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For most Americans, Siberia is quite literally a blank slate. An exhibition of photographs of Siberia at the American University Museum pulls back the curtain a bit, but even at the end, the sprawling and sparsely populated Russian territory remains frustratingly enigmatic.
Images in the exhibit stretch over more than a century, from the 1860s to 2011, and include both older black-and-white images and more modern color ones. At one point, a series of photographs explicitly (and persuasively) pairs Siberia with the American West, sharing beautifully empty scenery, indigenous peoples, workers building railroads and dams, and dusty ghost towns.
But a surprising number of the photographs portray, well, more or less what you’d expect to be in Siberia if you didn’t really know much about the place: Ice palaces. Fur coats. Walrus hunts. Tattooed prisoners. War veterans with chests full of medals. Endless, forested horizons. Reindeer herders. Thick fog. Grim, abandoned quarters in labor camps. Ice floes. Industrial towns with muddy streets. A tribute lunch for a deceased co-worker that’s light on meat and vegetables and heavy on packaged carbs and vodka. Dreary Soviet architecture, dotted with Lenin’s face. People in swimsuits at ridiculously cold times of year.
The exhibit’s finest works offer something more unanticipated: a funeral pyre in use, a girl spinning three hula hoops at once (top), a soldier with central Asian features reading a magazine with a blond cover model, a trans-Siberian railroad worker from 1912 caputured in vivid color (second from top). One image (bottom) encapsulates a Henri Cartier-Bresson-style decisive moment, simultaneously freeze-framing two figures in a pedal boat, a fully horizontal diver in the air and a boy climbing on a partly submerged statue of a female figure.
Ultimately, one photograph, by Vasily Shumkov, may encapsulate Siberia best. Taken in the 1980s, a time when provocative documentary photography wasn’t exactly a safe profession in the Soviet Union, the image depicts rows of grave markers at a prison camp. The markers are merely branches stuck into the ground, and they defiantly declare a human foothold in this harsh land. Yet at the same time, layers of snow, patiently waiting, threaten to bury these flimsy grave markers until they, and the memory they store, have vanished.
The exhibit is on view to Dec. 15 at the American University Museum.