I hadn't planned to go anywhere in New York. It was Sunday, September 27th. Monday was Yom Kippur and the city was quiet. I decided to walk downtown with my new camera and photograph whatever I saw, and since I like to photograph people, I headed for Broadway. I had been in hiding during the summer, swimming every day in a lake near Sag Harbor and reading thick biographies by the lakeside. I decided to replace swimming with walking, and my dog-eared copies of James Atlas' Bellow and Deirdre Bair's Jung with a camera. I got hungry and found a Chinese eatery in SoHo where I photographed a gorgeous couple having coffee at the table behind me, and then was drawn to a nearby art gallery.
The exhibit on view was tiny and consisted of black and white photos of Russia in the l960s. Much to my surprise, I found myself looking at the work of one of Joseph Brodsky's closest friends, the photographer Lev Poliakov, who had taken the last picture of Joseph in Leningrad on the morning before he went into exile in l972. Joseph had written the introduction to one of Lev's books of photos: Russia, A Portrait. His essay, "In Praise of Grey," contains this beautiful passage: "For grey is the color of time and time's wardrobe here knows very few changes."
Poliakov's photographs were in the old-fashioned 8" by l0" size and depicted, in a 50-millimeter straight-on lens-way, ordinary scenes of people: in an alley in a small town, with farm supplies on roads between farm fields, or gazing out of windows. It was up to the viewer to slowly comprehend what these scenes revealed, a harsh yet dignified survival or maybe, more accurately, a survival without the ability to compare itself to other survivals, a locked-in life, a given. Brodsky's essay continues: "A great mistake for a photographer is to bring his color film here. The net result would be like Turner'd talkies..." I knew Joseph and remember him telling me that his father wanted to join the navy but was prevented from doing so by the state because he was Jewish and that he had worked, upon occasion, as a news photographer. Clearly, judging from the essay, Brodsky knew the craft. Writing on Poliakov, he adds: "A quarter of a century ago this photographer himself was part of the landscape he was depicting, and the material he had at his disposal was manufactured by this country's equally gray extension: Agfa, in the DDR."
The exhibit included a magnificent 1964 photograph of Anna Akmatova in Kamarovo, printed in 1974 as a silver gelatin print, as well as a wonderful 1981 photograph of Brodsky in Maine. I wanted to photograph the photographs and post them but Andrew C. Sarewitz, the gallery director whose family is from Russia, said I should ask the photographer first and that Poliakov would probably be stopping by soon. While waiting, Andrew mesmerized me with his knowledge of Russian Noncomformist Art. He brought out from storage a small drawing by Boris Sveshnikov, made at the Vetlosian camp, near Ukhta, 1,200 kilometers northeast of Moscow in the "Komi Autonomous Region," a place that sounds eerie and very cold. Rather than lines made by a single sweep of the pen, Sveshnikov, who was an art student before he was sent to Stalin’s gulag at 19, broke his lines into tiny feather-marks so that a scene emerged as if it were almost shaking. Andrew gave me a book: Painting for the Grave: The Early Work of Boris Sveshnikov, (image, right) a catalogue from the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Lev Poliakov didn't return to the gallery that afternoon. When I left the Mimi Ferzt gallery I wanted to "see" the streetas Lev Poliakov might had seen what was right before him in 1960s Russia.
Star Black is a poet and visual artist. She is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Ghostwood. Her photographs are in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Her collages have been exhibited in various galleries in New York City and Long Island. She lives in New York City.