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Boris Smelov at Sputnik Gallery

March 25, 2011

It’s been quite a while since I looked forward to a show as eagerly as I awaited this one…and it lived up to my hopes.

Smelov is the late great underground Russian photographer whose focus was on the people and places of St. Petersburg, Russia. In his work, every face, every tree, every street and every building is a lively element in the existence of a great city. As a fine art photographer, his work was something of an anomaly in the USSR which only officially recognized photojournalism and amateur photography.

It is hard to imagine the life of this great photographer, and how he possibly earned a living, working in an unrecognized profession. We’ve all read about artists bringing their work to gatherings of other artists for some recognition in their community. But how did they earn their livings, how did they continue in their art?

Smelov obviously achieved some degree of recognition, evidenced by the Soviet government’s closing of an exhibition of Smelov’s work. After the end of the Soviet era, when St. Petersburg was able to reclaim its name and artistic heritage, Smelov was able to work in freedom. He attained sufficient recognition that the Hermitage Museum held a retrospective of his work in 2009.

The photograph at Sputnik are from a private collection. All are black and white original prints from film and represent a collector’s preference from the array of Smelov’s work. One is a naked self-portrait taken using a mirror. It is striking how strongly Smelov resembles Rasputin in this photo.

Besides this curiosity, Smelov’s stunning photos are split between people and places. His architectural images are revelatory. These particular images appear to be dawn and sunset views with impressive use of light and shadow. He liked the strong juxtaposition of light and shadow, of strength and delicacy. Everything includes old and new. He found enormous beauty in old St. Petersburg but in odd places – the corner of a building, strengthening columns, a rail, a fence.

Equally, Smelov was taken with the faces of the older residents of his city. Smelov captured the endurance of the Russian people face by face. None are individual beauties; collectively, they are marvelous.

Smelov did not work in a vacuum. He was culturally connected to earlier photographers, particularly Cartier-Bresson but without the staged quality. He believed that a photograph captured an instant. This attitude is evident in the work shown at Sputnik.

This is a spectacular show by one of the great masters of photography. Though Smelov died in 1998, his work is alive and timeless. Impossible to pick a favorite image; each is phenomenal. I envy those who live with Smelov’s work.

Fortunately, the Hermitage published a book of Smelov’s work to accompany their retrospective. It is still available in an English/Russian volume. Sputnik’s collection of 25+ images can be seen on their website http://sputnikgallery.com.

If you are in New York, this is a show that shouldn’t be missed. The on-line images at Sputnik are excellent but the impact of the work is best seen in person and in the size that Smelov decided.

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