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Book Reviews: Stand By

Stand By. Photographs by Sputnik Photos with 
numerous contributing photographers.
Published Sputnik Photos, 2012.
Stand By
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Stand By
By Sputnik Photos with numerous contributing photographers.
Sputnik Photos, 2012. Hardbound. 162 pp., illustrated throughout, 6-3/4x8-1/2".

Stand By is an anthology of photographs centered on Belarus and the Belarusian national identity. It features the work of nine different photographers from the Sputnik Photo Collective. The book itself is beautifully and sturdily bound; it is a volume of the finest quality (even the black dye of the cover is high quality and does not, like so many "high quality" books smudge or run), but I digress. This collection has so many good qualities; it is an excellent source of factual history, of style, of superb examples for how to frame a photograph, of what good high quality printing can offer, etc.

The first collection of work in Stand By is a series of photographs of photographs entitled Goodbye, Motherland by Andrei Liankevich; a lazy approach to photography you might say but, in this case that is not so. Liankevich describes his inspiration in his own words: "War has never been anything close to me in [an] emotional sense. It was the story about 'every fourth man who died in Belarus.' But I have never sensed it personally. There was no sorrow, no pain." From this standpoint the collection unfolds in faded faces, sleeping soldiers and strange personal paramilitary objects (busts of generals, canteens, manikins in uniform). Liankevich's photos are eerie and haunting, they seem to look into the past as if one were looking through a swimming pool at people and places. This coupling of theme and material is an ideal marriage of medium with idea.
Stand By, by Sputnik Photos. Published by Sputnik Photos, 2012.

Following Liankevich's rich opening, Rafal Milach (who is quickly becoming my favorite contemporary photographer) gives us his The Winners, a dual collection of corrected spaces and obscure “winners.” Milach photographs walls that had been defaced with graffiti set right again with off shade paint. One senses that a greater meaning has been erased, a repressed voice has been shoved further under and then, in the center of these photographs, we find another, smaller collection of photographs that document local "winners" through Polaroids. "Best Bus Driver," "Best Bride," "Best Border Guard Dog," and "Best Milkmaid" join a host of others who excelled in their small fields; they are a handful of bests from a country that is, in of itself, a handful of gems. This collection, which at first may seem too stark, suddenly, with the inclusion of the smaller collection, takes on a fuller and lasting luster in its explosive juxtaposition of images.
Stand By, by Sputnik Photos. Published by Sputnik Photos, 2012.

Adam Panczuk contributes a nice, stylish little collection of photos that pay homage to "the care Belarusians [take] in their dress," as he puts it. These photos are simple and elegantly framed and are true to their theme though, perhaps, a little too haute for their surroundings. That being said, Panczuk's photographs can hold their own against the most highly regarded of fashion photographers today, a fact that stares at us point blank in this brief collection.

Stand By, by Sputnik Photos. Published by Sputnik Photos, 2012.
I Reminisce and Cry for Life by Agnieszka Rayss documents in photographs and in their own words Belarusian women who served in the military during World War II. This collection is rich in historical interest and also serves as a lovingly arranged homage to the elder women of Belarus (again, not many Belarusian men survived their military service in the twentieth century). Every word recorded in the section is worthy of reading and trying to understand. In my mind this collection goes hand-in-hand with Manca Juvan's Homeland, another series contained in Stand By, which explores Belarusian emigrants living in New York. These women (it is all women) found their way to the United States during the utter turmoil of their country's various struggles. We are given their words, their history and their deep sense of nationality (strange that, time and again, history shows us that the greatest sense of national pride is often found among exiles and emigrants). The photos document their new lives in a new country and their roots in their old country. This single collection goes further than any other in Stand By to increase the sense that Belarus is a great country of intelligent and hardworking people and, further, that people wherever they may be, are steeped in their ancestral roots with pride.
Stand By, by Sputnik Photos. Published by Sputnik Photos, 2012.
A further, similar study of Belarusian women is found in City of Women by Justyna Mielnikiewicz. The swing of this collection draws attention back to the missing generations of male Belarusians as it takes the form of a catalog of eligible single women looking for male companionship. These interviews are simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The women in this collection, seemingly widowed before marriage, are smart, funny, educated professionals who, not for lack of looks or personality, can not find partners in their native surroundings. This collection does more to highlight the lasting effects of war on this tiny nation than any other; very little has made me aware so acutely as to the enduring horror and hardships of a war torn nation.
Stand By, by Sputnik Photos. Published by Sputnik Photos, 2012.
Stand By is far and away the best single anthology of photography I have encountered in years. It is focused and professionally polished, topical and searching. The Sputnik Photo Collective seems at a point in their career where they are beyond doubt, beyond reproach and at the crossroads of entering the everlasting history of art.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry. He is an arts writer for the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque.