By Kendall George, March 5, 2013
Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (“openness”) and easing of censorship allowed Japanese photographer Keizo Kitajima behind the Iron Curtain in the fall of 1990. On assignment for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, he documented the diverse people of the USSR’s vast 15 republics for a year. It was a year of government restructuring, an attempted coup, and the socialist state’s dissolution. Tomorrow night, prints from Kitajima’s photographs collected in “Keizo Kitajima USSR 1991” a square, heavy book by Little Big Man Books, go on view at the Little Big Man Gallery.
“1991” is organized in the style of Japanese Ehon, a picture book tradition in which the images’ careful pacing and placement create a subtle narrative. The book published by Little Big Man has the same content and similar qualities to the exhibition, but a different character; the abutment of images on gatefolds, and the photographs they reveal, are reflexive devices, to be experienced intimately. It’s an apt method of presentation within the canon of Japanese 20th century portrait photography, which is generally published in the contemporary Ehon format and documents “types” of people. It also pulls the viewers attention away from the subjects’ faces and saturated colors, (because they are entrancing), to read their expressions and the short notes Kitajima kept about them within the larger historical context. The bureaucratic bourgeoisie, who were concerned about the end of their reign, have stiff-upper lips while posing with their Soviet tchotchkes; at this stage of government reform, they’re either putting on a great performance of masculinity, or are in denial. The proletariat (all laborers), who were optimistic about potential freedoms and economic gains, look sometimes haggard, but not entirely unhappy. Kitajima left bread lines to other glasnost documentarians—and sometimes anti-Communist propagandists—to capture the expressions of people in a rare liminal space.
Knowing the historical denouement of the dissolution of the USSR satisfies the emotional impulses so often associated with viewing portraiture, projection and conjecture about the future. The first few years in the new Russian Federation were especially bleak. The Union’s stagnant economy and too-slow transition from public subsidies to privatization led to President Boris Yeltsin’s “shock therapy,” hyperinflation, wiping out the savings of the proletariat, breaking down food delivery systems, and a sharp decline in the availability of medical care (Kaplan). The bourgeoisie ruled with money, focusing on the low-labor and low-skill industries of exporting oil and gas assets.
In the modern Russian Federation, nostalgia for the Soviet Union is high in the elderly, and people too young to remember what Communism was like (Mydans, Singer). After Vladimir Putin’s two terms as president, followed by his last term as prime minister, true democracy seems like a lost cause. The sum total of the Russian Federation’s past 22 years seems distressingly close to where the USSR left off. It somehow serves to make Keizo Kitajima’s photographs more believable, and a little bit more beautiful; we all know about unfulfilled expectations.
An opening reception for “Keizo Kitajima USSR 1991” with the artist will be held on Wednesday, March 6, from 6-9 pm at Little Big Man Gallery. The exhibit will run through April 30, 2013, (other gallery hours are by appointment).
Kaplan, Robert D.. “Who Lost Russia?,” New York Times. 8 October 2000. Web 4 March 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/08/books/who-lost-russia.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.
Mydans, Seth. “20 Years After Soviet Fall, Some Look Back Longingly,” New York Times. 18 August 2011. Web 3 March 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/world/europe/19russia.html?pagewanted=all.
Singer, Natasha. “The U.S.S.R. Is Back (on Clothing Racks),” New York Times. 27 November 2007. Web 3 March 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/world/europe/27designer.html.