I have been wishing to go back and photograph Russia for such a long time and when I found Simon Roberts book “Motherland”, I couldn’t avoid picking it up.
Starting off, the book is hardbound with a very cold war propaganda inspired cover design titled “Motherland” and “Rodina” (in Russian). Underneath lies a map of Russia and the name of the photographer. If you note, the palette of the book and the blue on the map does make sure that it sets the book apart from the original design ideology of cold war. Instead it lends itself into a space which is fresh and contemporary.
The book is centred around Simon’s journey (with his wife Sarah) across the Russian landscape. He travels for almost 75,000 miles to develop this documentation and it surely shows how the mood changes in the images. I spoke to Simon about this and he said (something which he’s also written about in his book) :
“In July 2004, I began a year’s journey across Russia with my wife, Sarah. Starting in the Russian Far East we travelled through the Siberian provinces, up the Kola peninsula and across to Kaliningrad, before heading down to the Northern Caucasus, the Altai Mountains and along the Volga River. In the course of our travels we covered over 75,000 kilometres and crossed eleven time zones. This was a journey of discovery, a chance to explore every region of Russia during all four seasons. Spending a year in the country allowed for a sustained engagement with the landscapes and people that I encountered. Unconstrained by the limited time frame or the specific agenda of a photojournalistic assignment, I was able to respond spontaneously.”
With respect to the design, the photos are laid out in the same timeline as the journey. Images take up most of the space and sometimes Simon adds text to just give the images foundation in the story. You can hear it in his audio interview (via Lensculture) where he discusses the importance of letting the story flow without the reader going back and forth with the pages for text.
The book consists of 192 pages with 152 images, all printed beautifully. Simon’s choice of subjects is always light, bright with colour but dense in nature. The tension between what Russia was and where its heading now is evident in every picture, with memories and its war driven past haunting it. But what really defines Simon’s genius is his ability to tie the entire Russian landscape into one seamless story.
So what do I think? Simon, being a British photographer has a outsider’s view of Russia but still filled with intimacy. Where Simon’s is somewhere static and holds its silence, it also lets you look into the details of what is presented in all its glory. Wide landscapes, intricate portraits and ghosts of the Russian past hiding in stormy blue Siberian nights. I really wish I could see an exhibit of this work.
Motherland is a great book to have. I know I’ve not spoken much about the core concept of “Rodina” which Simon uses to tie the whole project together but I do feel its something which can only be experienced on seeing the work, as you flip through the pages of the book. Simon wrote in his introduction to the work :
“I hope Motherland may be read as a humble footnote to the current debate about Russian identity during a time of major geo-political, economic and social change. Ultimately these images are a celebration of Russia, aiming to deepen our understanding of a country and its people. My wish is that the reader finds grounds for optimism and beauty in unexpected places, just as I did.”
Its a great book to have. I do wish it was a little bigger in size for the prints demand space. Other than that, I love the book and I’m so glad I got my hands on it for my collection.