A camera can be a time machine. It plucks from the present an image that lives into the future. Through the art of photography, past, present, and future coincide to challenge our concept of time, change, and progress.
This has become the backbone of our Moscow portrait series, a project collaborated by Italian photographers Alessandro Albert and Paolo Verzone and spanning spanning two decades. We completed the first stage, a collection of black and white portraits, in September 1991, two weeks after the August coup d’état that contributed to the USSR’s collapse.
Equipped with a sign explaining in Russian that would we were looking for people to take a moment to pose for us, we sought out Muscovites passing through the streets between 10 am and 5 pm, a time range ideal for lighting. We stationed ourselves and our large format, 4x5 inch folding camera at strategic locations, particularly those bearing political or cultural significance, to reveal the metamorphoses occurring in the social fabric of the Russian capital. Each day we would move in order to expose ourselves to a new neighborhood or demographic.
Just as news headlines failed to truly capture the atmosphere and events in Moscow that year, these monumental locations such as Red Square, Gorky Park, and Arbat Street, failed to represent the city’s human character. But as people came into focus between ourselves and these silent buildings, we began to piece together the true face of Moscow. Through the final 180 portraits and our personal interactions with Muscovites from all levels, we could see that the coup d’état had shifted the mood toward one of hope and possibility.
The reaction to the 1991 project was profound. It received the Kodak European Panorama Grant and exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles and Acta Gallery in Rome. Newsweek, La Vanguardia, and D della Repubblica carried selections of it, while our book, Volti di Passaggio, published the project in its entirety. This outpouring of interest encouraged us to continue this story and further document the growth and progress underway in Moscow.
For our second stage of the project, we returned exactly ten years later in September 2001 to complete a similar survey but in color in order to create a distinct difference between both periods. By this time, the dreams of ’91 had disappeared under the weight of an increasingly socio-economically polarized city. Returning to the same locations, we waited for volunteers to once again submit their images to our record.
We would like to return Moscow in September 2011, twenty years after our initial trip and ten since our previous, to document the city’s people for a third time. Over a period of three weeks we would take between 200 and 250 portraits in the same fashion as the two previous times.
The aid of this grant would allow us to complete this third and crucial stage. All the portraits in 1991 and 2001 were taken with active participation of the Muscovites, who thus give a direct testimonial of the human and social types within the capital. The significance and the magnitiude of over-arching poltical events became lost within a teenager’s gaze, a middle-aged woman’s calm demeanour, or a prostitute’s defiant stare.
Through their sheer scale, unity, and connotation, these images challenged Moscow’s official story. They forced ourselves and the viewer to re-envision this former Soviet captial and the current Russian one through these personalities. In doing so, this work has been both a marker for the present and a return to the past. The Moscovites’ enigmatic ability to defy expectations has encouraged us to go about this next series without pre-conceived notions. We want to be guided only by our eyes in order to revisit the challenge of creating a portrait of a city.
The completion of this project would be a valuable and unique visual documentation of a city across an incredible time of transformation. The spaces we have decided and will return to, our style, and our intentions will ensure the completion of the 2011 series and the continuation of this project. We aim to distribute this series through a book, an exhibition and a multimedia presentation to be shown at various festivals and online. The support of this grant would greatly aid this rare documentary project exploring photography’s role in testifying and challenging our notions of time, identify and change.