For moments or hours every day, urban dwellers often find themselves temporarily trapped in enclosed spaces, bathed in artificial light, surrounded by garish colors, and mired in a sluggish state of pause. This can happen in a subway station, a waiting room, an indoor shopping mall, an airport lounge... While the people may be physically present, their minds and spirits are often elsewhere.
The blurred portraits of anonymous strangers made by Russian photographer Alexei Vassiliev capture this phenomenon with surprising, emotional force. Some of his subjects look as if they are nervously fluttering inside a hovering mirage. Others appear serene and glowingly transcendent. His photographs convey a sense of physical confinement and spiritual wandering. These strangers (identified only by an arcane numbering system) are unaware of the scrutiny of the camera. They are lost in a limbo of introspection ― not aloof, but quietly caged, temporarily suspended, slowed, restricted, waiting, existential.
What strikes you first, when you see these images in an exhibition, is the brilliant intensity of the colors in some, and the softly muted monotones of others. The stark simplicity of the settings and the centrality of the blurred, color-smeared subjects then call to mind the mute screaming anguish in many paintings by Francis Bacon, and the minimalist surreal stage sets of plays by Samuel Beckett. What appears deceptively simple at first, reveals itself as complex and cluttered and dense with information that has been freshly smeared and nearly obliterated in a matter of seconds while the camera's shutter remained open. There is a lot of “stuff” in these photographs that seems to be struggling to escape.
Vassiliev, who has been living and working in Paris since shortly after perestroika, wrote about this body of work:
Day after day, I would go to the same place and make portraits of strangers. I had no idea where that would lead, but it was irresistible: I had to be there and take those pictures.
What fascinated me about the place ― which I prefer to leave unidentified ― is that it was immersed in an implacable artificial light that abolished all notion of time and interfered with the space and the colors.
Before beginning this series I thought, wrongly or rightly, that blurredness only expressed the furtive or the intangible. However, little by little I discovered a different kind of blur: a precise blur one might say… And that was like a revelation.
My work then took an altogether paradoxical path: the more blurred the subjects of these portraits, the more they looked as if they were on the verge of dissolving, fading away, or disappearing ― that is when their presence really asserted itself.
Capturing this false elusiveness (which was authentic appearance) became the goal of this series.
Vassiliev’s camera reveals a world of shimmering beauty in places where most of us try hard to ignore it. Due to the length of exposure (all made with film), the specific details are lost, but an essence emerges, like an aura or an apparition. These then become universal iconic images ― not hinged in time, but rather past, present, and future, all at once.
― Jim Casper
Here and gone: 21st century anonymous portraits