Russia: A World Apart
by Simon Marsden and Duncan McLaren
Paul Holberton Publishing, London, UK, 2013
144 pp., illus. 80 b/w. Trade, £25.00
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
The Russia that we know rose from the Russia that we knew, or thought we knew, or knew something of. The post-Soviet world grew from the ruins that preceded it, from Soviet to Tsarist Russia, and before. Nowhere is this more present than in the photographs of Simon Marsden, an outsider looking in. His Russia: A World Apart is also a posthumous edition, published just over a year after his death in 2012.
Where the past animates the present in the structures and landscapes that once held its life and still hold something of our own is Marsden’s realm, and now his only realm. His was an oeuvre whose eye and touch I will miss. His photos captivate. Nor does it matter whether or not we have been to those places Marsden explores, camera in hand. We are there, with and within his photos, not only because of their acuity, the exceptional details and dramatic contrasts between light and dark that infra-red film can reveal – his primary medium – but also by way of their poignancy; what time can show us of loss and emptiness in the still living accent of ruins.
Animate and vital, rich with suggestion or struck by the mute splendor of forgotten places, his photos infuse perception with something that each of us seeks distinctly, within or askance of perception. They are not comforting photos in that sense; what photos that evolve from ruins are? But because of them I rediscover, and perhaps you will, too, the counterpoints and perturbations of enchantment; an intimate, evocative sensibility provoked by this survey of Russia’s 18th and 19th century estates, with several more current exceptions. Their visual legacy -- of beauty, largess, avarice, and power -- is there for the taking.
The first photos set the stage: a statue from Pavlovsk Park (in the St. Petersburg region) shows a woman draped in antique white leaning in sorrow over the base of a marble plinth on which a trio of funerary urns rise. Half wreathed in Romanesque silhouette is a man, the deceased, in two views – as young and as old. Wealth, culture and vanity find the cerement stamp here.
The Stepanovskoye, Pavlishehevo Estate (Kaluga province) presents a grand ruin at dusk or dawn. Its former glory now prey to weeds and rodents, the brilliance of the rising or setting sun accentuates the emptiness of the house, a disturbing transitional emptiness for its failure to embody in living figures the portent of the light. But those who once lived here are gone and with them, their heritage and stories.
Another photo follows and, of course, there are many more: a rendition of Apollo’s Temple set dramatically on a grassy, terraced rise framed by several trees. Opening to the full expanse of the sky, its unroofed tri-quarter circle of columns, with the god set back toward the rear, must have fascinated visitors when the estate was at full tilt, functioning to support its owners and staff, and provide its guests with the kind of pleasures that a memento like this was built for. Was there another reason for the temple, perhaps coincident with a philosophical or artistic trend of that time? I must leave that for experts to determine. I cannot say.
The fourth photo, the Church of the Kazan Virgin (Cherbnyshev Estate, Yarpolets, Moscow Region), works its snare and establishes the arc of the book; its valorization of a world inhabited by time, not people, and the trees, briar, birds, insects and climate that wrested, and wrest, each place from our passions and practicalities; and the force of arms, money, tradition, culture and religion that came with it, that comes with it, and that echoes there still.
Family fortunes lost, great houses damaged by wars and revolution, a mammoth Moorish-Gothic architectural fantasy refused by Catherine the Great, its owner, and then demolished just as it was completed for another structure still undone, and other more subtle abandonments whose details congeal in a swathe of white grass and towering clouds, a dark, nearly two-dimensional wheel barrow turned on its side, or a large dim stain on a wall – is that a woman rushing to meet her loved one? -- and those glimmering phantoms from the second story of a darkened manor house.
And what of the contemporary landscape elsewhere with its polluted rivers, industrial waste, a countryside depopulated by an urban migration, and the farms that feed the cities, the Russia of today: this is not Marsden’s subject per se but a background provided by his friend, the curator and writer Duncan McLaren, whose brief interpolations depict the history of each place and their passage there, as Marsden framed his shots -- waiting for those moments that would help him to image intuitions and emotions inspired by the setting.
As the subtitle to the book notes, a world apart…
I could go on but I will leave the fascinations of this book, of Marsden’s photos and McLaren’s texts, to you. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia are no more, just as the Soviet Union is no more. It is one thing to say this, quite another to feel it with the truthful, studied grace that you will find here.
Perhaps there is one final image I can mention, and which seems, from this vantage at least, to compose for Marsden a concluding comment. It appears on page 113, a view of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul from across the Neva River.
Where under a low heavy rain cloud, the distant spire of the church piercing up, is the teeming city that surrounds it, the Leningrad of yesterday, the St. Petersburg of today? No, this city does not exist here. Another city does from another time populated with specters, shadows, and omens of light in whose becoming I can find, once again, my own continuity; when I, too, am like them, and seem to you or to others as they do to me…
Simon Marsden was a singular artist of the photograph, and this, his last book, is a testament to his sensibility and to his oeuvre…
A world apart….