ALEXEY TITARENKO grew up in Cold War-era Leningrad (née and once again St. Petersburg), in a typically small, cramped apartment. To keep him quiet, his parents would give him books to read, and by the age of eight he was exceptionally literate. As with any child who reads copiously, his imagination was lit with vivid notions about the world, real and not so real. “When I was walking through the city, these stories were telling me so much about what I was seeing that I sometimes experienced euphoria in particular places.”
Particular authors — such as Dostoyevsky and Proust — found their way into Titarenko’s eventual work as a photographer, having provided metaphorical keys to translating the ineffable into the pictorial. Much of Titarenko’s work is submerged in a recurring, if opaque and layered, narrative about his life during the waning era of the Soviet Union. Responding to both his solitary rambles around the evidently lugubrious metropolis and the propaganda he watched on Soviet television, he cycled through various series of photographs in an attempt to forge in images the urban analogue to his emotional life.
Titarenko’s series titles — Nomenclature of Signs, Black & White Magic of St. Petersburg, City of Shadows — spell out the artist’s experiments with light and form even while naming his autobiographical passage through the labyrinth of his birthplace, the city that, though he now lives in New York, continues to be his spiritual ground zero. His latest volume, The City Is A Novel, actually celebrates three other cities besides St. Petersburg (Havana, Venice, and New York). The connection to fiction remains apt; as before, the subjectivity of the shooter is given higher value than the objectivity of the lens.
Titarenko was also inspired by music. He studied it early on, and was particularly moved by the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich (another son of St. Petersburg). He told me:
My parents lived in the city during the blockade, but I never really felt what they felt at that time until I listened to the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich. That music was so powerful that I actually felt what they experienced, on my body, and I was crying. This was so strong that I told myself I have to do something like that.
One series, City of Shadows, was installed so that viewers were ushered one way through a top-lit maze of photographs mounted as musical scores, which in turn took on the progression of a book being read across a spatial continuum. Goethe said that architecture is frozen music, so someone who shoots cityscapes has license to consider theirs a musical pursuit, or at least ordained by rhythmic higher powers.
Beyond Titarenko’s aestheticization of a grim social reality (food shortages, tight and consequential surveillance, culture kept on a tight leash), he has conjured a uniquely dynamic sense of time. Twin temporal realities coexist in his work: one fluid the other static. Architecture and infrastructure provide the compositional framework, while people blurred by movement (via his expertly calibrated long-exposure method) give the images their energy. There is also, in later work, a kind of hierarchy of light. Titarenko has become adept at directing the viewer’s gaze by using photographic toning to amplify the light of each punctus he selects: a beggar’s paper sign asking for help, for instance. The augmented glint of that slip of paper points to the crises the city has suffered. But in his most recent series, he has added the slightest hints of hue: a tint of yellow for a New York taxi, the red of a traffic light, the lamp of a Venetian bell tower. Astonishingly, these dabs of color have more psychological weight than a gallery full of garish Polaroids.
If Titarenko’s art is germinated by, as he says, “moments of moral and physical euphoria,” even while reflecting the arc of oppression in Russia, his images paint a ghostly world inhabited by spirits rather than corporeal beings. He uses a kind of blur distortion that makes one think of Francis Bacon at his most hallucinatory — more a psychological landscape than a concrete one. In his St. Petersburg, life is seen as energy, as flux, though embodied in men and women bent with fatigue and, sometimes, despair. Titarenko speaks in terms of happy places and sad places — they present the poles that define the genius loci, but in rendering these locales so hypnogogic that they take on an urban universality. These moods appear in the subterfuge of lights and shadows from which he refashions them, each print uniquely handmade in the darkroom, each image never precisely replicated. It is never anything less than a deeply personal visit to worlds filled with childhood enigmas and adult redemptions.
The element of mystery plays a large role in Titarenko’s work, as he demolishes any sense of the obvious. In an oppressive regime such as the one in which he grew up, this for an artist was undoubtedly also a matter of survival.
Alexey Titarenko’s latest book is The City Is A Novel (Damiani).