Russia through a Train Window (and a Camera Lens)
Text Alevtina Kashitsina Photos courtesy of Anton Lange
When Russian photographer Anton Lange’s Russia through a Train Window exhibit opened in Moscow last spring, skeptics remarked that with sponsors like he had, anyone could put together a photography exhibit. After all, Lange’s collaborator on the project was Russian Railways, the megacompany that owns and operates the nation’s vast network of railroads. But the exhibit’s popularity silenced cynics and spoke for itself: The number of visitors to the show in its first two weeks alone set an attendance record for the venue, Novy Manezh.
The project is a kind of tribute to early 20th-century Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a pioneer in the development of color photography. The photo expedition he launched in 1909 under the patronage of Tsar Nicholas II yielded the first color photographs of the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, the start of World War I prevented Prokudin- Gorsky from finishing his photographic collection of Russian churches, factories, cities, and people. So Lange picked up where Prokudin-Gorsky left off, determined to show us Lake Baikal, Sakhalin, and the Black Sea, to complete the record of images his predecessor had begun nearly 100 years earlier.
Lange has had a long career as a photographer in Russia and abroad, with his work appearing in such publications as Geo, Playboy, and Harper’s Bazaar. His Train Window exhibition of 200-plus photographs opened in Moscow last May and since then has been touring train stations from Yuzhnosakhalinsk to St. Petersburg. In 2009 there are plans for the exhibit to travel abroad. Passport caught up with Lange during a stop in Moscow.
On seeing Russia by train:
Lange with his wife, Natalya Kolesova
For me the very sense of traveling around Russia is summed up in one phrase written on a railway ticket: “You may stop at any station and continue your journey at any moment with this ticket.” You can easily travel through the entire country simply with one railway ticket. You can make your journey on the Trans-Siberian last a month or more.
How did the exhibition’s title emerge?
The title is an image, with metaphorical as well as literal meaning. Many pictures were literally taken from a train window, but of course it would have been boring if all the photos were shot from the same vantage point.
The idea of the project is a series of expeditions, whose paths coincide with the routes of the Russian Railways. Sometimes we used a special expedition train, sometimes regular trains and smaller means of railway transport. To get to some places we took helicopters, boats, etc.
On the individual and the collective:
This project allowed me to realize my own vision but it was possible thanks to the involvement of many people. It went beyond teamwork. A large-scale project such as this is predicated on many months, even years of travel. With such scope, you must find an algorithm to frame your story. We chose not to stray more than ten kilometers from the railroad tracks.
To make it work requires the effort of hundreds of people on myriad levels, from top to bottom, from Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways on down. The scheduling of our expedition train alone required a huge amount of help and cooperation from all sides. It was a real partnership.
Every form of art is individual, of course, but modern photography sometimes requires joint efforts, especially in largescale projects with technological components such as staging and lighting. These considerations can be more important than the photographer’s talent. That is why I like to produce my own projects. The organizational process attracts me as much as taking pictures itself. In this project, I was able to play the role of stage director and playwright as well.
And it requires discipline at every turn – not just on the level of production or administration, but even when it comes to choosing an angle and spot for your picture. When you see a frame you want to shoot, unfortunately you have to sacrifice many other things accompanying it. But you see what you want to deliver and cut off all the rest, otherwise there will not be a complete story.
How much freedom did you have on this project?
There were no strictures imposed. People have sometimes criticized me, saying that I show a Russia that is too made-up, too beautiful. But who can judge where the truth is? If I took pictures of homeless people at railway stations, would that be the only truth? And do you how the Southern Urals look at the very beginning of autumn or winter? This exhibition and project on the whole reveals new horizons to people, I think. And judging by the crowds that have come to see it, I think people appreciate that.
On how landscapes influence the people in them:
Our country is “wide” and I used panorama lens to highlight this. And I discovered that I myself am susceptible to these beautiful landscapes. For example, in Izborsk and some other parts of the Urals, it is absolutely impossible to work because you are so impressed by the beauty around you. My team is ten big guys, but they were stunned, as if deafened by the beauty. It’s like the first time you visit Venice, you cannot take any pictures for two days. Then you get used to the beauty, and it’s all right.
Moreover, I am sure that every region has its strengths. Springtime. High water in Meschera, for example. Immediately all those associations with Russian literature emerge – Paustovsky, Nekrasov. Very strong emotions. And I am happy when people who come to the exhibition say that this or that picture reminds them of a place they love.
What is your favorite part of the photographic process?
Waiting for film to be developed. That is why I continue shooting film photography. None of the photographers can know what is there on the film. Luckily, there are usually some good results, but not always. That’s why I shoot a lot. Every professional does.
You’ve traveled so widely in Russia. Do you have a favorite spot?
The island of Sakhalin for sure. It was one of the places I had never been before this project. And the Barguzin River Valley near Lake Baikal. My dream is to pass through it and come up to the Stanovoye plateau. But there were also places I had visited many years before that it was a thrill to return to - like Meschera, the Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve. The places mean a lot to me even though I don’t visit them very often.