City of Shadows
Born on the island of Vassilievsky in St Petersburg in 1962, Titarenko was set to grow to adulthood through some of the most turbulent and culturally altering times in Russian history, developing himself as a photojournalist with a degree from the Leningrad Public University of Society-related Professions in 1978 and joining an independent photography group called “Zerkalo” (The Mirror). Titarenko began his journey into photography 2 years later after being dismissed from his obligatory military service of 18 months as an infantryman in the Soviet Army.
His first series of work entitled “Nomenklatura of Signs” set the stage for what was to come from this visionary photographer. Having grown up during the Communist regime and seeing first hand the treatment of the Russian citizens Titarenko used his photography as a way of conveying and commenting on the oppression that was dealt out by the regime. This series of work would go on to tour the US as part of the Photostroyka exhibition, highlighting Soviet photography in 1989.
With the coming of the new decade came yet more hardship for the people of Russia. After many years of strife, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and its effects would be felt around the world. For Alexey Titarenko this period of drastic change was seen and felt during his time spent in his native city of St Peterburg, all contributing to the evolution of his next series of work which would become titled, “City of Shadows”. This series of photographs were captured and compiled by Titarenko during the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and were made as a way of the artists portraying his vision of the state of society in St Petersburg at the time.
Living and working within the city saw the photographer facing the city scenes every day and his descriptions of the atmosphere at the time are truly moving to read. One would be quite forgiven to think that they were listening to the words of an author or that of a poet as Titarenko depicts the winter nights of the city. “one cold and gloomy day, I strolled sadly down a street which used to be packed with people, which used to be full of joyful vibrancy and dynamism. It was poorly lit; the evening was settling in. There was not a single car visible. The depressing and strange quietness was interrupted by the sounds of banging grocery store and bakery doors, stores in which the shelves were absolutely empty. I saw people on the verge of insanity, in confusion: unattractively dressed men and women with eyes full of sorrow and desperation, tottering on their routine dreary routes with their last ounce of strength, in search of some food which could prolong their lives and the lives of their families. They looked like shadows, undernourished and worn out.”
It is this last sentence which sticks so vividly in the reader's eye and what really sums up the essence of the “City of Shadows” series. During his time at university towards the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s Titarenko experimented with the now famous technique of long exposures through research he had conducted into the techniques used by the 19th Century French photographers, many of whom are commonly heralded as the creators of modern street photography. We can see these techniques very clearly in the series of photographs in which the artist is able to capture these ethereal and ghostly images. Large crowds of people rush past the camera and the long exposure transforms them from human beings in swarming masses. Large dark conglomerations with no discernible features except the odd hand or foot which can be distinguished amongst the churning sea. Some images we are able to ascertain figures and faces amongst the swirling vortices that are the other people in the scene. You would think that this would make us imagine that these visible characters are the lucky ones, who are not swept up in the human tide, however, from the photos we can see that this simply isn’t the case. They all look lost, sad or confused. A boy stands seemingly alone in a doorway with only his face visible underneath the layers of clothing to protect him from the bitter cold of the Russian winter days. He looks straight into the camera as the figures around him appear like smoke caught in a maelstrom, his face manages to conceivably hold no emotion at all but a vacant stare. In most images, everybody is doing the exact same thing, following a herd. There is no individuality to the subjects in the images, they have become like robots or more fittingly phantoms who seem to follow the same path and routine every day and the photographer is capturing the repetition in their day to day lives. Banisters railings and gateways feature heavily in the series and give an impression of artificial constructs that have been rendered to constrict and guide the people on this path, perhaps a comment on the oppressive Communist rule that focused on creating a world of singular purpose and people as cogs in a machine or drops in an ocean of conformity.
All of Titarenko’s photos are rendered by hand in the darkroom allowing the artist to take much more control of his printed work. He uses the technique of bleaching and toning the negatives. This technique is incredibly useful when dealing with long exposure film shots. Toning generally works by adding a brown/sepia tone to the negative to increase its density. This, in turn, allows the negative to block more light allowing for the print to be lighter. This technique is used by Titarenko to enhance the grey palettes within his images and intensifies the sensation of a bleak and washed out world.
“City of Shadows” is a very impactful series of photographs, the artist's vision of the world around him is clearly conveyed to the viewer. We see faceless masses or blurred and lost individuals in a grey and dismal world. Alexey Titarenko set out to show the past and present pains that the Russian people have suffered through and that during the 90’s he was seeing a city and its people devoid of colour, personality or vitality. There can be no doubt that he accomplishes this incredibly well, leaving the viewer in awe of his ability to impart a holistic sense of the city and its entire populace. This series of work gained him worldwide recognition as is surely deserved for this insightful and talented photographer. He has continued to produce exciting and thought-provoking work ever since moving further afield to New York, Havana and Venice, always with the same focus on the cities history and its people.
“I attempt to express my thoughts and sentiments about Russia through the prism of this city and the images of its residents. St. Petersburg serves as a tool. All the techniques I employ are used to produce an accurate portrayal of my feelings about my city. I print all the pictures with my own hands. If you want to convey a certain mood or weather, you need to take care of the printing, because it is there where you can get all these nuances. Black and white photography is a special kind of art.” - Alexy Titarenko
By: Thomas Jukes