Moscow photographer captures the capital in military frenzy

Photo of Alexander Gronsky. Image by Обывало (deleted account) from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Holod Magazine published an interview with the award-winning Moscow-based photographer Alexander Gronsky. Global Voices translated a part of the interview, edited it for clarity and republished it with the permission from Holod.  The photographs are embedded from Alexander Gronsky's public Instagram account

In the 21st century, photographer Alexander Gronsky reinvented the genre of landscape and became famous worldwide — he received numerous international artistic and journalistic awards, including the prestigious World Press Photo Award. His photographs look like the grand paintings of old masters, with people also becoming part of the landscape. Gronsky could have easily left Russia after February 24, 2022, but decided to stay, and, for two years now, he has been documenting what Moscow looks like and how it lives during the war. He photographed the funeral of Navalny and the aftermath of drone attacks on Moscow City, but his photos are not at all like typical reportage shots. They clearly capture the spirit of the times and how the war intrudes into the urban space. The editor of Holod, Alexander Gorbachev, talked to Gronsky about how he achieves this.

Alexander Gorbachev (Gorbachev): For the past two years, I have been looking at Moscow with the eyes of a stranger — and I see how differently these eyes view the city. One perspective is that nothing has changed: people sit in restaurants, ride on bike paths, go to clubs — and the war does not break into this ordinary life. Another perspective is that this is a space of totalitarian police control, where one can be taken to the station simply because someone sees something on your balcony or overhears a conversation in the metro. Moscow in your pictures is something third. It is not a city that lives an ordinary life, nor is it a realized dystopia. How do you define it for yourself — what is this Moscow like?

Alexander Gronsky (Gronsky): I have this question myself. Actually, I answer it through my photographs. Well, it’s not exactly answering: my work doesn’t have a conceptual core, I don’t think I want to tell something specific about Moscow. I go out from my house, wondering the streets of Moscow, wanting to find out: what is happening with Moscow?

Right after [February 24 2024, the start of full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine], there was a feeling that Moscow was the epicenter of some events, but these events were completely invisible. And a method of capturing these changes emerged from my confusion. That is, I engaged in classic street photography: just wandering the streets and snapping what catches the eye. Initially, it seemed that I was creating completely disjointed stuff, but over time, things began to crystallize, focal points emerged.

For example, billboards. I was interested in the intrusion of a new reality into the landscape — and so I started shooting these billboards. The very first one I took in early March [2022] — just then on Leningradsky Avenue, among the ads for TVs, cars, and apartments, signs appeared that read “Za mir.” [“For peace” but with a Latin Z, which is the government's symbol for the war, instead of a Cyrillic З] And just a day before that, I saw people detained for holding posters that said “За мир,” but without the Latin Z. This turnaround shocked me — how language began to function differently.


Gorbachev: I think that those who encounter your work for the first time might ask: where are the people, actually? You are photographing the city, the space of human life, but the people in your photographs are not the main subjects; they are more a part of the landscape.

Gronsky: Yes, that's a long-standing tradition of mine. I don’t get close to people. I'm generally a shy person, I don't like pointing the camera at people to make them feel uncomfortable, which in turn makes me nervous. On the other hand, when you shoot from a greater distance, more elements enter the frame — and it feels like you're capturing some complexity.

It's funny that many museum curators keep telling me: listen, no need for people, just capture the pure urban space — like a sort of sculpture, so to speak. And I understand them: an empty city looks much more grandiose in a museum, making a stronger impression. But I actually want to break that grandeur. I really like this quote by Chaplin: “a close-up is always a tragedy, a long shot is always a comedy.” That's why I want my pictures to have an element of human comedy. I think that little figures of people help me to accept the landscape myself, they bring a human scale to it. If there were no people, I would feel too much anger towards it.

Gorbachev: I think this is very evident in the picture from Navalny's funeral. The tail of the line against the backdrop of a residential area makes the photo very poignant.

Gronsky: Yes, probably. There were many photos taken from this angle — there was a bridge with a spiral staircase, and everyone climbed it to take pictures of the crowd. But by the time I got up there, the crowd was already thinning. It turned out that, although there were many people, they were against the backdrop of some vast emptiness.

Gorbachev: How did this series start? In February–March 2022, many of us were deciding what to do next. How did you decide to take these photos?

Gronsky: In the beginning, I was very disoriented. I  was in a sort of slump at that time. And right at the New Year night of 2022, I made a promise to myself: to get a grip, to roam the city every free day, shoot what I liked, and immediately post it on Instagram. It didn't matter if no one found it interesting.  I've been involved in photography all my life and don't know any other way to pull myself together.

By the end of summer 2022, I felt burnt out and unsure what to do next. Then, patriotic posters started appearing more frequently — I ran all over Moscow trying to capture them. There were few at first, and being an optimist, I was sure that it could all end any day and that I needed to capture even the slightest changes in the landscape because otherwise, no one would believe that it was all like this.

I spent a tremendous amount of energy on this. But in the last year, these patriotic signs have appeared on every corner, and I no longer think it will end soon. And the feelings from capturing this are now completely different.

Alexander Gronsky's photographs can be viewed on his website, his Facebook, and his Instagram account.

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