Winterreise, by Luc Delahaye

Winterreise cvr

Opening Luc Delahaye’s book of photographs we start as we mean to go on, with a scavenger looking across a landfill site in the snow, a sack over his shoulder.  The juxtaposition of man and rubbish brings together immediately the themes of poverty and despoliation.  The next is a photograph of a homeless man found dead in a basement.  Welcome to parts of Russia where time has stood still.  Most of the photographs are of grim-faced miserable-looking people, old before their time, often living in the most appalling squalor.  There is not a smiling face in the entire book, and a considerable number feature people either drinking or drunk, or taking drugs.  Everyone looks tired and/or careworn, trying to eke out a living against the odds, or apparently having given up the unequal effort.  An old picture of Lenin occupying one shot is an ironic comment on dashed aspirations.

The photographs were taken in a number of locations around northern Russia between November 1998 and March 1999, not a time of year when Russians are at their best.  And no wonder.  Cold seeps from the pages.  The houses must be damp considering the peeling paintwork, condensation, and bits of clothing filling holes in the walls.  You can almost smell the rot, the lack of adequate sanitation, the reluctance to take off clothes because of the cold.  Kitchens are invariably filthy, disgusting crockery left lying around flats unwashed.  A window is shown in close-up; surrounded by dank moss and with pot plants on view inside, the building seeming to be one step from disappearing into the landscape.  The decay of the houses points to a wider societal malaise.  What industry there is is shown to be hopelessly outdated and inefficient.

There are glimpses of pride among the ennui but they are rare – a woman scrubbing her floor, houses with tapestries on the wall – but overwhelmingly there is sense of indifference; the overwhelming impression is of cheap shoddiness, plastic tablecloths, ersatz lives of quietly pointless desperation.  No wonder the Russian life expectancy and birth-rate are so low.  Inside the houses nothing is new, everything is used until it falls apart, or even beyond.  There are some rare examples of commercialism though: in one photograph commuters wait for trams in front of Coca-Cola and Lucky Strike adverts, and in another an urban landscape, probably captured from a hotel window, is virtually monochrome apart from a splash of red.  Not the red of Communism though – it is a huge Coca-Cola mural occupying the entire end wall of a block of flats.  American capitalism, tellingly of an unhealthy kind, has managed to find a toe-hold in this unpromising environment.

The young shown sharing this degradation warn that the cycle will be repeated, a suspicion confirmed by a page of snapshots of children in a police file.  Elsewhere a young girl wearing lipstick sits on a bed staring impassively at the camera, suggesting one way to survive.  A woman wearing only knickers and peculiar little cuffs on her elbows, unkempt hair over her face, arms above her head in an unsuccessful display of sexiness but showing her hairy armpits, has been photographed in some kind of club.  It is captioned ‘Olga dances for $2’.  One wonders if there are many people willing to pay hard currency just for that.

It is not just an uncaring society, it is a violent one.  We see a murder victim, his alleged murderer an ordinary-looking middle-aged man.  It seems reasonable to assume that drink was involved.  In another photograph a man lies on the floor, menaced by another standing over him.  The prone man, we are informed in a rare caption, was disrespectful to a local mafia member.  A psychiatric patient with a heavily bruised face is a sign that such social conditions are not conducive to empathy.  The final photographs avoid humans altogether, as though Delahaye has had enough of them.  The unsparing depictions of everyday lives are counterpointed by some beautiful natural scenery under snow, but even when Delahaye focuses on the countryside, his trees in the gathering darkness have a sinister aspect, or perhaps that is how we now see them after being exposed to a catalogue of urban deprivation.

The book’s title is a curious choice.  In one sense Delahaye literally depicts a winter journey, but Winterreise conjures up images of Schubert’s song cycle composed as he was dying from syphilis.  Delahaye is, one suspects, making a symbolic point.  This is a winter’s journey into a soul that is ill, perhaps terminally.  It’s impossible to say how representative these photographs are, but even if Delahaye has selected extreme conditions, the very fact that he could find so many is an indictment of the Russian social system.  In fact it all seems pretty typical.  We hear a lot about oligarchs and vast petro-wealth, this is the other side of that accumulation.  Lenin would doubtless be shocked to see such disparities still present.

It is a collection that is intensely depressing, and anyone in Britain looking at it should be thankful for a society with a safety net, however frayed it is at present.  Nobody should have to live like this.  The promise of change suggests one reason for Mr Putin’s popularity, but the slow progress helps to explain his taste for foreign ventures: while the lot of the average Russian has undoubtedly improved enormously in the years since Delahaye’s road trip there is much still to do to create a better life for those at the bottom, and conflict abroad, especially when positioning oneself as victim, is always a useful distraction.

The small size of the book conveys an intimate feel, and in order to be unobtrusive Delahaye has used a fast film and avoided flash, which gives the images the soft grainy, often blurry, look of snapshots caught on the fly that belies their artistry.  Using basic kit Dehlahaye has provided a compelling portrait of a society in crisis.  In concentrating on the underclass there may be much he ignored that doesn’t conform to the thesis presented here, but he has shown that journalism and art can coexist and draw out an aesthetic appreciation and feelings of compassion in equal measure.  The only thing missing in the book is some contextualisation, an introduction supplying information about how he came to take on the project and how he went about it.  More captions, even if only giving some idea of the geographical location, would have helped as well.  Certainly the images speak for themselves, but a commentary would have made them even more vocal.

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