Thursday, 28 June 2012

Wolfgang Muller: Karat - Sky over St Petersburgh

My second book to research for assignment 3 is:

Karat - Sky Over St Petersburgh, by Wolfgang Muller
ISBN 1-59005-076-2

I purchased this via Amazon as the interlibrary loan system could not locate me a copy. Luckily this book is the cheapest of the three recommended. For other students attempting to purchase a copy it is worth noting that the book is sometimes listed with its Russian title and inside an english translation is shown beside the original text. The English only version appears to be rather elusive.

The cover image of a very young girl smoking is quite shocking. The flyleaf explains that the book is about homeless children living on the rooftops and attic spaces of an area of St Petersburgh just streets away from urban re-generation. To survive the children are involved in drug taking, prostitution and various illegal street activities and are at constant risk of sexual and physical abuse. The word "Karat" in the title pertains to a brand of shoe polish that the children sniff to get high.

After reading the preface it almost feels crass to review the photographers work from an artistic perspective. But the first few images are sky-scapes - views from the rooftop dwellings high above street level. Even in a book such as this design elements can be noted and compositional decisions have been made by the photographer. For instance a brick has been strategically placed in one shot (the book does not have page numbering) to break up a diagonal and lead the eye over a chimney to a row of satellite dishes that make another implied diagonal line.

The double page set, one side a boy beside a window in a tatty room using a slide viewer with the facing page a faded landscape (the contents of one of the slides,) were poignant. His attempt to escape from reality using whatever means are to hand (which is where I guess the drugs also come in) is something I can relate to having done the same thing myself as a child. Living in an environment that is not conducive to a healthy family relationship can make one look for other, safer, outlooks to escape to - in my case I soaked up books and TV shows about calm and stable family lives. As an early set of images in the sequence this one is well placed and helps ease the viewer in and to empathise with the dire situation - explaining the more graphic images that follow - cleverly done.

A series of portraits follow. Children shooting up on rooftops or sleeping in debris strewn spaces with broken glass and empty bottles. I write the word "sleeping" but I have to remind myself that they are probably high. Some of the images are dark and crisp but as I flip through the sequence there are also increasingly images blurred by movement - indicating a gradual and inevitable breakdown of their lives? In another double page a group of teenagers are shown sniffing glue in a stairwell. This image is fairly crisp. The facing image, much larger, has a colour cast (from flashlight?) and to me is attempting to indicate the drug induced haze that envelops them.

There is also a lot of blank spaces between the images. I think this is done to contain them and provide a breathing space for the viewer. The sequencing of the book introduces a small image of each building that the different groups inhabit and then moves on to each group in turn in larger more close-up detail.

Two of the most shocking sequences are the young couple living in a chaotic state with a young toddler with other addicts "sleeping" on the floor of a crowded room. The other set of a group of twenty children and teenagers living in an underground supply duct accessed only by an open manhole is grim.  From viewing the images I wonder how bad the childrens previous lives must have been for this kind of existence to be seen a a safer alternative. The back of the book provides the answers with some text to highlight the reality of their former lives.

The plight of these children and teenagers comes across loud and clear in this project. Their clothing and surroundings has at times a depth of colour to it that is juxtaposed against grey colourless skies making the people seem more real and vibrant. The book has an urban and gritty feel that is appropriate for the subject matter and makes me feel that the photographer is very close to this project.

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