The New York Times

Russia in Winter: Bleak, Desperate, Beautiful

In the winter of 1998, the French photographer Luc Delahaye traveled across Russia, knocking on people’s doors, asking to see how they lived. For four months he journeyed by train from Moscow to Vladivostok, stopping in several cities along the way. The previous summer the ruble had crashed. Many people’s lives, already miserable, were now hopeless. Mr. Delahaye recorded their suffering, and the result is a powerful book of nearly 100 photographs called “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

“Winterreise,” published by Phaidon and available in bookstores in the United States, is an unusual collection of photographs for two reasons: it is small, the size of a novel, and it has no text, not even an introduction. “It could be the beginning of a work by Dostoyevsky,” Mr. Delahaye said. “All the characters are there. They just need to be fleshed out.”

There are couples drinking themselves into oblivion; prisoners lounging on rows of rag-covered bunk beds; families, bundled in winter coats, sifting through garbage at the municipal dump; a girl sitting by the light of a window and searching for a vein in her leg in which to shoot up — one of a seemingly innumerable parade of sad alcoholics and junkies.

Though the subject matter is bleak, the photographs are colorful and unexpectedly beautiful. “It’s a country where the sky is gray, the buildings gray, but inside there is a delirium of color,” Mr. Delahaye said in an interview at the Chào Bà cafe in the Pigalle neighborhood of Paris.

The images unfold like a silent movie, the lives of desperate people set against backgrounds of outmoded factories, squalid bedrooms, crumbling wallpaper, barren landscapes in places like Perm, Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Obgaz and Norilsk.

“I want it to be comprehensible to everyone and at the same time fundamentally mysterious,” Mr. Delahaye said. “The reader should have space to use his imagination.” Here and there a photograph has a caption, a few terse words: “Anatoly Goliakov, murdered with a knife,” or “Olga dances for $2.” Many of the lifeless bodies on staircases and kitchen floors are labeled simply “Overdose.”

If Russia was a living hell, Mr. Delahaye is no stranger to human misery. The first war he photographed was in Lebanon, in 1985-86, and since then he has covered every major conflict from the Persian Gulf war to Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia. (He traveled around Sarajevo by bicycle to be close to the action.) For the last six years he has been a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency, and his work appears regularly in Newsweek. His long list of awards includes the Robert Capa Gold Medal.

At 38, Mr. Delahaye has little to prove professionally, yet his success gives him scant pleasure. He is intensely introspective, choosing his words as if navigating a minefield, and maintains an aura of detachment, which he uses as a hedge against any tug he might feel toward romanticism.

Regarding his role as photographer, he is plagued by questions, eternally dissatisfied. His brother gave him his first camera when he was 17, and for years he walked around with it hidden under his jacket. “I was incapable of taking a photo,” he said. “I didn’t feel legitimate.” Ultimately he found his calling as a photojournalist: concrete assignments gave him the justification he needed. But his career is still marked by frequent periods of self-doubt. Each personal crisis has driven him to explore new photographic territory.

Before “Winterreise,” he produced three other much admired photo-documentaries very different from the violence of war. In one, he asked homeless people to sit for self- portraits in a photo booth; in another, he spent two years shooting what he calls “stolen portraits” of commuters in the Paris Metro, with a camera around his neck and a shutter release hidden in his pocket. He had reached a point where the photographer was virtually absent, where his subjects did not even know he existed and where it felt as if the camera were working alone.

“I arrived at a period in my work where things were very bad,” Mr. Delahaye said. “I had lost faith, photographically. And I validated this loss with the book on the Metro. If photography is a religion, this book was nihilism.”

A friend, the photojournalist Gilles Peress, suggested he go to Russia for inspiration. Mr. Delahaye’s instincts told him this was right. “I needed a place that was radical, both for its size and the spirit of its inhabitants,” he said. A month later he left for Moscow with his camera and a title, a reference to Schubert’s song cycle about travelers on a winter journey. “Winterreise for the sound, the colors, the solitude, the sadness,” he said. “I wanted to work on solitude — mine, and that of the people I photographed.”

Mr. Delahaye traveled with a translator, a Russian journalist from Moscow, who did all the talking, both at the door and after they were inside people’s homes. Rarely did anyone turn them away. “Russians are easy to photograph,” Mr. Delahaye said. “They are not terribly modest, and they have little to distract them from being bored. They are also quite conscious of their condition, they talk about it openly. Even the homeless man in the street, whom you’d expect to be dazed by cold and alcohol, has a certain lucidity regarding his situation. It has to do with the grandeur of the country, the generosity of the Russian soul.”

While the translator made conversation, Mr. Delahaye sat in a corner and waited. The hours passed. After a while, life resumed its course. “I hadn’t moved,” he recalled. “The people didn’t pay any attention to me; they thought I was secondary. I took photos.”

Aside from a self-portrait in a hotel mirror, where the photographer’s good looks are clouded by a grim seriousness, his presence in this book is marked by invisibility. He is a fly on the wall, observing disconcertingly private moments. For the first time in his life, he said, he felt like a photographer, free to shoot everything, unlimited by the moral constraints of covering war.

Four months in a Russian winter, observing humanity at its most abject, is a situation many would find depressing. Mr. Delahaye found it uplifting. “I came out of this voyage somewhat transformed,” he said. “I had the impression of being larger, like the Russians. Like Russia itself.”

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