The PhotoBook Journal

October 12, 2018

Max Sher – Palimpsests


Max Sher Palimpsests, Copyright 2018

Photographer: Max Sher, born St Petersburg (then Leningrad), resides Moscow (RU)

Published by Ad Marginem with support from Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany/Russia), 2018

Essays: Kate Bush, Maxim Trudolyubov, Nuria Fatykhova

Text: Russian, English

Hardcover book, embossed cloth over boards, sewn binding, four-color lithography, printed by IPK Pareto-Print, Russia

Photobook designer: Veronika Tsimfer

Notes: This is a study of the current urban landscape of modern Russia, now called a post -Soviet period that reveals the underlying layers of the older Russian architecture driven by its economy and social order. The book’s title, Palimpsests, is a very old term for recycling, dating back when precious parchment writing materials were scraped off to create a new writing surface, yet contain faint traces of the older writing. Likewise Sher documents the new “modern” post-Soviet architecture sitting on the bones of the Soviet era brutalism, while yet traces of the earlier Romanov-era layer are still slightly visible.

As a topographic study of this immense region, Sher uses a slightly elevated view point similar to a few of those included in New Topographics; Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape and other contemporary social-landscape photographers such as Robert Adams and Simon Roberts. One aspect of the visual subtly of Sher’s urban landscape study is that until recently many of his subjects were strictly forbidden landscape topics; bridges, harbors, certain restricted cities and even an elevated view point. These are subjects that one did not document or photograph as it related to the “security” of the government.

Frequently Sher creates a juxtaposition with his image paring throughout his book; on one side is an earlier Soviet/Romanov mash-up while contrasting on the facing page spread is a shiny, bright new modern structure, that has all of the visual trappings of European and America commercialization. Sprinkled throughout are traces of a vaguely familiar mint-green or a green shade of turquoise, another visual trace of the earlier Soviet decor.

We become a witness to the older Soviet era architecture that appears to contain a sense of design that might be characterized as Soviet-Communistic. This architecture was meant to be a no-nonsense, basic to needs, utilitarian, inexpensive (the relator code word for “cheap”) and quickly constructed structures for the common-man. In other words; dreadfully boring, on the verge of in-human and barely inhabitable.

The “new Soviet order” appears to sit on top of the previous urban structures of the Romanov period, which are agrarian, religious, crude, rustic, individualized, and private within the confines of what was acceptable to the czar. It is this architectural mashup that Sher investigates as symbolic of the underlying social, economic and political turbulence within Russia. Similar to Simon Roberts continuing attempts to capture the essence of the British, Sher creates a similar indirect portrait to take a pulse of this broad expense known as Russian, his homeland.

Max Sher’s photobook A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz was previously reviewed on TPBJ.













January 5, 2014

Max Sher – A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz


Copyright Max Sher 2013 published by Treemedia

A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz (English translation of the Russian title) is Sher’s first book and an investigation of memory and personal experiences; concurrently evokes mystery and nostalgia. A delightful semi-fictional story based on appropriating vernacular photographs that narrate a poignant story of Sher’s making, set in Russia in the 1960’s, 70’s into the 80’s.

I also need to declare up front that this book interests me from my personal interest in creating artist books that explore similar ideas and concepts using found photographs to create semi-fictional stories. Thus this book resonates with me on many levels.

In the Foreword, a poignant quote from Walter Benjamin “The true picture of the past whizzes by. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast.”

Sher’s photobook has two parts, first the found photographs sequenced to narrate a group’s journey in which the authorship is suspected but not entirely known. Interspersed in the first group of photographs are found text extracted from letters that were amongst the photographic archive. Sher has curated a mashup of lyrical landscape, snapshot portraits, obvious mugging for the camera lens, and vernacular documentary moments. This is a personal snapshot story of Russia from the perspective of group who had the affluence of the upper middle class.

The later chapter is an investigation in a lyrical documentary style of the place in which these photographs were found.

The quality of the found 35mm color slides are symbolically a bit off, reflecting what could be obtained in the Russian economy of the 1960’s and 70’s.  The colors, like the memories, now fading with the passing time. These photographs are imbued with a dense layer of nostalgia and lost memories. Although the subjects appear to be experiencing relatively happy moments that my knowing that those who created the photographs have passed on, creates a melancholy read. In conjunction with Sher’s documentary of the vacant and empty place, this is also a story about mortality and what we leave behind.

At the transition between the found photographs and his documentary style photographs of the place where these photographs were found, Sher states “An analogy with archeology suggests itself here; you find some evidence and create a tentative representation of people and their lives – or rather, of their live’s external features. Using what remained of personal items of everyday routine, we could ascertain the person’s social standings but could not find their names, thoughts, preferences; neither could we guess whom they had loved. We could only imagine that.”

The book has a case bound binding which regretfully does not allow the interior contents a lay-flat read. Nevertheless, the interior plates have ample margins, thus none of the images have any content lost in the gutter. The text is provided in both Russian and English. The book cover and spine is embossed with the title and as a twist, a tipped-in image is applied to the back cover. The translucent belly band provides the book title in English. The page paper has slight warmth in color, similar to faded yellowed paper, adding a metaphoric background layer to this melancholic narrative.

I selected Sher’s photobook as one of my more interesting photobooks for 2013.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook







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