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The title for this post comes from Dostoevsky’s famous 1862 novel House of the Dead. The book is full of imagery of malnourished, edgy prisoners who are corralled through the harsh drudgery of the Siberian prison camp. For me, it is almost impossible not to think of Dostoevsky’s bleak interment when looking at photographs from Russian prisons. Much of the imagery I’ve seen from the former Soviet bloc (AlsAlvarezAtwood, Krauss, Nachtwey, Vasiliev, Payusova) has depicted cold, hardened wretches. This may or may not reflect reality, but here I want to emphasise the prevalence of this type of imagery.

All photographs here in this post are by Sebastian Lister. I’ve taken the liberty to feature a small portion of his images and I’ve peppered them between famous etchings and paintings from art history to illustrate the persistence of marching, ordering, misery and boredom in prison imagery. America, Germany and England all feature in the historical images so we can acknowledge that this type of treatment and mood has existed in prison systems across the world.

Could it be that Russian prisons are persistently depicted as backward, brutal and stuck in the past? Is this the reality?

If you’ve not guessed, I’m setting something up here. I posit that, sometimes, these types of photographs are what we expect. Tune in on the blog later today to see a contrasting view.

“I’m not interested in the political side of it at all. I don’t deny it and know it filters into the work, but I’m just not approaching it from that perspective. I’m interested in exploring inner exile and profound beauty as redemptive and liberating. There is that famous Dostoyevsky quote that ‘Beauty will redeem the world.’”

Anna Shteynshleyger, in an email to Tim Davis. April 21st, 2005

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Guggenheim time again. Seven photographers were recipients of the big one. All of them are preoccupied with the passage of time. Thomas Joshua Cooper studies waves for a long time; Osamu James Nakagawa studies waves crashing in to cliffs for a long time; Suzanne Opton records the melancholy of veteran soldiers (a subject that will likely last a long time); Cheryle St. Onge makes reference to her Grandmother’s times; and Byron Wolfe has “for nearly twenty years held a deep and abiding interest in ideas about time, change, and the personal relationships one makes with a place.” Brian Ulrich‘s relation to time is that he is the hardest working man in the business and operates like there’s no time left. (I admit, that one’s a step too far).

Prison Photography‘s interest in the Guggenheim Awards for 2009 is specifically with Anna Shteynshleyger.

Siberia is Shteynshleyger’s visual record of the topography of prison labour camp sites and works. Critics and public are likely to know her more accessible work done at the Port Authority of unextraordinary people on escalators unextraordinarily unaware. Port Authority is an ordinary project; I cannot give it much time. Or perhaps Shteynshleyger’s versatility pulling the viewer from Port Authority‘s whim to the import and nonchalance of Siberia is too big of a conversion to devote the belief in both.

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

With steady assurance Siberia deals with time, as it deals with the site, as it deals with the intelligence of the viewer. Too often a photographer rushes to the physical clue – the visual pointer – to drive home the importance of the political statement he or she intends to make. Shteynshleyger is not interested in explanation. Without the title on the wall and without the catalogue essay her pictures are simply a competent, nay beautiful, collection of large-format colour prints. They are mostly landscapes and, in truth, landscapes that could be from any continent on earth.

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Tim Davis wrote an excellent piece on Shteynshleyger’s Siberia citing ‘paintings of absense’ from art historical cannon, one-off expressions of ‘the sublime’ by genre painters, and the philosophy of modern cinema auteurs. Davis deliberately talks about as many things other than Shteynshleyger’s work in an attempt to position and thus explain Shteynshleyger’s work. It is a fine, fine judgement call;

Anna’s photographs of Siberia, a territory as suffused with suffering as any place on the planet, do not “bear witness” to anything. They are not documents of anyone’s journey. They are not war monuments; they are not apologies. Though her camera is pointing in the direction of historical sites of unremembered trauma, her pictures are not records of the locations of past crimes. They do not reckon with the past. They sidestep the inevitable failure of the photograph to stand for historical events. They are oblique and difficult, refusing any Spielbergian urge to heal through reliving previous horrors.

Some might argue Davis is wrong. That what he identifies as a resourceful, no-label, psuedo-documentary response to massive ideological violence is in fact a confusion of approach on Shteynshleyger’s part. But they would be wrong. William Meyer wrote a critique of Siberia beginning with the observation that many artists and photographers have sifted and surveyed Nazi concentration camps, and frequently (on the shoulders of other artists) have produced resonant work. The audience for art reflecting the holocaust and concentration camp trauma is well versed in the visual vocabulary of such. For Meyer, the Gulag is in a different position;

How many agitate on behalf of its victims? There are few memorials, few markers, few museums, few tourists. Out of sight, out of mind. But Ms. Shteynshleyger wants to show us.

Shteynshleyger is a pioneer and she is showing us how we can understand horror and how we can understand that horror passes. To me, it seems her images are as private as old men and women who hold silent testimony to past events. Just because something is understood doesn’t mean it should be said, and just because something is said does not make it understood.

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

It isn’t that Shteynshleyger’s work is evasive; it just seems she wants a rigorously curious audience as opposed to a docile one. She is quoted as saying;

… be it a metaphysical or cultural concern, whether it’s a critique or a celebration, art remains a practice rooted deeply in the material world. We make likenesses of what we see and transform our world in a very tangible way. Any situation can reveal a reality not apparent at first examination.

If Dostoyevsky is right and beauty is to redeem the world, beauty must either be apolitical or the most beautiful consensus-sealing political position never reached. Politics, in the common understanding of the term, can be a brutish and rude affair. If there is a message to take away from Shteynshleyger’s work it is, perhaps, that we should search for beauty more rigorously and pay more attention to understated, and dare I say it, apolitical positions.

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger


Anna Shteynshleyger was born in Moscow, Russia in 1977. She came to the United States in 1992. Shteynshleyger received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999) and an MFA from Yale University (2001). In 2004 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a solo exhibition of her Siberia pictures. In 2006, her (12×12 project) was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Art Basel Miami Beach at the Jacob Karpio gallery in Miami, FL. Other exhibitions have been mounted at Moti Hasson Gallery, NY; Murray Guy Gallery, NY; Lombard-Fried Fine Arts, NY; Artists Space, NY; Vedanta Gallery, Chicago; Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago; Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Chicago. Shteynshleyger’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; LaSalle Bank Photography Collection, Chicago; Yale University Libraries and the University of Maine Museum of Art. She is the recipient of an Illinois Art Council Finalist Award, Blair Dickinson Memorial Award and Guggenheim Fellowship. Shteynshleyger is currently an adjunct professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago and McHenry County College.


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