“Behind the Curtain: Images From Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic”

At the Northern Virginia Community College Tyler Gallery to Dec. 10

Sybil Miller, Sharon Smith, Terry Gips, and Ruth Schilling Harwood have unfortunate timing. The artists mounted a photographic exhibit about the post-Cold War Eastern Bloc at almost precisely the same time that Yale University Press released a book that sets a new standard for photojournalism on the topic: Shepard Sherbell’s Soviets: Pictures From the End of the USSR.

Sherbell (full disclosure: he and I both contribute to the National Journal) spent much of the early ’90s on assignment in the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. A straight-ahead black-and-white documentarian in the tradition of W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado, Sherbell crisscrossed the nation’s behemoth land mass, traveling from Black Sea resorts to isolated fishing outposts on the Kurile Islands near Japan. Not only are the resulting images skillful and affecting, but Sherbell’s extensive captions are remarkably informative, written in a sardonic tone that articulates the country’s problems without falling into condescension. In just three paragraphs about a Ukrainian nonconformist who finds happiness after relocating to Siberia, for example, Sherbell manages to provide riveting lessons in religious history, sociology, politics, and geography—not to mention a good yarn about an interesting guy. The photograph is first-rate, too: It was so cold when Sherbell met the Ukrainian that the man’s mustache was frozen into a row of icicles.

One of the most noticeable differences between Sherbell’s work and that of Miller, Smith, Gips, and Harwood is that most of the last four’s images were made in color. That may have something to do with their timing. As late as the period covered in Sherbell’s book, black-and-white was still considered de rigueur for photojournalistic projects. But that habit died out suddenly a few years later, as many publications realized that they could expeditiously process color film in-house and use fast-improving computer software to digitize and syndicate the resulting images.

Unfortunately, that switch hurts some of the images in Miller, Gips, Smith, and Harwood’s “Behind the Curtain: Images From Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic,” on view at the Tyler Gallery on Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus. Although the graininess that results from enlarging 35 mm black-and-white negatives frequently enhances an image’s power by adding a moody veneer, the graininess that comes from enlarging 35 mm color film to dimensions typical of the works in “Behind the Curtain”—say, 16 by 20 inches—becomes a distraction.

Consider the images from Smith’s series Interrupted Lives—Russia After Communism, which, of all the pieces in the exhibit, come closest stylistically (and temporally) to Sherbell’s. Smith’s decision to use color drains even her most skillfully crafted compositions of the gravitas that elevates Sherbell’s. For instance, Street Vendor, Moscow, 1992 offers compelling material—a woman in a leopard-print jacket standing on a sidewalk and holding a plucked chicken—but is blurred just enough to detract from the image’s frozen moment.

To her credit, Smith does possess a skilled eye. In Shopping Near the Village of Zvenigorod, 1990, she nicely frames a seated boy on a park bench next to bags of bread and melons in a near-textbook example of photography’s “rule of thirds,” which recommends a two-thirds/one-third geometrical division of the composition for maximum visual impact. Smith was also blessed with good access to her subjects’ lives. Artomonov’s Birthday Party at His Father’s Dacha Outside Moscow, 1993, an intimate, small-group action shot reminiscent of the work of Britain’s Martin Parr, could not have been made without the substantial cooperation of the partygoers.

Several of Smith’s works also benefit from having been taken at precisely the right moment, with her subjects neither oblivious to being photographed nor self-conscious in front of the camera. This is not an easy trick—and Smith, to be fair, is not as skilled at it as an old pro like Sherbell. Indeed, several of her pieces in “Behind the Curtain” demonstrate the risks of imperfect timing. In Kiosk Near the Tekstilschiki Metro Station, Moscow, 1993, a pigtailed girl buying an item at an outdoor candy stand appears to be completely unaware that she is in front of the lens, thus robbing the image of any dramatic tension. Waiting for Ice Cream, St. Petersburg, 1991 illustrates the opposite problem: At least one woman standing in line seems to be all too aware of Smith’s presence, thus breaking the illusion of distance between photographer and subject.

In other images, Smith strikes a far better balance. Teenage Carwashing Entrepreneurs, Moscow, 1993 is essentially a formal team portrait, yet the casualness of its rag- and aerosol-can-toting subjects is winning. So, too, are the young man and woman in Couple Near the Kremlin, Moscow, 1993. Despite sitting for a posed picture, the man seems unaffected and the woman smiles easily.

Some of Harwood’s photographs cover similar territory. Harwood, who runs the Foundry Gallery in Dupont Circle, uses black-and-white film to good effect in Marilyn Bags (1996) and Flower Seller’s Stall, Underground Passage (1997)—two images influenced, perhaps, by the street photography of Ben Shahn and Robert Frank. Equally good is the moodily grainy shot of a couple at Hydro Park in Kiev, Ukraine, which takes its romantic cues from Brassai and Robert Doisneau. Less successful is Dress Store Window (1996), which toys with Lee Friedlander-esque store-window reflections but ends up being visually confusing rather than clever.

Unlike Smith, Harwood also takes some stylistic risks. Some of them pay off; some do not. Harwood creates two kinds of collages—traditional works in which she mounts several prints together side by side, and pieces that meld images together digitally before they are printed by ink jet. Several of Harwood’s traditional collages are seriously harmed by her decision to include black-and-white and color images together. Indeed, her best of this series consists only of color images: Dachas, Garden Region (1998), a harmony of green and blue buildings partially obscured by the bramble of the Russian countryside. Though it would be a stretch to compare Dachas to William Christenberry’s celebrated arrays of simple buildings in rural Alabama, the collage is unexpectedly pleasing—surely greater than the sum of its relatively inconsequential parts.

Like her traditional collages, Harwood’s digital works are a mixed lot. Burial Mounds (2001) offers a potentially interesting subject—a gentle, grassy hump photographed from up close—but Harwood’s decision to fashion one hillock from the digitally merged halves of two others will leave many viewers scratching their heads. More compelling is Daily Militza (1999), a technically impressive series of three nearly identical images of a crowd congregating and then dispersing on a snowy side street.

Miller—who teaches at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas—takes an even more nondocumentary approach. The strongest of her color prints are artsy and abstract without being pretentious. Abandoned Window Display, Plzen, Czech Republic (1997) features a striking geometry created by the faded colors of a shop-window display. Former Morgue, Terezin, Czech Republic (1997) captures an undulating, peach-colored wall split by areas of shadow and light. And Rusted Street Sign, (Praha 5) Prague, Czech Republic (1997) features a metal street-sign map in which most of the central space has devolved into a dark, rusted void. Though one could easily read into Rusted Street Sign intimations of Soviet-era decay and malaise, the main problem with Miller’s images, at least within the context of this exhibition, is that they needn’t have been taken in Eastern Europe at all.

Gips’ Iris prints, by contrast, are more readily identifiable with the region, but they also happen to be the least compelling of the works in the show. Gips, who taught at the University of Maryland before moving to New England this past year, offers mostly unexciting scenes of streets, buildings, posters, and alleyways. Perhaps there are interesting stories behind these shots, but if so, Gips does not provide sufficient context for viewers to appreciate them.

Indeed, the more I pondered the images in “Behind the Curtain,” the more I missed the kind of captions that Sherbell provides in his book. From him, I learned that Russian vodka bottles are designed with caps that don’t act as stoppers, because the manufacturers assume that they’ll always be fully consumed in one sitting. I learned that the long cigarette ash dangling from a fish-canner’s mouth in one image fell, shortly after, into one of the cans, and that the worker was too jaded to retrieve it. I learned that the one Western song known by virtually everyone Sherbell met was “Back in the USSR.”

And I learned that a rather pedestrian-looking image of twisted metal and concrete was actually the site of the Soviet Union’s first atomic explosion. Sherbell writes that after taking the picture, his guide asked him what he thought about the site: “I told him this was the saddest place I’d ever seen, instantly regretting my candor. I had broken the rules by not saying simply, ‘Very interesting.’” The images in “Behind the Curtain” are at least “very interesting,” but context of the caliber of Sherbell’s would have made them into much more. CP