"I'm sorry," curator Irina Chmyreva politely apologized to a group of international reporters waiting to start a Saturday morning tour of FotoFest's Perestroika (mid 1980s-2010) exhibition. Her fellow tour guide, curator Evgeny Berezner, was having a quick smoke outside Spring Street Studios which houses the first part of the show.
"Cigarettes are very Russian," she smiled. "The first one is a very special beginning to the morning."
Journalists from publications like The Economist, The Moscow Times and Die Zeit waited patiently in the show's introductory gallery, taking in politically-tinged works by Gregory Maiofis that involve a bear, a ballerina and a monkey.
"Cigarettes are very Russian," smiled Irina Chmyreva, explaining why fellow curator Evgeny Berezner was slightly late to the t our. "The first one is a very special beginning to the morning."
"This is maybe one of the most interesting times in the history of the former Soviet Union," Berezner noted as he sidled up to the group. "Changes in political, social and economic life dramatically altered Russian art . . . particularly in photography."
As the Soviet government loosened its control of economics and culture in the 1980s — a movement generally known as Perestroika — artists flocked to long-forbidden threads in Western modern art as well as traditional Russian artistic practices dismissed by the Soviets.
"It was a time when many different artists were working in many different styles," he said. "They all followed their own destinies."
Chmyreva turned to a wall of photographs by Alexander Slusarev, an artist and translator who worked with Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni in the Soviet Union and maintained strong ties to European culture throughout his career.
Then it was onto Andrey Chezhin, a noted St. Petersburg-based artist who creates photographic recreations of modernist paintings by the likes of Miró, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Rauschenberg. Anyone at FotoFest's opening night party on Friday might remember Chezhin as the man carrying a wooden dachshund covered in metal pins.
Near the end of the Spring Street Studios tour, the curators brought out surprise guest Anton Belov, director of the Garage Center of Contemporary Culture in Moscow, to speak about Perestroika's effect on photography in Russia today.
"[Perestroika] was a time when many different artists were working in many different styles," said curator Evgeny Berezner. "They all followed their own destinies."
After getting slightly turned around on the walk to Winter Street Studios, the band of journalists arrived at the second part of the exhibition, the work of which Irina Chmyreva described as being more introspective.
"There are more portraits in this part of the show," she said. "There's a sense of documenting the real, of capturing that close distance between the artist and reality."
The highly personal content served as a reminder of Russia's grim experience following the fall of Communism, a topic Chmyreva discussed with CultureMap at a post-tour lunch at Beaver's. As the new capitalist economy faltered by the mid-1990s, serious photo artists sought opportunities internationally or were forced to abandon their careers altogether.
In the haunting Mirages of the Soviet Empire — a 1997 photo installation by Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, who proved to be the tour's second special guests— the combination of optimism and doubt seen in many of the earlier works of the exhibition have given way to a dark world cluttered with scraps of newspaper and architectural remnants from the Soviet and Russian past.
Perestroika: Liberalization and Experimentation (mid/late 1980s–2010s) is on view at the Spring and Winter Street Studios as part of the 2012 FotoFest Biennial, which runs through April 28.