Friday 2 November 2007

Citizens of Moscow

This is a tribute to the anonymous citizens of Moscow whose images were captured by the all-seeing eye of the state some 50 years ago and reproduced in a lavish picture book designed to celebrate the architectural splendour of the Soviet capital and 40 years of a socialist utopia. These photographs portray a remarkably passive and sober citizenry whose demeanour at all times is orderly and dignified. No slouching or sprawling to be seen and no eating or drinking in public, perfect decorum is maintained. Social interaction is minimal and restrained and there is a general lack of purpose in gesture and movement. Such strangely robotic ensembles inevitably suggest a highly controlled society in which undemonstrative public behaviour is the social norm. Individual assertions of identity in terms of clothing or conduct would be unwelcome. Consumer expectations have been seriously managed down.

Despite being printed on heavy coated paper, the coarseness of photographic reproduction eliminates detail and contributes toward the imposition of visual conformity. A surveillance state has created a wary population, acutely sensitive to the likelihood of being observed by an unseen authority and there are even a few instances where individuals can be seen staring intently at an unsuspecting human target. Small children carrying red balloons appear but conduct themselves with the same bearing as their parents. With the unique exception of an individual in naval uniform who strides with purpose, everyone else appears to move at the same pace. It’s not impossible to imagine that all the figures were elaborately posed as in a cinematic crowd scene in which case boredom and repetition may have played a part in the absence of expressiveness.

This selection of details cropped out of much larger originals contains some fascinating material. There are queues that shuffle along with patient resignation and weary commuter waiting for metro trains. Several groups look very much as if they had been posed for a family snapshot. Others resemble groups of strangers who, finding themselves seated on the same park bench, make modest attempts to converse with each other. More enigmatic groups, couples or threesomes, each inhabiting a bubble of their own, co-exist within the same image and have the potential to generate any number of narratives for an imaginative observer. There’s something for the transport buff including trolleybuses and trams of the same design as those photographed by Rodchenko thirty years previously.

The very youngest of these Muscovites must by now be in their mid-fifties and most will no longer be alive. By appearing in this book, willingly or otherwise, they served the interests of their state. Whether the state, in turn, served their interests is another matter. We cannot rescue them from anonymity but we can at least acknowledge their existence and participation in this photographic portrait of their capital city. We will return to this book in future postings.

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