(Please see the images at bottom of review)
A few summers later Nathan and I drove all the way up to Lake Mistassini in northern Quebec, eighteen hours north of Montreal, to visit with the Cree in-laws of a friend in Keene. He and I share a love of local languages and cultures. Nathan made his reputation as a photographer— the photographer— of the Adirondacks, its Ansel Adams, with gorgeous epic landscapes taken with his 8x10 camera, that can be blown way up without losing resolution.
I knew that Nathan did all kinds of other photographing. Like a critically acclaimed multimedia show at the Public in NY and the 600 portraits he took of citizens of Novosibirsk, Russia in l977, when he was a good will ambassador for the State Department during a thaw in the Cold War, at the time Jimmy Carter was president. I have his book The Russians which has about 100 of them. They have a stark down to earth quality, these candid black and white portraits of people whose faces are lined with suffering, like the Americans ravaged by the Depression whom Walker Evans photographed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They are not posed, or composed. The subject knew they were being photographed, and Nathan didn’t tell them how to look. They just naturally assumed the pose and expression, looked the way they wanted to appear to the world. These pictures also evoked the work of Diane Arbus, whom Nathan knew in New York City in the sixties. She was a hero to him, prowling Gotham and shooting random, fleeting street scenes. “She told me to use the camera as a tool for discovery, which is what I have always tried to do,” he explains. He believes the purpose of taking photographs for Diane was to express who she was as much as it was to capture the essence of her subjects. She once asked him if he felt she was cruel to her subjects. He answered no, because he felt she was really depicting her own feeling of something being wrong with herself — which we all do — and she was just finding material or subject to express that deep feeling. She ended up killing herself when she was 48.
But Nathan’s pictures of people— like his images of the flower children in Tompkins Square Park in l968— are not as cold. It’s not like he’s trying to express some inner agony about being alive. He seems to be expressing hope for a different future. Not that he doesn’t have plenty of reasons for having a dark view of the world, but that’s not him. He embraces the endless diversity and supreme unity of humanity and nature with the same fascination, curiosity, and love that I have for the world, which only outsiders can have for the Other, which and who, in the end, is no different from us. We are the walrus. We are all Others. This is evident in his portraits of the people of Novosibirsk, young and old, male and female, which— I’m finally getting down to what this story is about, after this leisurely, old New Yorker-lede— there is a new show of at SUNY Plattsburgh Art Museum. You gotta come down and see it, Alex, Nathan urges. But I’ve seen them, Nathie babes, I remind him. I have the book. But then he tells me some stuff I never knew about them, and Russia is suddenly back on America’s radar, with Putin and Trump as buddies, so this show of 40 forty-year-old images deep in the heart of our own mutual ancestral homeland could have new relevance, Nathan argues. And I want to see him anyway. It’s been too long. So I take the bus down to Plattsburgh on December 2. I’ve never done this before, in all my world travels, and from the minute I step out my front door, it becomes a multicultural experience. First, on the sidewalk, I meet Ming, the husband of the Chinese woman next door, who has returned from Venezuela, where he has been living for many years, trying to make it and finally giving up, with Venezuela descending into chaos and anarchy and violent crime. It takes a while to discover the language Ming and I have in common— Spanish. He speaks Cantonese, of course, which I don’t, and doesn’t speak English or French. He’s really grateful to meet someone who is not a relative that he can talk to, who knows how bad things have gotten in Venezuela, starting with the dictatorship of Chavez, and only getting worse with the even more corrupt Maduro, who has run the country to the ground.
I take a taxi to the Montreal bus station. The driver is Haitian and we talk in French about how the people are recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew two months ago, the new cholera epidemic it has spawned, the corruption and the ineffectiveness of the various NGOs and aid agencies and the government, and the resilience and creativity of the Haitian people who have endured more than their fair share of suffering, one natural disaster after another, in recent years. I buy my ticket from a striking mixed young woman whose ethnic melange is African and Asian. “Pardon my asking, but you are so beautiful, Vous êtes Malgache?” I ask her. Are you from Madagascar? No, she says, in the not-so-good French of a new arrival to Quebec, “My father is Russian, and my mother is from Benin.” So we start talking in Russian. Her father is actually Georgian. I have Georgian blood myself, I tell her. One of my ancestors was a Bogration [the dynasty that ruled Georgia from the Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century]. I have never been to Georgia and am dying to go there. The girl at the ticket booth is 22 and has been here for six years and is studying computer programming at the UQAM, the University of Quebec in Montreal.
We have a nice chat. This is what I love about Montreal. 200 languages are spoken in its schoolyards. The whole world is here, and everybody pretty much gets along in this multi-ethnic bouillabaisse, which is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. There are so many mixed couples and children you don’t give them a second glance, but everyone retains their ethnic identity and mother tongue. The third-generation Italians are tri-lingual. They speak French, English, and Italian. The Portuguese have two social clubs: one for Portuguese from the Azores, the other for mainland Portuguese. My friend Bob Olivier wrote a magic-real novel about Montreal called The Bathtub Madonna, a reference to the upended bathtubs enshrining the Madonna you sometimes see in Portuguese Montrealers’ gardens The magic real quality, Olivier maintains, comes from the fact that when you meet somebody, you are reacting both to the individual person and to his or her ethnic stereotype.
The day has started brightly, and it only gets brighter when I get on the bus with all sorts of people— French, Japanese, German tourists, a dread-locked Jamaican dripping with bling, an Indian couple, a Pakistani woman with a headscarf and a six-month-old baby boy— a microcosm of the global proletariat that doesn’t have wheels. It takes only forty-five minutes for the US customs at the border to go through everybody’s papers and to determine, as well as possible, if they’re legit and don’t have evil intent against America, and we’re in.
Nathan meets me at the Plattsburgh bus station and we have lunch at Duke’s diner. He explains that his father came from Novgorod, Russia, same place my people were from, and his mom’s father was Romanian, and he grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where they had a clothing store. “I started going behind the Iron Curtain, to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, in the late Sixties. I felt at home there, more at home ethnically than I did in the States, plus I’ve always been a leftist of sorts, although I’m basically apolitical, but I’m anti-elitist, plus it was cheap behind the iron curtain. In these satellite socialist republics I photographed the peasants, tourists, the gypsies, and the nature preserves.”
“During that brief moment of Détente when Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev reached out to each other, which the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put an end to, precipitating the collapse of the USSR, I was invited by USIA to be part of an exhibition of American artistic and technological innovation in Novosibirsk, the third most populous city in Russia [roughly a million and a half souls currently] and the most populous city in Asian Russia. The exhibition had a staff of 60 and 30 technicians. Many had graduated from Middlebury with degrees in Soviet studies and spoke Russian, like my young assistant, John Beyrle, who later became Bush then Obama’s ambassador to Russia in 2008-2012. There were a number of scientists, including a guy from MIT who invented strobe lighting. And they were supposed to meet with scientists from the nearby closed city of Akadem Gorodok, which Khrushchev set up. They were making breakthroughs of their own, particularly with the satellites the USSR was sending up into outer space. But at the last moment the meetings were canceled.”
“We stayed in Novosibirsk for six weeks. It was like Cleveland; industrial but with culture and science. I was mistaken for Russian on the street and was sometimes asked for directions. The Russian heartland. I felt completely at home there, having grown up in small-town America. The city was built, where the Trans-Siberian Railroad crosses the Ob River, in 1897. A lot of industry was moved there to keep it from being destroyed by the Nazis, and it boasts the largest concert hall in Russia, which was built during the war entirely by women. It may not be the most beautiful concert hall, but it’s the biggest.”
“10,000 people a day came to the exhibition and I made over 600 portraits. I had a small room with some of my Romanian photos on one wall, and another space with a backdrop paper and stobes. Everyone who watched me wanted to be photographed. I made most of the portraits with a four-by-five camera outfitted with a Polaroid back. I stood under a black cloth and composed the portraits upside down. I just let the people pose the way they wanted to be seen and remembered. Many of them were parents with children. Some were young, upwardly mobile, scientists from Akadem Gorodok, some were muzhiks, peasant farmers from the outlying steppe with gnarled hands and ruddy complexions from a lifetime of working the soil.”
We get to the Myers Fine Arts Building, where the show is, and a pretty undergraduate in stars-and-stripes tights comes out to pick up a box of negatives Nathan wants to go over with the curator of the show Cecilia Esposito. The girl is from a farm in downstate New York. Plattsburgh is the big city for her and she’s having the time of her life. She’s so friendly and open, like a breath of fresh air, she restores my faith in Americans, which has taken a big hit since the presidential election two weeks ago. Cecilia, who is the director of the art museum, went to see Nathan’s Adirondack images at his studio years ago, and he took out his Russian photos, and she never forgot them, which is why this show is happening. She tells the girl in stars and stripes to take me to the permanent exhibition of the works of Rockwell Kent, who lived in Upper Jay, like Nathan, and was a major leftie. He was blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities and his American passport was revoked. In l960, in retaliation, Kent left 80 paintings and many illustrations to the Soviet Union, where they hang in the Hermitage and other museums and continue to have a big following.
Nathan takes me to the Burke Gallery, where forty of his blown-up Polaroids are displayed, and leaves me alone to take them in. They are a representative cross-section of the Russian people under communism. There is not a lot of Mongolian or Tartar in their features, even though Novosibirsk is on the western edge of Asia. A few have high cheekbones like Putin, but these Russians are more Scandinavian and Eastern European. I recognize the hefty babushka in a kerchief, with a big smile revealing gold teeth, which Nathan has a big blow up of in his bathroom, to remind him what a truly beautiful woman looks like. A young farm girl stunning enough to have gone, were it fifteen years later, to Moscow and become a supermodel and married an oligarch, or even to have made it big in New York. She came of age too soon. The little boy with big sunglasses.
I’m supposed to identify with these people, being of ancient Russian stock myself, but I don’t, and to interpret them to the American audience. This is what Nathan wants me to do, to show how alike we all are. But I don’t really relate to them. The people of my class, the Old Russian nobility who populate the novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev, are Western Russians with more European, particularly Swedish and German, features and genes. They were wiped out in the l917 Bolshevik Revolution and its bloody aftermath, up to the Yezkhov purge of l937. Apart from my high Tatar cheekbones, I look European. The Shoumatoffs were Baltic Germans named Schumacher who were brought in by Peter the Great in the early 1700s to run the bureaucracy of his new city, St. Petersburg, which was Russified into Petrograd during World War I, the same time my grandfather changed his name to Schumacher, and in America sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.
These forty-year old portraits are from a different time and reality. Superficially they look like Americans in the Depression, but these people have been suffering for generations. All they have known is suffering, one oppressive autocrat after another, from the tsars to Stalin to Putin now, who forty percent of the 50,000 households from Estonia to Mongolia surveyed by the World Bank over the last ten years, feel isn’t authoritarian enough. These people are carrying cross-generation post-traumatic stress going all the way back to Genghis Khan. You can see it in their faces. 75 million Russians died during the 70 year-long dictatorship of the proletariat. The people in these forty portraits are inured to suffering. Suffering, the Russian orthodox faithful believe, is the path to redemption; if Christ could die for sins, the least we can do is to learn how to suffer, because that is our lot and how we are going to be saved. This is a very different mentality and world view from self-centred hedonistic free-market capitalist Americans, and it is why America fundamentally doesn’t get Russia and never has, going back to George Kennan, Jr., who formulated the condescending containment policy for the USSR during the Cold War. But I do, I know that these people in Nathan’s photographs, if they were allowed to be as Russians are today, would be devoutly orthodox and proud of their ancestors and unquestionably obedient to their pater families and to their autocratic president, who is trying to make Russia, the largest country in the world, marginalized by the West, fulfill its historical destiny, as elucidated by Dostoyevsky and Berdayev, of exporting the Russian soul and making it the world’s soul. I don’t know about that one, but you look at these photos, and what you see is tremendous character. That is something nobody can take away from the Russians.
The show is up until January 8. Don’t miss it. Take a walk on the wild side and make it down, or up, or over to Plattsburgh, wherever you are. You won’t regret it. The Russians will open up your eyes. If you can’t make it to the show before it closes on January 8, check it out online TheRussians.net.
– Alex Shoumatoff