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Book Review: M


Book Review M By Misha Pedan Reviewed by David Ondrik M is a book of photographs made by Misha Pedan from 1985-1986, taken during his lengthy daily subway commute in Karkov, Ukraine. M opens with an introduction by Vagrich Bakhjhanyan that immediately sets an unusual tone for the book: it is not the traditional introductory essay intended to shed light on the photographs and the artist who made them.

M. By Misha Pedan.
Khimaira Publishing, 2015.
 
M
Reviewed by David Ondrik

M
Photographs by Misha Pedan
Khimaira Publishing, Sweden, 2015. In English/Russian. 124 pp., 80 illustrations, 10¼x7¾".


M is a book of photographs made by Misha Pedan from 1985-1986, taken during his lengthy daily subway commute in Karkov, Ukraine. M opens with an introduction by Vagrich Bakhjhanyan that immediately sets an unusual tone for the book: it is not the traditional introductory essay intended to shed light on the photographs and the artist who made them. Pedan’s photographs are not mentioned at all. Instead the piece is a fantastic account of the city of Karkov, so far removed from reality that it becomes more of a poem or piece of short fiction than an academically useful window into the pictures. Its fanciful nature calls into question the veracity of the photographs to come.

M. By Misha Pedan. Khimaira Publishing, 2015.

The eighty exquisitely reproduced photographs following Bakhjhanyan’s essay are all made in the confined space of a subway car. Although it is not stated anywhere in the book, the subjects appear unaware they are being photographed, so it seems safe to conclude Pedan’s camera was hidden from view. Whether this was an effort to get truly candid shots or a consequence of the political reality of Soviet-era Ukraine is unclear. What is clear is that he was able to capture some remarkable images of his fellow travelers.

M. By Misha Pedan. Khimaira Publishing, 2015.

Whether through a technical or aesthetic requirement, Pedan has used long shutter speeds, which introduces significant motion blur to the images. This creates a real sense of energy and movement on the Ukrainian subway. The people are alive and moving, the train car is shaking, the scene out the window is clear or distorted — these are not frozen fractions of a second for studying, there is a visceral sense that the viewer is bouncing along with the passengers. Throughout the book, many of the facing pages are diptychs of the same scene, made with two different exposures. On the left panel two out of four people will be blurry from motion; on the right panel three are frozen in place, while one individual glances around. This convention sets up a cinematic progression of time and movement through the subway cars.

M. By Misha Pedan. Khimaira Publishing, 2015.

American audiences will immediately think of Walker Evans’ body of similar work made in the late 1930s, Many Are Called, which was published in 1966 and republished in 2004. Although both works share the formal conceit of the hidden camera recording anonymous photographs of passengers on a subway, that is where the similarities end. Evans was interested in showing what riding the subway looked like while Pedan shows what it felt like. It’s unclear whether Pedan was aware of Evan’s work in 1985, and there is no information in M to indicate Many Are Called made it through the Iron Curtain. But there is a visual cue towards the end of M that may indicate Pedan was aware of Evans’s work when he sequenced these images for publication: the accordion player. Pedan dedicates six pages, more than any other subject, to increasingly blurry images of a man seated between two women playing an accordion. It is easy to see this as a tip-of-the-hat to Evans’ earlier image of a subway accordionist, and therefore the larger similarities of the two bodies of work.

M. By Misha Pedan. Khimaira Publishing, 2015.

M is an engaging book that appeals to multiple spheres of the photography world. Formalists will appreciate the aesthetics of the images, the play of light and dark, blur and focus, while ethnographers will be engaged by the character, dress, and bearing of the residents of Soviet era Karkov. Although it certainly stands on its own, it also is a worthy companion to Many Are Called.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK is an artist, high school art teacher, and writer who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and now lives in Portland, Oregon. http://www.artisdead.net.

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