The Magician of St. Petersburg by Sonya Dryden.

On stumbling across Alexey Titarenko’s City of Shadows (1992-1994) online I was immediately fascinated by the way the photographs made me feel. These images are complex, and I was in no doubt that the photographer intended to elicit an emotional response, to a particularly volatile period of political history. In this series the focal point is St. Petersburg during the collapse of the Soviet regime in the early 1990s.


When viewed the surreal and eerie subject matter gives way to an almost familiar sense of the hustle and bustle of modern day city living; however for Alexey Titarenko these were his townspeople struggling to survive on a daily basis, not the seething commuter mass experienced today. Titarenko spent countless months walking the streets of St. Petersburg observing the effects of the free falling soviet regime on the people of the town, as they wandered around the city anxiously searching for food and supplies. This observation was dangerous in itself as at the time it was not permitted to take photographs on the street and the techniques deployed by Titarenko were time consuming and technical.  Yet it was imperative that the buildings and the furniture of the street be utilised in such a way that reflected against the urban landscape of his beautiful city were the ‘shadows’ of its inhabitants, this is what Titarenko sought to capture.

The constant movement of the people and their hurried need to survive became a way to interpret an emotion through an image. In an interview for Shots magazine in 2005 Titarenko stated,

“I saw people on the verge of Insanity, in confusion: unattractively dressed men and women with eyes full of sorrow and desperation…in search of food which could prolong their lives and the lives of their families. They looked like shadows, undernourished and worn out.”

Here we can identify a metaphor emerging which ultimately became the basis for the series. We can understand that the main motivation behind the work was that it was vital that he convey the “people shadows” as accurately as possible, to tell the story.

He did this by capturing the events on the streets of St. Petersburg and presenting it as a story rather than mere reportage. His work provokes the viewer to become as immersed in the images as one would be if reading a powerful literary work. This is only possible due to the techniques Titarenko uses to produce his images. Working in black-and-white his prints themselves convey an almost unique antiquity as if they are themselves artefacts from a bygone age, they are rich in greys, toning and selective bleaching, a time consuming and labour intensive process.

The long exposure time is significant in that it is again representative of a bygone era before technology advanced to allow us to take snapshots and instantaneously capture images. Susan Sontag refers to the habit of seeing and how the camera as a tool promotes ‘rapid seeing.’ Fast exposure times can produce a succession of images quickly for the viewer, but I believe that Titarenko used the slower exposure to force the outside world to acknowledge his work and more importantly the subject. Not to only see an image of a mass of people frozen in time, but to feel the image. The ‘seeing’ aspect becomes significant in a time when we are bombarded with images from all angles. Did Titarenko slow the St. Petersburg scene down enough for us as a viewer not to overlook the image, to refrain us from seeing too ‘rapidly’?

Titarenko’s technique also consists of a reverence to 19th Century photography, which allows his work to transmit an imagined dimension. One of depth and timelessness while simultaneously depicting the process of movement and the passing of time, it almost contradicts itself on an emotional level, as the viewer seeks to make this dimension more tangible. This dimension could be considered as a historical dimension which is brought to life through the medium of photography. When viewing the series it can be difficult to date the images without having any prior understanding of the work. Landscapes take on hazy and indiscernible meanings as they are distorted through Titarenko’s vision. They are recognizable to an extent but the viewer cannot be sure they are looking at the 1990s or the 1900s such is the sense of time so manipulated and distorted.

Yet as with the long exposure times, which were necessary to create the obscure, ghostlike imagery, the process of printing the photograph also became a component of his creative expression. I believe this underpins the validity of his vision. The time element permeates through his work and is vital in placing the images in context of a vast Soviet history. Wright Morris discusses the concept of time and has some interesting thoughts on long exposure times which I feel provide some insight into the images and the concept of time passing.

The blurred figures characteristic of long time exposure is appropriate. How better to visualize time in passage? Are these partially visible phantoms about to materialise or dissolve? They enhance, for us, the transient role of humans among relatively stable objects…On these ghostly shades the photograph confers a brief immortality.”

Morris could almost be talking of Titarento’s work as he recognises the importance of the long exposure. However he also states that for him the photographer is subordinate to the photograph and that the photograph itself is paramount. I tend to take the stance that in Titarento’s work as he is consciously creating the ghosts, he is therefore implicit in creating an image of the passage of time, rather than merely capturing a fleeting moment.

This aspect of Titarenko becoming implicit can also be tied in with his use of location. The fact that St. Petersburg is such a recognisable anchor within his work provides the viewer with a distinctive Russian style which again enhances the emotional response to his photographic technique. Titarenko’s images exist in a specific historical circumstance and context which is how his work is able to convey such imagined and political connotations. He uses the backdrop of social and political change to represent the people of St. Petersburg through artistic expression.

 Do the images have a deeper meaning once the viewer can place them in their historical context? Yes, Titarenko employs his skills to produce interesting and unique photographs, but do they then have to be propped up with an explanation of when, why and where they were taken?  It is significant for a viewer to understand the complexity of context in the formation of meanings. Titarenko obviously had a message to impart and when reading his interviews and literary works concerning his photography it is possible to interpret further meaning from the images. They are enhanced by the added political and social meaning once this avenue has been explored; however they also stand alone as extremely evocative and individual images.

City of Shadows is the first in a series of works where Titarenko employs the his techniques to create a concept based around time, people and urban landscapes. This earned him worldwide recognition for his work and allows us to understand his own brand of visual language. The transient nature of human existence and the fragility of brief moments occupying a particular point in time and space are so evident within his work, that it is impossible to view his images without pondering over the intricacies of our own fleeting lives.

Images are taken from and are from the series City of Shadows (1992-1994) accessed 5th January 2012 accessed 5th January 2012. Here you are able to view  Titarenko’s fine collection. Which include cities such as Venice and Havana

Wright Morris, ‘In our Image’, in (ed.) Liz Wells, The Photography Reader, (London: Routledge, 2003.) pp. 67-75.

Susan Sontag, ‘Photography within the humanities’, in (ed.) Liz Wells, The Photography Reader, (London: Routledge, 2003) pp.59-66.

Bauret, Gabriel, City of Shadow. The Black and White Magic of Saint Petersburg. (USA: Nailya Alexander, 2003) pp. 1-2.


2 Responses to “The Magician of St. Petersburg by Sonya Dryden.”

  1. Craig Campbell Says:

    It is great to see you write about these photographs (some I’ve seen before but never read up on Titarenko. You suggest at one point in your very interesting article that it was not permitted to photograph on the streets. It would be good to elaborate or support that point as there is a rich tradition of street photography among Soviet-era amateur, professional, and artist-photographers. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this little article.

    • Thanks for your comments
      From the interviews I have read Titarenko himself said that it was dangerous for him during this particular period as the communist regime began failing. I believe that prior to this the state actually encouraged photography often supplying dated but free equipment, to aid the propaganda machine.
      I suppose it was such an uncertain and frightening period that standing on the streets for hours on end often in one particular spot would probably draw a lot of attention. Titarenko says that he used to tell people he was carrying out geological surveys and that he was quite suprised that he got away with it.
      Obviously there could be an element of elaboration on his part as so many years have now passed since then. I will however check out other soviet photographer’s because I’m feeling some affinity with the place now I’ve researched this article 🙂

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