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January 9 - February 26, 2002 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Margarita Nieto

Since 1991, Gerd Ludwig has covered ten assignments for National Geographic Magazine in Russia, photographing and documenting the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Ludwig, who has been with National Geographic since 1989 and who has also published in Time, Geo, Stern and Newsweek, recently returned to Russia to capture images of what he refers to as a "time of rebirth." Thirty five of the photographs from this decade appear in this exhibition, as well as in a book, Broken Empire--After the Fall of the USSR. A selection also appeared in the November, 2001 issue of National Geographic.

The images themselves reveal a contradictory and often harsh view of life in Russia. A 1993 shot of the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, shows camels crossing the sea's dry bed on which a rusted ship has run aground, evidence of the effect of irrigation tapping into the feeder rivers of the sea. In Novokuznetsk, 1992, fumes from the KMK steel plant rise above the ice-frosted city. A 1993 portrait of children born with missing forearms, all from two Moscow neighborhoods, is a horrifying revelation of yet-unproven links between pollution and congenital deformities. They are, in Ludwig's words, vestiges "of seventy years of wasteful central planning and of ignoring a consumer market in favor of the heavy demands of a military/industrial complex."

Symbolically heralding a new era dominated by a post-Communist generation, a photo of a broken statue of Josef Stalin sporting a red blindfold sits astride a heap of effigies of other party figures in Moscow, Russia (1992). This new generation has never experienced the fear and oppression of the older generations. The effect of new relationships with the West is evident in the evolution of Russian MTV, discos, pizza joints, and advertising which reach into the most remote areas of the country’s awe-inspiringly huge seven million square miles and eleven time zones spanning the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. A photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his face a contradictory mix of old aristocracy stateliness and the steely distance of the KGB, was taken at a meeting at the Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg and is a compressed characterization of present day Russia.

It is axiomatic to say that the new era, filled as it is with influences from the West, brings about new problems, among them, the emergence of a sharply divided class system which had been absent under the old regime. Ludwig offers troubled documentation of homelessness and of abject poverty. In one striking image, an elderly homeless man sits by a fountain, ejected from his shared apartment when his son's live-in girlfriend moved in. It is an image that reflects the conflict of the new Russia, in which the fear of the effect of globalization and what Ludwig refers to as "soulless exploitation" looms as a menacing force. As if confronting those influences, Ludwig also catches emblematic images of a proud military tradition taken in and around the Royal Cossack Cadet Academy. In a picture taken at Novocherkassk in 1997, a horse and rider seem to rise from the waters of the fabled Don river at sunset.

The seamless continuity of Russian life is also documented in a series of photographs taken along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow across the length of Russia to Vladovostok on the Sea of Japan. As the train traverses Siberia, through the Taiga, it passes east of Lake Baikel, offering the viewer a majestic winter landscape. In contrast, a Muskovite stands with arms spread out, catching the first rays of an early spring sun, the earth around her still covered with snow.

Yet while Ludwig probes and captures this constantly evolving portrait of Russian life with a depth of experience developed over the course of a decade, many of the images that greeted this first-time visitor to Russia are curiously missing: The grandeur of the landscape--mountains, deep forests and rivers, the magnificent architecture of the cities (there is a noticeable absence of images of Saint Petersburg for example); and on the other side of the coin, the very lack of broad consumerism which Ludwig nonetheless focuses on to such a great degree, are missteps in this series of photos. The differences which define Russia--her multiethnicity (she is at once Asian and European, Christian, Jewish and Islamic) are overlooked. It would seem that Ludwig's eye, fascinated by the self, i.e. the West, remains somewhat out of focus to seeing "the Other." As a consequence we see a Russia, through his unquestionably polished photographs, which satisfies our a priori vision of what we perceive Russia must be. As a consequence, we are deprived of the more complete vision of her boundless vitality and energy.

“Moscow,” photograph, 2001.
Benetton megastore: A 21,000 square-foot merchandising behemoth, filled with Italian flair, replaced the state-run Natasha department store.

“Moscow, Russia," photograph, 1992.
A discarded statue of Joseph Stalin, blindfolded with a red pioneer’s scarf, survives at Moscow's sculpture garden after 1991’s coup - but only in pieces; much like the dictator’s once powerful empire, which four months later would be history.

“Starocherkassk, Russia," photograph, 1997.
A gathering of Cossack picnickers leaven their lunch with revelry on the banks of the Don River near Starocherkassk, the first capital of the Don voisko (meaning host or community) from 1644 to early 1800s.

“Siberia, Russia," photograph, 1997.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad, a century old monument to the Tsars’ imperial will and the Soviet Union’s industrial might, is the world’s longest railway. It begins in Moscow and runs eastward through the Ural Mountains and across all of Asia to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Although work began in 1891, the first time a train traveled uninterrupted was only in 1904.