I hadn’t seen Russians, a photography book by Nathan Farb published in 1978, for three years when one day its images came to me in a dream. It was like waking up and having a song in your head, only instead of a song it was a bunch of pictures of Russians.
The next day I went back to the Amsterdam antique shop where I first saw the book and gave it a second look. As I examined those bizarre photos from behind the Iron Curtain I realized that a lot of the portraits didn’t correspond with my dour image of Russians in the 70s. I thought they were a bunch of jumpsuit-wearing hillbillies who rode tractors and horses to their communal farms and ate potatoes and depression for supper. But, judging from Farb’s photos, the opposite was true. These people were full of life.
The pictures are a looking glass into an unexplored subset of Russian society. The book’s introduction explains that the pictures were taken on a cultural exchange program under the Jimmy Carter administration. Specifically, they were shot at an American photo exhibit in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. The show featured the biggest names in American photography at that time and Nathan Farb went to document it.
At the time, Farb was in his 30s. A New Yorker whose father was an actor on the Yiddish stage, Nathan wandered the streets taking Polaroids of tourists for a dollar. He later became friends with Diane Arbus, who invited him to travel to Russia with her. Because of its exotic nature, the show attracted tens of thousands of Russians. Farb shot portraits of the crowd members and gave them a copy. Unbeknownst to his subjects—and the Russian authorities—Farb had developed a technique that enabled him to make a negative of each Polaroid he shot.
“I smuggled the negatives out of the country with a diplomatic pouch at the US Embassy,” Farb told me when I contacted him to learn more about the photos. “The Russians wouldn’t have let me leave with the pictures if they knew,” says Farb. But near the end they did find out. “When I was leaving the country, I heard my chaperones say, ‘It doesn’t matter now, the photos are already out of the country.’” He thinks spies at the embassy informed them, but he wasn’t afraid to be caught. “I was on a mission. I felt I was doing something that could possibly help reduce the fear between Russia and the US. People were afraid a nuclear war was going to break out. It was the same type of fear many have with the Islamic world now. I think my photos helped to reduce that fear, because it showed that the Russians were normal people as well.”
Strangely enough, Farb mentioned that although hotshot photographers were on display, the Russians were most interested in pictures from magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Vogue.
“The US government put those mags on display to show how much better life was in a capitalist state. But what seemed to interest the young people looking at them most was the fashion. They came to the exhibition in their home-sewn clothing and after the show they ran home to copy the clothes they saw on their sewing machines.”
JAN VAN TIENEN