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Photography Sad glimpses of an era gone by

Bleak documentation of the remnants of the Soviet period is made soulless by an absence of human beings, writes JOHN GREEN

Soviet Seasons
By Arseniy Kotov
Fuel Design & Publishing
£24.34

 

THIS is the follow-up volume to Kotov’s debut Soviet Cities. It is an odd collection of photos, all in colour, featuring Soviet-era urban landscapes of housing estates and industrial sites, interspersed with murals, mosaics and monumental sculptures, many in a state of semi-dereliction. He covers four areas of the post-Soviet republics – Siberia, Ukraine, European Russia and the Caucasus.

Each area is separated incongruously by season, but you would be hard-put to guess in which season any one of the photographs was taken, as they are all drained of real colour, mostly sepia-toned, taken at dusk, night-time or under grey skies. The viewer is confronted with almost identical images of densely packed, faceless housing blocks, seemingly dumped into the landscapes.

This density and uniformity of the buildings reflects the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the second world war the devastated and ruined Soviet Union was faced with the incredible task of building sorely needed housing at a rapid pace for the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the Nazi war machine and a growing post-war population. It used a system of prefabricated elements to construct simple habitations and could afford little time or concern for architectural nuance or experimentation.

This has resulted in acres of matchbox-like blocks of flats which, with repetition, present a depressing picture, compounded by the photographer’s chosen atmospheric conditions and poor light.

Kotov also largely avoids human beings – they only occur coincidentally in one or two images. He concentrates solely on built-up cityscapes seen from a distance, eliding the stories of the communities that occupy these buildings and the sort of life their residents lead.

He takes us from abandoned flats in Siberia into which snow intrudes though open doors and windows to form strange sculptural shapes like white fungus, to a deserted amusement park in Pripyat, Chernobyl, taking us to a grey, concrete housing block dumped unceremoniously into a verdant valley in Georgia.

Kotov travelled on his own the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union – Siberia, Ukraine, Georgia and central Russia, often hitch-hiking across vast distances.

He photographs places that few tourists will ever visit – faceless suburbs and desolate industrial sites that all look the same and could be anywhere, as there is little context provided.

While he is undoubtedly contributing to a documentation of Soviet history and residential architecture, one wonders what he hopes to achieve with this second album. In photographic terms he offers little aesthetic gratification, nor does he give a human dimension to his images and the laconic texts that accompany the photos provide us with only sparse factual information.

A meaningful visualisation of such urban environments is hardly possible if one ignores those who live in them, as Kotov does.

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