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ON THE SCENE: Nathan Farb and ‘The Russians’

November 10, 2016
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

When one thinks of Nathan Farb, glorious high-resolution photographs of the Adirondacks comes to mind. In many respects, Farb revolutionized how we see this region through his breathtaking images that capture the light so emblematic of our area.

Farb's oeuvre is far more than that, however, as is on ample display at the Burke Galley, Myers Fine Arts Building at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Titled "The Russians," on display are 50 of several hundred studio portraits taken by Farb in 1977 while in Novosibirsk, Russia, hosting an exhibition of American photography for the United States Information Agency.

Article Photos

Photographer Nathan Farb lives in the town of Jay.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Novosibirsk, then one of the largest industrial centers in Russia as well as its third largest city, is located in south-central Siberia. At that time, Soviet President and Supreme Ruler Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Gerald Ford, were seeking to reduce tensions and create greater international stability through detente, of interest to the Soviets as they desired to improve their stagnated economy.

At the same time, they increased their persecution of dissidents, which included many in the arts and humanities. Westerners taking photos of Soviet life was strictly forbidden.

In Novosibirsk, far from the cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), Farb sought and received permission to establish a studio as part the exhibit and photograph Soviet citizens. He pitched the idea that he would demonstrate Polaroid instant film technology through taking pictures of people and giving them the prints. And so he did, tossing the backing he peeled away from the prints into a bag like so much refuse. That paper, which USIA shipped in diplomatic pouches to the U.S., contained the negatives of the images given as gifts, large negatives that enabled Farb, once home, to print and display the results.

"I was using a Polaroid positive-negative film that came in a pack," said Farb. "It was a beautiful film as you can see. I did not understand how beautiful a film it was until I started making the big prints. The prints I gave people, and the corresponding negatives, were all 4 by 5 or 3 by 4 inches, all big negatives. Sometimes I use a Polaroid camera hooked up to my strobes, and sometimes I used a view camera with a Polaroid back.

"I was part of a very large show that went to several cities in Russia. It was held in a large space, similar in size to an armory. Each city had a different guest photographer as a host. The real host was someone who could speak Russian. The exhibition was displayed in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Romania, Hungry, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Novosibirsk was a city of about two million people and 10,000 people a day came to see it. Everybody wanted to see the show."

Today, with digital photography we can easily take multiple shots of any person or images checking to see if we got them right. Farb usually had just one shot, sometimes a couple more, to capture his subjects. Capture them he did. His subjects were a cross-section of the many people who came to see the exhibition, people from all walks of life. The result is an extraordinary and truly rare glimpse into the spirit and soul of Soviets at the time.

He captured farm and factory workers, government officials, people of all ages, people filled with hope and sadness. Some stern, some relaxed. The breadth and diversity of the people are remarkable, and how open they were with him, an American, then 39, who could not speak Russian. Imagine, with Soviet authorities looking on, Farb would pose people nattering away in a language they could not understand. And for them, he was an American, one of those decadent westerners, how exotic, and they got to take home a photo of themselves, with family, friends or colleagues. They eagerly lined up.

"I was determined to get a cross-section of people," said Farb. "I wanted to break certain stereotypes; the easiest was that it was a classless society. I wanted to create a reality of these people that wasn't based on Communistic propaganda. I feel like I brought back one of the most interesting and messianic documents of the era. I was doing my own thing. I got over on the Russians. I got over on the United States. In the midst of everything, I was just my own man. I loved that I was bringing back something unique. I got to touch, hold, look at, examine closely all these Russians. I was physically inches away from all these people that were forbidden, and I was just as forbidden to them as they were to me."

"I think the work is fascinating," said photographer Todd Lockwood. "Just given the timeframe alone. This is a time when there was quite a difference in lifestyle between the middle class in the U.S. and the average Russian. His technique of using the backing from the Polaroids is remarkable, and the quality is amazing. I love the shot of the guy with a vodka bottle hidden under his shirt."

"They all look like character actors to me," said Lisa Lewis. "They have such a presence. They don't look self-conscious at all. When I first saw them, I thought that several looked like the character in a movie I had seen. The woman with the dark hair looks like young Jim Morrison. They are so telling, especially the shoes that people wear."

"The photos are sensational," said Richard Rodzinski who has traveled to Russian many times over the past three decades as part of international music competitions and performances. "What's so extraordinary is how he's captured the soul of so many people."

The exhibit was hosted by SUNY Plattsburgh, which has a made a strong commitment to the arts through its galleries, collections, performances, and educational offerings.

"The role of the arts is significant at the college," said John Ettling, SUNY Plattsburgh president, who pointed out that students help purchase art from their student fees, described the many galleries, and a variety of upcoming performances.

As for Farb's photographs, Ettling said, "I think Nathan's work is terrific. I have seen his Adirondack images, but I had not seen this at all. I am trying to imagine those Polaroid photos he gave away surviving forty years later."

Five years ago, when visiting Farb with students for the college who were looking to purchase one of his Adirondack prints for the then new Hudson Building, the photographer shared examples of his Russian portfolio.

"They fascinated me," said Cecilia Esposito, director the Plattsburgh State Museum. "I thought someday I'd like to exhibit them."

Early in September, a delayed projected meant they had no exhibition planned for the fall.

"I thought, now what am I going to do?" she said. "Then I remembered his Russian portfolio and called Nathan up. I asked him, is there enough material? Can we do this? What should we do? Are you even willing? He was more than happy to take it on. He sent us all kinds of things. Then we started selecting, matting and framing, doing research, and here it is just six weeks later."

Several of the photos on display are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art along with other prestigious institutions and were published in a book, titled "The Russians." Best, though, is seeing them in person.

The exhibit will be on display until Jan. 8. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. The exhibition is free. For further information, call 518-564-2472.



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