Alexey Titarenko's black-and-white photographs conjure up gray areas between motion and inertia, living and getting by, past and present. The images haunt, and are haunted.
For the third time since 2003, Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery is presenting a Titarenko exhibit. This one focuses on the place where the 50-year-old Russian photographer was born — known then as Leningrad and, since the fall of the Soviet government, as St. Petersburg.
The photographer, whose works have been exhibited widely and are now in museums in Europe and the U.S., started taking pictures in the 1970s but stayed largely underground until perestroika allowed for freer artistic expression. He has done a lot of work in and about his hometown.
The Grimaldis show contains 43 works from the first decade or so of life in the new Russia, though there is little difference in mood between the 1990s photos of St. Petersburg and those from more recent years. Titarenko conjures a world of uncertainty and disparate fates, a place where the individual still can be swallowed up, ignored, isolated.
It's easy to see why reviews of the photographer's work in New York, Paris and elsewhere often mention Dostoevsky. There is something of the writer's bleakness in many of the shots, especially those that capture human figures in snow-draped scenes.
Other associations from distant Russian times can come to mind. "Untitled (Woman in the Yard)" or "Untitled (Old Woman in Front of Snow Pile)," for example, may have been in shot in 1996, but they're like eerie flashbacks to the bleakness of World War II and the siege of Leningrad.
Titarenko's pictures derive their power from this timeless factor. A man fishing on the ice, a pensioner walking home from a market — such sights have not changed over the decades. But here they seem to bear witness to what has changed, what has been lost, what has yet to be realized.
Using long exposures, Titarenko can transform people into ghostly shapes, emphasizing their fragility and ephemerality.
Some of the most arresting photographs involve crowds heading to subways. Here, Titarenko's exposure technique is at its most provocative, turning the rush of people into what looks like a thick cloud of black smoke — with hands — swirling up steps.
The grand and not-so-grand buildings of St. Petersburg are characters in this passing parade, from the vibrant (a scene of rooftops is vividly composed) to the forbidding (the Peter and Paul Fortress). A shot of a train platform gains structural strength from patterns of wintry tree limbs that complement power lines.
What might be a perfunctory or merely picturesque scene in lesser hands can become something richly poetic in Titarenko's. A shot of folks enjoying wintry revels in the distance gets a whimsical slap from an outstretched glove stuck to the end of a leafless tree branch. In an alley where two black cats huddle against the cold, a snow-covered car seems to be keeping watch, its grille a toothy frown.
The photographer's painterly eye creates many an exceptional shot — a canal where rays of sunlight suggest a strange, rising fog; a tree, its trunk lightly layered with snow, its spidery limbs etched against the backdrop of gray buildings.
Although winter, and all the metaphorical coldness and loneliness it implies, is a major theme, Titarenko does find some warmth. In one particularly eloquent photograph, a man and woman, arms linked, make their way down a slushy street.
They seem so small, the man even a little frail, on the narrow sidewalk alongside imposing walls. But there's something tender about this couple, something sure and comfortable and confident. They will make it, as so many others have before them.
If you go
Alexey Titarenko's photographs of St. Petersburg are on exhibit through June 23 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or go to cgrimaldisgallery.com.