We open the new book 36 Views, by Russian photographer Fyodor Telkov and published by Ediciones Anómalas, to find a shot of a Soviet Realist painting depicting heroic miners deep underground, followed by a historical photo of the pride of Soviet young womanhood parading with flags through the small mining town of Degtyarsk, no doubt celebrating those heroic miners. There’s a gray, barren lump of a hill behind the parading girls, and as nonvisual as that round, featureless hill is as a subject, that’s just what we’re here to look at.
Thirty-six times, in Telkov’s subtle and powerful photobook.
Inspired directly by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s famous early 19th-century series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, comprised of lovely, delicate, and most carefully rendered color prints of people doing this and that, always with Mount Fuji in the distance, Telkov has come up with his thirty-six photos of Degtyarsk from all kinds of angles and focal distances, with different foregrounds, compositions, and reflections, but always with one of the two huge lumps of mining waste somewhere in the picture.
Hokusai’s series, among other things, is a fun game of Where’s Mount Fuji? It’s in every drawing, sometimes just a single line, other times a tiny bump in the distance, and you feel good whenever you spot it.
Still, the variety of ways Telkov places one of the hills in his pictures is impressive. I particularly like two shots that are mostly close-ups of barren trees, a faint line demarcating a darker shape from lighter sky deep in the background. It’s an elemental Hokusai gesture—whoosh, and there’s your Mount Fuji. For Telkov in Degtyarsk, it doesn’t take much to place this ever-present pile of sludge in any landscape around the town.
Telkov is an accomplished photographic storyteller, which, among other things, means he lets us know right off just what’s going on. The book’s first shot is of a hill in all its bare, ugly glory. The next photo, an overhead view of the town itself, has the hill popping up in the distance like a pimple. The third shows tracks through the snow for the train hauling the valuable copper out and leaving the sludge behind.
Then Telkov’s story gets more complex. The next shot is the first of foregrounded trees with only a hint of a shape behind it; if we didn’t know we were looking for the waste heap, we could be looking at a Robert Adams’s forest.
Which brings up a couple of interesting questions. First, are these photographs beautiful? Well, some are; and all are accomplished. Second, is beauty a problem when you’re depicting environmental waste? My thought: It’s a delicate balance, you don’t want single photos to be too beautiful, and none of Felkov’s are; you just want them to be powerful (even if lovely) in their own right. You don’t want the meaning subsumed by aesthetics, but neither do you want photos without any good reason to look at them. In 36 Views, I think Felkov hits the balance very well. These are strong photographs, every last one of them, but none are so fine in their own right that they get in the way of what the book is about, which is life amidst environmental waste.
Which leads to what else we find in the book: the Degtyarsk townsfolk. Oh, yes, people live under these barren hills. (Which makes it not as bad as the other Russian book I reviewed for PhotobookStore Magazine, Shadows of Wormwood, about the dead zone around Chernobyl.) Thanks for small blessings; the copper sludge doesn’t poison you, at least not as quickly as radiation. The first two souls we encounter in the book are a couple boys in knit caps walking past a junked car, the hill perfectly framed above their oblivious stroll. A few pages on, another Adams-y shot of bare tree branches, these almost concealing some kind of march, mostly women, some carrying balloons. Celebrating something? No way to tell, but of course there it is, that gray arc of the looming hill above them.
Telkov’s photos start getting more inventive here, now that we know the story, what’s going on. There’s a fine shot of a barnyard, a baby goat and some ducks going about their business, unaware of that gray dome in the distance. There are a number of snowy landscape shots in which the white of the snow almost—almost—wipes away the white hill. Even with the overall gloom, we come upon the first out and out beautiful photograph, this a fine chiaroscuro of light and dark, a woman carrying two pails down a sunlit road on the left, and almost nothing but black ink on the right … except that, yes, there’s that inescapable trace of the hill. Another shot, dare I say, is almost a devil-world Ansel Adams, the hill now glowing white in moonlight, standing out vividly in the gray town. (Wonder how much photos of mining sludge will someday go for at auction?)
Yes, a book of photos of mining sludge, with a clear message, subtle but inescapable: Just look what we’ve done.
To Telkov’s credit he doesn’t hit us over the head with this idea. Indeed, even in two more explicit sequential shots—one with the hill reflected in a pool, cast-off bottles next to the water; the next a wash of timber waste and an abandoned tire in a stream flowing under the hill—the environmental message isn’t hit too hard. It’s just there, a part of things. Simply: We cannot escape it. And, again: Just look what we’ve done.
Which leads to a striking, up-to-the-moment political meaning to the book, even beyond the environmental.
Here in the U.S. (not to mention everywhere else) we’re contemplating whether Trumpism might make America more like Russia; New York magazine devoted a whole cover story to that worry a few issues back.
In 36 Views, we get a good idea where unbridled commerce and no regulations can lead us. I have no doubt books similar to 36 Views could be done now about coal mining in Appalachia or Scotland, but these days we’re all worrying about this in a new way. Indeed, photographers everywhere are also trying to work out fresh ways to capture the new political moment, what’s going on in the streets and everywhere else.
36 Views, in its quiet, subtle, innovative way of observing the dark fruits of a political system, gives us ideas.
First off, like Telkov, you have to be clear in what you’re about. You have to say directly what you mean, and each photo has to elaborate on that meaning.
But then you have to find those new angles, new approaches. Maybe instead of shooting in the heat of a demonstration, you could capture people, say, dining al fresco while somewhere in the distance a protest march passes by. (That single fine Hokusai line.) Or maybe the protest is just a distant smudge on a city’s landscape? I don’t know. I only know that finding fresh ways to capture what’s going on, and make its import felt anew, is essential.
And to not lose hope. Felkov’s final shot … well, it says mountains. There’s the back of a solitary person at the very top of the snow-covered waste heap, a small, dark figure amidst all the whiteness, in a full-length black coat, arms stretched out—an undeniable image of victory, of triumph.
Can we save things? Will we turn around the world that leaves sludge heaps, literal and figurative, carelessly in its wake?
With books like 36 Views, and millions more ways of direct protest, we can certainly try.
36 Views was the winner of the First Fotocanal Competition, organized by the Comunidad de Madrid and Ediciones Anómalas. The book can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here and his latest book here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.