Life in a dying village.
July 27, 2010 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Kich-Gorodok. Olya Ivanova went to a locality in the Vologda Region of Russia in order to "photograph the inhabitants of dying Russian villages." The results are striking and occasionally reminiscent of Depression-era photographs of America.

Most captions are just the subject's name and the name of the village, but the eleventh says "home of an artist," the fifteenth and eighteenth are "Houses of Culture," and the one near the end with all the magazine photos and saints is labeled "красный угол (сутный угол) в квартире" 'Icon corner in a room.'
posted by languagehat (43 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oops, forgot: via Anatoly Vorobey.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on July 27, 2010


I guess don't really see anything "dying" about this village, except for the effects of the "photographs of poor people wearing unfashionable clothes=tragedy" reflex built into us by decades of weepy disaster photography.
posted by nasreddin at 6:52 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, she explains in a comment that there used to be 3,000 people in the village, and there are now 40. That really is pretty sad, but judging by the number of young people in the photos, I don't see why she says that there are "ten years left, maximum."
posted by nasreddin at 6:56 AM on July 27, 2010


Agreed. These are pleasant compositions, but could be taken pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe, or Kansas, for that matter. There is no "dying, Old World village" narrative implied by slightly frumpy clothes and occasionally peeling paint.

For that matter, I had an incredibly awkward moment the other day at an art opening. An acquaintance was showing new work that had a real Walker Evans feel to it (poverty, marginalization, even the look to the faces that some unkindly suggested pointed to inbreeding in his Appalachian images). Thank god I didn't ask her if she got some sort of grant to do a special project....they turned out to be close relatives of hers and she considered them pleasant family snapshots.
posted by availablelight at 6:59 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Huh, everybody's wearing flip-flops.
posted by echo target at 7:00 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nice photos. You could take similar ones near where I live -- there's something very universal about being poor in a small-town. What's interesting, though, is that there is no way to know from the photos alone that "there used to be 3,000 people in the village, and there are now 40" -- the decline of the town doesn't show up visually almost at all.
posted by Forktine at 7:01 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


They did look a lot like Depression-era photography. So much so that the color was jarring. The subjects (especially the younger ones) didn't have that blank and lifeless stare that's kind of iconic to that sort of photography. They seem kind of lively in fact.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:03 AM on July 27, 2010


... judging by the number of young people in the photos, I don't see why she says that there are "ten years left, maximum."

If you were a young person living there, would you stay?
posted by octothorpe at 7:03 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it doesn't look too bad to me, there are lots of consumer goods in evidence - the stereo, the pages from full color printed magazines, the clothes, furniture, printed fabrics. When I was growing up in the eighties here in New England you could easily have taken pictures like this at farm houses on dirt roads. (Many of the farm houses are still around today but the unpaved roads are now much rarer in my area.) The scenes in some of the family photos my relatives have look like this, especially the incredibly ugly clothes.
posted by XMLicious at 7:10 AM on July 27, 2010


This photographer's set on single fathers is also interesting. Posed shots that don't look posed are hard to pull off.
posted by three blind mice at 7:10 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry if it sounded like I was claiming the photos were clear evidence that the villages were dying; that was not my intention. I thought they were interesting photographs of a part of the world most of us won't get to see, and I quoted the photographer's reason for going to that particular region. I did not post it in a spirit of "look at the poor people wearing unfashionable clothes (=tragedy)."
posted by languagehat at 7:10 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I like this portfolio of portraits overall and I love that icon corner with its mix of pop figures and saints.

I don't know Russian but perhaps you can clarify, languagehat - despite the post title, these photos are taken from several villages in one rural region, not one specific town, right?

Not sure we should be taking the word "dying" so to heart since that is languagehat's title and not necessarily the photographer's intent... to me, the photographer is simply documenting people in villages in one given rural region - which, for whatever reason, is depopulating. The way someone might make an essay of dying small towns here in the US. But then again, I don't read Russian. (on Preview, what lh said!)
posted by madamjujujive at 7:13 AM on July 27, 2010


I'm not criticizing the post--I'm questioning her own framing of her photos.
posted by nasreddin at 7:13 AM on July 27, 2010


Not sure we should be taking the word "dying" so to heart since that is languagehat's title and not necessarily the photographer's intent... to me, the photographer is simply documenting people in villages in one given rural region - which, for whatever reason, is depopulating. The way someone might make an essay of dying small towns here in the US. But then again, I don't read Russian. (on Preview, what lh said!)


She uses the word "dying" or "dying out," which, again, seems to be true demographically but not all that comprehensible visually. And yes, this particular set is of one small village.
posted by nasreddin at 7:15 AM on July 27, 2010


I was going to say the same as Forktine - apart from the background, I could walk round the corner and take very, very similar pictures in my local Lidl. Not that the photos aren't well done (I especially liked the picture of the corner decorated with both religious icons and magazine cutouts), but that the commonality is striking.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:44 AM on July 27, 2010


Can someone explain how you take portraits like this? What's the magic camera? How do you get that crazy cool sharp focus on the subject and blurred background?
posted by iamck at 7:48 AM on July 27, 2010


Yeah, although the backgrounds (aside from the occasional stereo) look like they could have been built in the nineteenth century, the young people in the photo look like farm kids anywhere.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:54 AM on July 27, 2010


I totally see the "depression era" resemblance - #2 has a broom made of bound brush, you just don't see that anymore. Nice post, I don't see why people are being so nitpicky about the title.
posted by Think_Long at 7:55 AM on July 27, 2010


There were no photographs of men (except for one) above the age of 20.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:58 AM on July 27, 2010


> And yes, this particular set is of one small village.

No, actually it's not. Many of them are from Kich-Gorodok itself, but others are from Ploskovo, Zakharovo, Kurilovo, and other villages in the "кич-городецкий район" (Kich-Gorodok raion).

As for the "dying" part, maybe I should have left it out of the title (though "Life in a village" sounds kind of flat), but I have to agree that a village that's gone from 3,000 people to 40 is pretty plainly dying.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


iamck: Pleased to tell you that it is not a magic camera and a shot of similar ilk can be taken on a $500 Digital SLR. Either through manually focussing the shot on the foreground in which case the background blurrs, or by using an in-built auto focus (generally involving putting a crosshair in the viewfinder on the element you wish to sharply focus on and pushing the shutter button half way down) can these results be achieved.

As for the post - I enjoyed the photographs alot and agree some are striking though agree with the general direction of comment here.
posted by numberstation at 8:06 AM on July 27, 2010


Having grown up in rural Ontario during the cold war, I find it kind of amazing to see photos of this very similar parallel world existing in Russia. White, rural kids in the summer time. Also, I kept thinking about American Apparel ads.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:21 AM on July 27, 2010


Oh, she explains in a comment that there used to be 3,000 people in the village, and there are now 40. That really is pretty sad, but judging by the number of young people in the photos, I don't see why she says that there are "ten years left, maximum."

Because many of those young people in less than 10 years will take exams to get into universities in major cities. The men who do not pass the exams to enter university will have to join the military, per Russian law, or else evade joining and then be conscripted when asked for their papers by military personnel. Thus, one way or another, nearly all the young people in these pictures will be leaving the village. They will make or will have made for them their lives in other places.

Those who go on to start families will not do so in the village they lived in as children, for reasons the pictures show.
posted by zizzle at 8:58 AM on July 27, 2010


Wow, these are incredible shots. Thanks, languagehat.
posted by koeselitz at 9:24 AM on July 27, 2010


Anyone else read Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith?
posted by crunchland at 9:28 AM on July 27, 2010


Birth Rate: 11.46 per 1000
Death Rate: 15.86 per 1000
(from the WP link)
posted by stbalbach at 9:39 AM on July 27, 2010


Anachronistic elements aside, many of these look remarkably like the 19th and early 20th century photos of the Czech side of my family - those take in the Old Country as well as the new (especially the ones of the part of the family that settled in Iowa). Beautiful. Thanks!
posted by rtha at 9:41 AM on July 27, 2010


Can someone explain how you take portraits like this? What's the magic camera? How do you get that crazy cool sharp focus on the subject and blurred background?

The extremely fine sharpness is most likely the result of either a medium or large format camera or an extremely high megapixel profession dlsr plus well developed photoshop skills. The blurred background is basic depth of focus manipulation achieved by varying the aperture of the camera.
posted by spicynuts at 9:45 AM on July 27, 2010


Oh, also...ALWAYS USE A TRIPOD!!
posted by spicynuts at 9:45 AM on July 27, 2010


If Russian villages aren't dying, then they're close to it. There's a lot written about the trend (e.g., on JSTOR). The abandonment of a village is even the premise of a popular series of children's novels and cartoons in Russia.

Those who can read the comments to the post linked above will notice the ambivalence Russian readers have about the way of life depicted in the photos. There's an even split between wistful comments and comments acknowledging the miserable and stultifying existence people lead in places like that.

There are several reasons why rural areas are depopulating. The primary reason is the lack of jobs. Most village residents rely on subsistence farming for, well, subsistence, but can't afford (or don't have access to) durable consumer goods. (FUEL Publishing has a neat book of photos of Russian homemade artifacts.) There's also a problem with rural alcoholism, which (according to the Russian commenters) explains the notable absence of men from the photos.

Hence, we have picturesque images of tidy little old ladies sitting in lovely whitewashed houses full of last-century linens, juxtaposed with hard-up young couples and teenagers who face a total lack of employment and home-still potato vodka for company and entertainment.
posted by Nomyte at 9:50 AM on July 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


These are really beautiful. They have the kind of composure that looks accidental, but is almost certainly the result of consideration and experience.

This is really great, thanks.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:00 AM on July 27, 2010


I liked these photos, especially since the people in them seemed so at ease with the photographer. So often photos of poor or rural people show them looking wary, grim, or pathetic. I know life in these parts of the world is not easy for a number of reasons, but most of these people look fairly self-satisfied.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:22 AM on July 27, 2010


Fabulous photos, thanks languagehat. How on earth do they survive in those wooden houses during bitter Russian winters?
posted by Duug at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2010


Beautiful faces of all ages in these photos. It looks like a place I'd like to spend some time. Thanks for posting.
posted by medeine at 10:40 AM on July 27, 2010


I really wonder about the opportunities the residents of these dying villages have. The "culture hall" featured a stereo component system that must be 20 years old, and there were little signs of any sort of affluence. It would be a nice place to spend some time, but there is no way I would want to live there.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:10 AM on July 27, 2010


How do you get that crazy cool sharp focus on the subject and blurred background?

Like spicynuts suggests - get a high aperture (low f-number) lens and a really big sensor (i.e. spend lots of money on camera equipment). That will reduce the "depth of field" (or the amount of depth "in focus") to a minimum. Low DOF shots are all the rage these days, though I find them cliche.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:53 AM on July 27, 2010


Low DOF shots are all the rage these days, though I find them cliche.

But standard for portraits. The interesting thing about photography like this, at least to me, is how different a photograph can be from our perception. Obviously we don't "crop" like a camera does, but also our brain concentrates on one thing and "blurs" the rest (visually or in "post-processing", I don't know). So a shallow-DOF shot can evoke a very different emotional response than a deep-DOF one. Which is why I walk around with a 50mm f1.4 on my camera frequently. With the usual 1 in 25 "good" results.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 1:33 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


why do I hear John Mellencamp playing in my head when viewing this?
posted by smoothvirus at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2010


I guess don't really see anything "dying" about this village, except for the effects of the "photographs of poor people wearing unfashionable clothes=tragedy" reflex built into us by decades of weepy disaster photography.

Agreed. These are pleasant compositions, but could be taken pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe, or Kansas, for that matter. There is no "dying, Old World village" narrative implied by slightly frumpy clothes and occasionally peeling paint.


I think it's the opposite ... I think that what has been built into us is that something has to flash "Dying Old World Village Narrative" in neon lights. And that the relevant things to focus on when we're thinking about economic decline/decay are the clothes people are wearing and the stuff they have.


I wonder if it is just Americans or Westerners who would see this set, only notice the clothes, and think "just another series about random poor people." And not notice the total lack of adult men, and the almost total lack of people in their prime earning years.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:45 PM on July 27, 2010


I think the fact that there's nothing obviously "dying" in these photos is important. We talk about the death of communities and people expect something absolutely terrible that people are fleeing from, but it never really is. These people get by. They also know that every year is a little closer to the end, every year will be a little harder.

I like this. I think it's less about the shabbiness than that something in them implies the knowledge that they exist at the end of a long history, rather than at the beginning.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:47 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Loved this. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 7:39 PM on July 27, 2010


Fabulous photos, thanks languagehat. How on earth do they survive in those wooden houses during bitter Russian winters?

I think there may have been a picture in there of a Russian stove, a traditional masonry stove with a zig-zagging flue that combusts a much larger percentage of the fuel than the stove designs from other parts of the world and has several other features for retaining heat.
posted by XMLicious at 9:46 PM on July 27, 2010



How do you get that crazy cool sharp focus on the subject and blurred background?

You need to be able to set the aperture on your camera. Most have an Ae or aperture lock setting, or at worst a little chest/head stick figure setting to indicate portrait mode.
If you can set the aperture to 2 or less, the lens will focus with a very small margin of error. This makes everything in front, and everything behind blur a little.
I have a f1.4 lens like Ella Fynoe and the range of focus (depth of field) is about half an inch - a pic of one of my kids side on has an ear blurry, the iris sharp and the nose blurred (and everything behind blurred away.
Sadly, I think my own ratio for good shots is more 1 in a hundred.

On a cheap compact, the portrait mode will likely lock the aperture open to about 3.5 or 4.5, the widest for most compact lenses, but you can narrow the depth of field by zooming in. Go get your camera and try taking some pics of a vase or similar at different distances with different zoom settings. For the maximum background blur get close *and* zoom in with the aperture wide open on its lowest numerical setting.

A very nice site I just found for calculating depth of field is at:
http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html
posted by bystander at 9:52 PM on July 27, 2010


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