Social Media

A Closer Look: USSR 1991

USSR 1991. Photographs by Keizo Kitajima. Little Big Man, 2013.

Keizo Kitajima is known for studying with and then collaborating with Daido Moriyama starting in the 1970s. His wide ranging oeuvre has been reproduced in various books such as the grainy black & white scenes in PPP Editions Back to Okinawa: 1980/2009, his classic Photo Express: Tokyo and in the muted colors of the urban and rural structures of Isolated Places. Traveling the world and shooting in his varied style, Kitajima has largely focused on portraits and landscapes. In his new book USSR 1991 his subjects face the camera, deadpan, without a change in emotion or body language. They seem to be indifferent and emotionless to the photographer, but confront the lens nonetheless. His landscapes are largely overcast, bleak and barren illustrating man’s touch even without the presence of a human figure. USSR 1991 uses the subjects and their surrounding landscape to build a picture of a nation on the cusp of great change.

USSR 1991, by Kitajima Keizo. Published by Little Big Man, 2013.
USSR 1991, by Kitajima Keizo. Published by Little Big Man, 2013.

This edit of likely thousands of photos is culled down to 122 color plates. The limited edition book is an elaborate object with numerous gatefolds and captions printed on 2/3 creamy vellum pages in Japanese and English and inserted at intervals throughout the book. Kitajima shows Moscow in the bleak overcast early months of spring 1990, the industrial tin factory workers around the third most populated city in Russia, Novosibirsk and the nearby coal mining areas in Kemerovo, the Nuclear Physics Institute meeting in Akademgorodok, former Korean and Japanese citizens in the once Japanese island of Sakhalin, nomads and a Communist-Muslim politician in Uzbek Republic, and life on the Armenian border. No colors are vibrant; there is no overwhelming sense of happiness -- more likely the opposite -- in many images. Maybe the heavy weight of winter hangs in the air, but maybe there is something else in this picture of a nation.

USSR 1991, by Kitajima Keizo. Published by Little Big Man, 2013.

Despite the argument that Kitajima attempted to avoid the typical outside documents of depravity that pervaded much of the photojournalistic images of the USSR during this time, his portraits bring into question the happiness of a nation on this precipice. Does he capture a mood of a country or is it a projection of his own experiences during the 12 months he spent there? As an outsider, would he be able to know and portray a true document of the USSR in 1991? A nation that one month after Kitajima’s completion of the project would no longer be called USSR? A nation that would now be divided into a much smaller nation and surrounding republics?

USSR 1991, by Kitajima Keizo. Published by Little Big Man, 2013.
USSR 1991, by Kitajima Keizo. Published by Little Big Man, 2013.

None of us are without biases. I am likely projecting my own in this review—being an impressionable youth during the Reagn-era relations with Nikita Khrushchev — but one thing can be said for Kitajima’s book USSR 1991: It is one of the most important books to take a long-term look at a nation on the verge of such great political change. It is arguably among the most important of this type of project since Robert Frank’s trip across America in 1950s, though with a radically different aesthetic and approach in medium. It will stand as a classic photobook and important historical document. -- Melanie McWhorter

Purchase Book

No comments:

Post a Comment