wall (1975), exclude nature in favor of the bleak labyrinths to which invisible tenants are banished. (One should keep in mind that these works date to a particularly critical and eventful period in Smelov’s career, when he received his first public recognition but was also persecuted by Soviet authorities, who closed his exhibition at the Vyborg District Palace of Culture in 1976 and confiscated the works on view there.)
It is comparatively rare to encounter the human figure in Smelov’s urban studies, and the people who do appear there are essentially anonymous bystanders – like the Two Figures in an Archway (1971), who plainly interest the artist because of the dramatic light-dark scenario and not as individuals. Silver Boy (1996) constitutes a startling exception in which the human figure is the true focus of the composition. In most cases, the figures appearing here are artificial ones: stone statues in a graveyard, ornaments on a fountain or bridge – like the centaur so gracefully poised in Pavlovsk. Centaur Bridge – I (1975) and Pavlovsk. Centaur Bridge – II (1994). It is interesting to note how the later work highlights the natural setting and leaves the sculpture itself almost completely swallowed by shadow.
Then there are the architectural studies that verge on geometric abstraction. Light falling obliquely through windows, arches intersecting between light and dark, twisting stairs and balustrades obviously appealed to the artist for formal reasons. For an artist interested in modern philosophy, they may have had existential connotations as well. A sense of mystery and tristesse pervades these studies of Saint Petersburg – partly because Smelov rarely photographed in full sunlight. Sometimes we encounter the fading light of evening, but his preferred ambience was created by early morning light, when the sun was just beginning to disperse the fog from a cemetery bridge or playground. The shadows are hence long and deep, and highlighted details emerge with particular intensity. As we perceive it here, Leningrad/Saint Petersburg is not a city of light envisioned by the French architect who, under Peter the Great, attempted to transpose their vision from the banks of the Seine to the banks of the Neva. For all its occasional grandeur, this is a world of shadows and often a world of tears. In an article entitled “After Raskolnikov: Russian Photography Today,” critic John P. Jacob referred to Smelov as “a master of the school of spiritual aestheticism.” Indeed, the series In Memory of Dostoevsky might serve to describe the entire oeuvre of this remarkably gifted outsider.
Prof. David Galloway Art historian; art critic (ARTnews (New York) and International Herald Tribune (Paris) Contributing editor for Art in America International curator and author of a variety of art books