THIS PROJECT BEGAN back in the summer of 2001, mostly as a product of some admittedly modest circumstances. A tax refund spent on a cheap view camera, an under-planned summer vacation, an announcement in a little magazine for a hike called “Castle in the Forest.” Nothing you would call weighty really, but for me it proved to be a potent combination.
Around this same time I’d been doing some research on optics and had finally come up with a mostly useable version of an old lens I’d read about. My first chance to try it out was at Elizavetino, and I found the results well suited to the atmosphere of the place. It’s an atmosphere that’s very tangible if you’re standing there, but hard to bottle up and take home with you. So if you’d wondered about the soft look and blurry edges on some of the pictures, they’re done with this lens, which, strictly speaking, is a piece of junk. Sometimes “perfection” is boring.
Looking back on things, it seems I got into all this during the late part of an especially agreeable period in Russian history. Just a few years earlier, many of these buildings were still occupied by various schools, sanatoriums, and other such things. Plus foreigners’ travels were carefully managed.
One of my lenses, on a 1940 Soviet “TEMP” shutterSo starting in the early 90’s, many of these estates became much more accessible. Now things are on the wane again, as a decade of disuse has left the buildings too defenseless to vandals, too exposed to the harsh winters. Some estates closer to the capitals have been hastily restored, or bought up by private individuals to begin new lives as largely different structures.
Wandering around the countryside, I’ve happened to meet the full cast of characters in this little drama, from the old people who remember these buildings in a past era, to the kids who gleefully destroy them today. And a collection of other colorful folks, local drunks to FSB agents. As a foreigner walking around with a big view camera, you can arouse some amount of curiosity and make acquaintences fast. But I must say that all the people I’ve run into—even some otherwise, I think, dubious types—have been quite friendly and even gracious in their own way.
Back in their day, estates in Russia were remarkable for their hospitality, and it’s nice to see that people there, even ones far removed in time and material circumstance, are still nice to a stranger.