Rediscovering Russia, one vintage Soviet lens at a time

Published in Marque Magazine August 2015

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All photographs by Valentin Tchoukhounine

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When family members die, worldly possessions remain. Nostalgia and melancholy settle in beside us as we sort through the debris of lives once lived. Photographs, letters and books send us on long trips down memory lane as we revisit and reconstruct the lives of the departed.

When Valentin Tchoukhounine returned to St Petersburg for the first time in ten years, to sort through the home of his late Grandfather, he discovered a box of dusty Soviet-era camera lenses, last used in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Drawn to their unusual design and archaic features, he decided to adapt three of them, a Zenitar 16mm f2.8, Helios 44 f2.0, and a Helios 40 f1.5 to his own digital camera, and use them to document and reimagine the city of his childhood, which had changed so dramatically in his absence.  

The romanticism of using these vintage lenses appealed to Valentin, as did the irony of literally viewing Russia through Soviet glass, but what he quickly learned was that he was in the possession of no ordinary lenses.

They have attained a cult following around the world because they are basically, not very good.  

After WWII, Russia and the US divided the spoils of the defeated German state, with Russia acquiring a lot of the machinery and technology from the then superior German optics industry. Factory workers were retrained to work with glass, but in Valentin’s words, “They just didn't quite have the know-how or detail to get it right”. As a result, the lenses produced were imperfect, unpredictable and no one lens was quite like any other.

For someone used to working with the cold precision of digital photography, the results were entirely unexpected.

Colour tones are gentler, backgrounds swirl as if in movement, and images sometimes had more than one point of focus. The eye fixes on for example on a face in the crowd, or the text of a book, suggesting that the lenses have a mind of their own.  

Originally, the lenses would have been used on cameras with an old fashioned but reliable focus system called ‘split-prism focusing’, but by adapting them to his modern camera body, this couldn’t be used, and Valentin was left with nothing.

For the first time in his career, he was doing everything by eye. While some may have given up or become frustrated with this situation, Valentin adapted instead. 

“The feeling you get while working with these lenses is so different from a zoom lens on a Canon digital body. You have to slow everything down. You are not gunning and shooting, your work flow is stalled. You have to really think about the shot you are doing”.  

“It really makes you think differently about how you work. You have to know what you are going to take, envisage it, and hope to nail the focus” 

“I became a lot more observant, and I had to be more picky and choosy. I would stand and stare, have a look more instead of pointing at anything that moves… It was actually really pleasurable” 

Yet, as he describes it, there are no guarantees. “Even if everything aligns perfectly, it probably won’t work in the end” 

The lenses were not the only challenge Valentin faced. Russia itself had changed dramatically in his absence, and he struggled to find the familiar in what lay before him.  

“When I left Russia in 2002 you could feel USSR being left behind. The cars were mostly soviet made, and there were not too many imported models. The influence of capitalism wasn't felt so strongly. You could still say ‘This is Russia’”.  

More than ten years later, things had changed a lot.  

“I had never seen so many expensive cars, or such a ridiculous, overt display of wealth anywhere” 

“The disparity between the classes is huge, and like never before. You can buy hot tea for 25 rubles on the street, then go to a cafe opposite and buy the same tea for twelve times that much.”  

During his visit, the market crashed, and his Euros more than doubled in value overnight. Then, they doubled again. While Valentin was insulated from the crash, he saw up close the impact on the people around him: panic spending, long lines to shopping centres, and people running to buy luxury items in an attempt to safeguard their money.

“Russians are considered to be extravagant spenders” he says “but they know that there is no point holding onto the money”  

Despite his native accent and look, Valentin never quite escaped the feeling of being an outsider. Pointing a camera up to people’s faces didn’t help.

“Quite often people would come up to me and ask me what I was doing, why I was taking photos. Russians are incredibly private people and also quite suspicious”.  

The people we see in this collection seem to be caught by surprise, offering us a rare glimpse behind the infamous Russian poker face, which Valentin explains as a hangover from the strict Soviet regime.  

“In those days, if you were smiling on the street, maybe it was because you had a coca-cola, or a pair of Levi jeans, and that could get you into trouble”

Russia is changing, and at a pace that can leave those on the outside giddy.

In an exclusive for Marque Australia, ‘Through the Soviet Eye’, presents a collection of images exploring the feelings of unsettlement and dislocation.

The viewer, used to consuming modern digital photography, finds that the ground has shifted beneath them, a feeling that Valentin knows only too well.

P.S. I write about travel and adventure from all over the world: click here to read more.