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City of Shadows (1991-1994)

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Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Crowd 1), St. Petersburg, 1991-1992
Crowd on Sredniy Prospect (Crowd 3), Saint Petersburg, 1992
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Crowd 2), St. Petersburg, 1992
Entrance, Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Heads), St. Petersburg, 1991-1992
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Variant Crowd 2), St. Petersburg, 1992
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Variant 2 Crowd 2), Saint Petersburg, 1992
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Variant 3 Crowd 2), Saint Petersburg, 1992
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Variant 4 Crowd 2), Saint Petersburg, 1992
Boy, St. Petersburg, 1993
Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station (Crowd 4), St. Petersburg, 1992
Crowd going to Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station, 1993
Three Pensioners Selling Contraband Cigarettes, St. Petersburg, 1992
Store 59, St. Petersburg, 1994
Rain on Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg, 1994
Man at the Tram Stop, Saint Petersburg, 1992
Grandmother with Grandchild, St. Petersburg, 1992
Black Market, St. Petersburg, 1992
Trolley, St. Petersburg, 1992
Kuptchino Railway Station, St. Petersburg, 1993
Boarding a Local Train, Kuptchino Railway Station, St. Petersburg, 1993

"The idea of City of Shadows emerged quite unexpectedly and quite naturally during the collapse [of the Soviet Union] in the fall of 1991. I mean that the concept itself stemmed from my impressions nourished by the everyday reality. At that period, I continued to work on my series Nomenklatura of Signs. Suddenly, at some point I realized that I was struggling with emptiness and that my creative impulses – initially absolutely sincere – were running the risk of contemplating upon ideas no longer valid. This happened because the Soviet people, all these human beings deprived of their individuality and turned into 'signs' by a criminal regime, began transforming from smiling and happy-looking 'signs' into wandering shadows, even though rejecting the role of a 'sign' could result in the loss of life. The year of 1992 was approaching…

"The northern city of St. Petersburg is known for its summer 'white nights' and its short, dark winter days lasting for just a few hours. In the winter of 1991-1992, one cold and gloomy day, I strolled sadly down a street which used to be packed with people, which used to be full of joyful vibrancy and dynamism. It was poorly lit; evening was settling in. There was not a single car visible. The depressing and strange quietness was interrupted by the sounds of banging grocery store and bakery doors, stores in which the shelves were absolutely empty. I saw people on the verge of insanity, in confusion: unattractively dressed men and women with eyes full of sorrow and desperation, tottering on their routine dreary routes with their last ounce of strength, in search of some food which could prolong their lives and the lives of their families. They looked like shadows, undernourished and worn out. Nothing like that had occurred since World War II, when the Nazis blockaded the city. My impressions as well as my emotional state were enormously powerful and long lasting. I felt an intense desire to articulate these sufferings and grieving, to visualize them through my photographs, to awaken empathy and love for my native city’s inhabitants, people who have been constantly victimized and ruined during the course of the 20th century.

"More than anything, I wanted to convey my 'people-shadows' metaphor as accurately as possible. This metaphor became the core of both my new vision and new series. I placed my Hasselblad camera near the entrance to the Vasilievostrovskaia subway station, where the shopping district was located. The events occurring there were imposed on my already mentioned impressions, as were sensations stirred by Shostakovich’s music, and his 13th Symphony in particular, with its movement 'At the Store.' A crowd of people flowing near the subway station formed a sort of human sea, providing me with a feeling of non-reality, a phantasmagoria; these people were like shadows from the underworld, a world visited by Aeneas, Virgil’s character. It was a place where time had come to a standstill. This perception of time stopped convinced me that it could also be stopped by means of a camera shutter. I already knew how to achieve this effect, as in my childhood I often took pictures by trying the long exposure process in the dusk and evening, and later, when attending the university at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, I studied this technique of 19th-century French photography.

"I began taking pictures every day. When several good pictures were accumulated, I started grouping them with the intention of following a certain narrative line. This process helps me to make decisions regarding further subjects to be captured...There is the story behind City of Shadows. As a rule, Shostakovich’s 2nd Cello Concerto and his 13th Symphony accompany the exhibit of this series."

— Alexey Titarenko


Click here to read Titarenko’s essay City of Shadows, published in The City is a Novel (Damiani, 2015), in which he describes his coming-of-age as an artist, the social and political context of his work, and some of his greatest influences, in particular Dostoyevsky and Shostakovich.

Born in 1962 in Leningrad, present-day St. Petersburg, Titarenko began taking photographs at a young age and studied in the Department of Cinematic and Photographic Art at Leningrad’s Institute of Culture. He had his first professional success with his series Nomenklatura of Signs (1986-1991), a biting critique of the Soviet bureaucracy that drew on the aesthetics of Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and other artists of the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde. Working in secret, Titarenko conceived the series as a way to translate the visual reality of Soviet life into a language that expressed its absurdity, and to expose the Communist regime as an oppressive system that converted citizens into mere signs. In 1989, Nomenklatura of Signs was included in Photostroyka, a major show of new Soviet photography that toured the United States.

Titarenko rose to international prominence in the early 1990s for City of Shadows, a series of photographs of his native city made in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and inspired by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Titarenko’s application of long exposures, intentional camera movement, and expert printmaking techniques to street photography produced a powerful meditation on an urban landscape still suffused with a history of suffering. In the decade that followed, his pursuit of the city of his youth led him as far afield as Venice — St. Petersburg has been called "the Venice of the North" due to its canals and to the influence of the European architects who helped build the city — and Havana, whose streets and buildings remain frozen in the Soviet era.

In recent years, Titarenko has turned his lens toward a very different city: New York. In this work, Titarenko brings his longstanding concerns with time and history to bear on a relatively young city known for its relentless, headlong pace. Titarenko’s distinctive long exposures and selective toning highlight the way that architecture not only gives form to the lives of a city’s inhabitants, but also stands as an embodiment of its history. Even in New York, time stands still, if just for a moment: in the defunct fire alarm boxes still posed on busy street corners; in turn-of-the-century façades adorned with the multivalent, overlapping signage of the modern era; and in buildings like the Domino Sugar Factory, a powerful example of the city’s rich past meeting its implacable present.

In 2015, Titarenko’s first monograph, The City is a Novel, was published by Damiani and selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the best photobooks of the year. For Titarenko, the city not only shapes and influences each individual’s mindset and point of view; it is also a creative force, the stage for narratives in which each of us becomes his or her own distinct character. As he writes in the book, “Universal emotions perpetuated during the last century…constitute the main themes of my photographs, to the extent of transforming the most documentary among them into elements of a novel — not reportage, but a novel, whose central theme is the human soul.”

Titarenko creates each print by hand in his darkroom, producing a rich, subtle range of tones that renders each piece unique. Such masterful printing is particularly suited to Titarenko’s longtime interest in water and its relationship to the city, bringing out the texture and reflective quality of snow, rain, clouds, and urban harbors and waterways, and infusing each image with moisture and light.

Titarenko’s photographs have been shown in over thirty solo exhibitions and over forty group exhibitions around the world. His work can be found in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Columbus Museum of Art; the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury, VT; the Museum of Fine Arts, Denver; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of the City of New York; the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the George Eastman House, Rochester; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the European House of Photography, Paris; the Musée Réattu, Arles; the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne; the Centre National de l'Audiovisuel, Dudelange, Luxemburg; the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow; and the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, among other museums.

Alexey Titarenko lives and works in New York City. His second major publication, Nomenklatura of Signs, was published by Damiani in 2020 and presents the titular body of work in its entirety for the first time.

Selected Exhibitions

Blur at Photo Elysee museum in Lausanne, Switzerland (3 March - 25 May 2023).
Awe-Some: Time :: Materiality :: Meaning at the Harn Museum of Art (November 22, 2022 - May 14, 2023)

Alexey Titarenko: City of Shadows, retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria
Alexey Titarenko at Revela'T Festival 2022 in Vilassar de Dalt, Spain

Alexey Titarenko: The City of Shadows, retrospective exhibition, The State Russian Museum, and Exhibition Centre ROSPHOTO, St. Petersburg
Solo exhibition at Paris Photo, Grand Palais Éphémère, Paris, France

Alexey Titarenko: City of Shadows, retrospective exhibition, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, Russia
Collecting New York's Stories, the Museum of the City of New York, NY, USA
Alexey Titarenko, Festival Photo La Gacilly-Baden, Austria

Zerkalo: Forever After, The State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSPHOTO, St. Petersburg, Russia
Pendulum: Merci e Persone in Movimento, The MAST foundation, Bologna, Italy

Alexey Titarenko: The City is a Novel, Damiani Gallery, Bologna, Italy
Alexey Titarenko: The City is a Novel, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Alexey Titarenko: Photographs from St. Petersburg (1991-1999), Galerie C, Neufchâtel, Switzerland
Alexey Titarenko: St. Petersburg in Four Movements, Manège Royal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, France
Le parfums dans tous les sens, Jardins du Palais Royal, Paris, France
Alexey Titarenko: New York, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Contemporary Russian Photography: Perestroika Liberalization and Experimentation, Fotofest, Houston, TX
New York: Stieglitz to Titarenko, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Alexey Titarenko: Photographs 1986-2010, Lodz International Fotofest. Atlas Sztuki Gallery, Lodz, Poland
Soviet Photography in the 1980s from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick, NJ

Alexey Titarenko: Petersburg in Black & White, Late Revelations, Moscow International Photobiennale, Pobeda Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Alexey Titarenko: St. Petersburg in Four Movements, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Temps perdus, curated by Gabriel Bauret, Thessaloniki Photo Biennale, Greece
Alexey Titarenko: Venice, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Vital signs: Place, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
DE L’EUROPE. Photographies, essais, histoires", Centre National Audiovisuel de Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Alexey Titarenko: Havana, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Northern Lights, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

St. Petersburg: City of Water and City of Shadows, FotoFest, Houston, TX
Alexey Titarenko: Time Standing Still, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York, NY

Alexey Titarenko: Four Movements of St. Petersburg, Reattu Museum, Arles International Photography Festival, Arles, France
Time Regained: Fragments from St. Petersburg series, Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, Moscow, Russia

Alexey Titarenko, Retrospective Exhibition, Galerie Municipale du Chateau d’eau, Festival Garonne, Toulouse, France
Le Temps Inachevé, Nei Liicht Gallery, Dudelange, Luxemburg
Nomenklatura of Signs (audiovisual projection), Keep the light on..., Centre National de l'Audiovisuel, Clerveaux Castle, Luxemburg
Magician of St. Petersburg, Garry Edwards Gallery, Washington, DC, USA
Biarritz Terre d'Images, Biarritz, France

Ville des Ombres: Alexey Titarenko, photographies, Musée de Nice, Galeries des Ponchettes, Nice, France

New Soviet Photography, Karlsruhe Art Museum, Karlsruhe, Germany
Self-Identification, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway

Black and White Magic of St Petersburg, Month of European Culture in St. Petersburg, The Grand Hall of St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society, St. Petersburg

City of Shadows, Gallery 21, Cultural Center Pushkinskaya 10, St. Petersburg, Russia

Nomenklatura of Signs, Photopostcriptum project, State Russian Musuem, St. Petersburg, Russia

Experiences photographiques russes, Month of Photography in Paris, Grand Ecran, Paris, France
Nomenklatura of Signs (audiovisual projection), Centre National de Photographie, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France

Photostroyka: New Soviet Photography, Burden Gallery, Aperture Foundation, New York (followed by a three‐year U.S. tour)

Nomenklatura of Signs, Ligovka-199 Exhibition Hall, Leningrad, USSR
Visages de Leningrad, Drouart Gallery, Paris, France

1983, 1986, 1988
Solo exhibitions, Nevskiy Prospekt 90, Leningrad, USSR

Annual review exhibitions of Zerkalo Photographic Club, Kirov Palace of Culture, Leningrad, USSR

Zerkalo Photographic Club Second Exhibition, Kirov Palace of Culture, Leningrad, USSR
Leningrad from another side, Zerkalo Photographic Club, Kirov Palace of Culture, Leningrad, USSR