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One of Andrei Chezhin’s main artistic goals is to photograph the capital city of every country in the world. He’s already done Stockholm, Warsaw, Amsterdam, and his native St. Petersburg, “the cultural capital of Russia,” he insists in Russian, evoking the city’s centuries-old rivalry with Moscow. He has also turned his camera on Washington, where a show of his work, curated by Sarah Tanguy, opens this week at the District of Columbia Arts Center.
Chezhin is concentrating on capitals because he wants people to look at familiar, clichéd images of monuments and landmarks from a fresh perspective. His technique distinguishes his work from the photographs most visitors to Washington might take. He recycles the same roll of black-and-white film through the camera three times, superimposing images at random. In the studio he uses near Metro Centerat the top of several labyrinthine flights of stairs, each narrower than the one beforehe then makes enlargements from the more aesthetically interesting portions of the developed film. He admits he could do the same thing using a computer, but that method would be too consciously controlled. He’s adamant about working with the element of chance and relying on traditional photographic methods.
“How it will all turn out, I myself don’t even know,” Chezhin says, beneath his mass of hair and his bushy beard. “Only God knows.”
Chezhin, born in 1960, came of age in St. Petersburg during the Soviet era. Traveling to the West, let alone every country in the world, would have been the wildest, most unrealistic fantasy for most artists under communist rule. Yet Chezhin recalls that, all the same, the old U.S.S.R. had its advantages: Before Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, he lived “peacefully,” avoided politics, studied at the Leningrad Institute of Film Engineers, and did his compulsory military service (“I was a sailor,” he says).
Once out of the navy, Chezhin took a job as a photographer for a construction company, which worked out well for him. He had lots of free time, a darkroom, and all the materials he needed. He could also survive on a few rubles a month, as opposed to the few million needed today.
Despite Russia’s ongoing economic disaster, he believes life is easier for him there than it would be in the Statesthere’s no language barrier, for example; Chezhin speaks some French, but no English. The effects of the current crisis on artists living in Russia “depends on the artist,” he says. In the absence of censorship, it is possible for artists to do any kind of work they want, but they are forced to think entrepreneurially and search hard for sponsorship and incomewhich makes life much more uncertain. The Russian people, Chezhin observes, “are very dissatisfied with the new regime.”Dawn L. Hannaham
New Photography by Andrei Chezhin opens Jan. 29 at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2348 18th St. NW. Chezhin will give a lecture and slide show on Feb. 7 at 3 p.m.