Weisman’s ‘Siberia’ exhibit captures familiar, yet different, frontiers

Two images from “Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined,” by photographer Anastasia Rudenko are among those on display at the Weisman Art Museum. Courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

It’s difficult not to feel the tug of the familiar when gazing at the collected photographs in “Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined,” now on exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum.

The cunningly curated collection of roughly 100 images captures life in the wilderness and cities of that vast frontier in Russia, dating from just a few decades after the invention of photography itself through to contemporary times. But it does more than that, by drawing visual parallels both implied and insisted between the place Siberia holds in Russian mythology, history and development, and the way we see our own American West’s basins, plains, mountain ranges and indigenous peoples.

There’s a subtext to the parallels, as well: “The impulse to photograph,” an expression used by Leah Bendavid-Val in her book accompanying the exhibition.

A world away, as Russia’s history turned and churned, its photographers ventured into Siberia driven by the curiosity, ideals and other motivations and came back with images and subjects composed and posed in ways that bear striking similarities to the ways their American contemporaries tackled the West.

I’ve named the photographers here, and linked to more about them where possible — a frustrating hunt in the case of those who worked before the Revolution. Bendavid-Val’s book offers some detail, as well. She also talks about her book and research in this PRI interview.

Organized into three sections, “Siberia” first presents the viewer with a look at images dating from the 1880s up to the Revolution. Here nomadic reindeer herders near the Ob River in 1888 stand in woolly, decorated native garb and stare directly into the camera of A. Adrianov; the clean lines and orderly development of Irkutsk in 1865 stretch out in grid captured by August Karovich Gofman’s camera perched in a church tower; bearded convicts in chains with half-shaven heads sit for Innokenty Pavlovsky on remote Sakhalin Island in 1890; a decade later native Ainu people, one in a loincloth, and native Russians pose together for A. Diness in the same lonely outpost.

Then comes the Revolution of 1917, and the exhibition changes to show the savvy with which the Soviet Union’s new communist leaders understood the power of photography as a means to strengthen their hold on power, as well as their peoples’ imaginations.

As Bendavid -Val writes, “They co-opted young, eager photographers to the cause.”

Mikhail Savin makes a formal portrait of a solitary worker in a heroic pose with the sun on his face and a scythe on his shoulder; Viktor Akhlomov poses nine women in skirts and headscarves on a dock with poles they use for guiding cut logs at the Kondinsky State Timber Enterprise; Akhlomov also photographs a several-stories tall stencil of Lenin’s hard eyes and cropped goatee watching over workers arriving at a communist youth league construction site in 1970.

The tenor changes for a third time as the Soviet Union begins to implode and then finally dissolves in 1991 and Russian photographers, now under the influence of western peers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, journey eastward with a burning desire to see Siberian reality rather than myth, and eyes for subjects and composition very much in keeping with modern photojournalism.

The Soviets, in their final years of rule, begin to relax their control over these photographers, even if they view the work with suspicion. Finally, that control vanishes altogether.

Some of the work is from the wilds: Vladimir Semin witnesses a 1989 whale hunt in Chukotka; Alexander Kuznetsov chronicles a religious sect in Krasnoyarsk Territory in the late 1990s.

Other images grow from photographers with more personal visions, including Alexander Gronsky‘s “Less Than One” project about the deserted lands, and his image from from Vladivostok in 2006 of a man sunbathing on the roof of some vast, unnamed industrial building as pale blue and gray seascape stretches to the horizon beyond him. And numerous photographers venture into the remains of penal colonies and their attendant graveyards, to document the remains of the hard lives of the souls sent to occupy those places.

Throughout the exhibition, the people and landscapes look both familiar and different — but not that different. In it’s final space, the curators no longer suggest similarities: They pair images of uncanny likeness, including a native hunting in a canoe photographed by Russian Vladimir Solartov somewhere on the Amur River in the early twentieth century, beside a 1910 image of a Kutenai duck hunter in Montana by Edward Curtis. A William Henry Jackson photograph of rail tracks through the Colorado Rockies circa 1869 accompanies a similar image from Siberia in the 1970s. And the last pairing in the exhibition is a jolt: American landscape master Ansel Adams’ iconic 1942 image of the Snake River Overlook and Grand Tetons in Wyoming  looks almost like a mirror image of an unnamed river valley and the Koryak foothills of Kamchatka photographed by Sergey Popatov in 2000.

The United States and Russia share very different histories, but there’s plenty of shared vision and values, for good or ill, when it comes to these wild and remote regions, and the photographers who journeyed there. The Weisman, doubtless looking for a way to pull in visitors, plays up the similarities in some of these photos to scenes that echo life in Minnesota. But the breadth and scope of the exhibition aspires to more universal links.

Organized by the Foundation for International Arts and Education, “Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined,” runs through May 18.