Skip to main content

PHOTOGRAPHY Mysteries and myths of Mother Russia

JOHN GREEN recommends some evocative images of the world's largest country by Frank Herfort

Russian Fairytales
by Frank Herfort
(Kerber Verlag, £36)

BORN in 1979 in Leipzig,  photographer Frank Herfort spent his early childhood in the GDR.

After its demise, he went on to study in Hamburg and London, winning several awards for his unique photographic style.

While most of his contemporaries went west to find their subject matter, he decided to go further east. He ended up in Russia, where he spent over a decade photographing its inhabitants and places.

During those years, he experienced a positive, generous people who defy the adversities of life.

Following his acclaimed Imperial Pomp: Post-Soviet High-Rise, his latest book alternates between poignant realism and absurd fancies. In every image the people, everyday situations, architectures, and events tell their own stories.

Yet, seen together, they weave a fascinating fairy tale with a contemporary twist.

Virtually all the images were taken in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and in them Herfort avoids political or social commentary, simply presenting life as he selects and sees it through his lens.

Fascinated by individuals captured in their daily contexts, his images reveal a people trapped in time. For most, their daily lives have barely changed since Soviet times.

Russian Fairytales
Russian Fairytales

In a village surgery, a large photo of Lenin still hangs above the doctor’s desk — a statement or a forgotten decoration? A peasant woman still breaks the ice on the lake in winter to obtain water to wash her clothes, while the former head of a collective farm in Budushee sits alone in her small living room-cum-bedroom, surrounded by her memorabilia, gazing at her photo album of when the village flourished in a social sense.

These images are characterised by an intense sense of colour and its combinations and the settings are almost surreal.

As if staged, they're often reminiscent of stills from a theatrical performance but Herfort maintains that his photos are not posed but captured moments of real life. Be that as it may, they are certainly riveting and almost too good to be true.

Herfort works invariably with a large-format camera, so that there are no distorting perspectives — his verticals and horizontals are just that —  and he manages to capture a depth of focus, so there is no blurring of foreground or background.

His photos are like Renaissance paintings in their attention to the detail of the faces, textiles, textures and surroundings, all placed in a classical framework.

Herfort definitely sees parallels to fairy tales in Russian reality and his pictures are seductive and alluring. He drops visual anchors that inspire viewers to look closely at images that remain imprinted  on the mind.

There's a short text accompanying each image and each motif reveals at least two stories, because the photo on its own relates a story very different from the one described in the text, as in the image of a crooked little wooden house.

It tells a tale of enchanted places, of fear and danger. But the accompanying text describes the house as a symbol of resistance, in which the homeowners were the only ones to oppose the construction of a new road in post-Soviet Russia.

That's typical of this book of unique insights which delight, inspire and provoke.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 2,777
We need:£ 15,223
30 Days remaining
Donate today