Issue 50 (2015)

Marina Razbezhkina: Optical Axis (Opticheskaia os’, 2013)

reviewed by Mieka Erley© 2015

The “optical axis,” Marina Razbezhkina tells us at the start of her eponymous film, is “a line passing through the centre of curvature of all lenses, or spherical mirrors in optical systems.” For Razbezhkina, the optical axis is an evocative metaphor for the relationship between the photographer, the subject and the viewer across time.

optical axisThe dedicatee and ostensible subject of Razbezhkina’s feature-length documentary is the early Russian photographer Maksim Dmitriev (1858–1948): “a Russian photographer who was in love with reality.” Having first come to wide public attention for his photographs of the 1891 famine, Dmitriev is often credited as the founder of Russian photojournalism. Over a career that spanned decades, he documented everyday life in Nizhny Novgorod and the Volga region, capturing the kind of scenes with his camera that Maxim Gorky, his friend and collaborator, captured with the pen. Dmitriev left behind over 10,000 negative plates, constituting an impressive ethnographic and sociological record of the late Imperial period and bearing witness to the lives of people across the social spectrum, from Old Believers to chorus girls, vagabonds to state bureaucrats.

Optical Axis is a tribute to Dmitriev, but it is not a biographical film: it stages “re-takes” of seven photographs produced by Dmitriev between 1891 and 1913 around Nizhny Novgorod, creating symmetrical images across a century’s divide. Razbezhkina has said that she selected the original photographs based on both “expressiveness and social composition. We chose the most vivid heroes—bankers, cabaret singers (we chose strippers as a parallel), artisans, Old Believers, the homeless, workers.” While the project is articulated here in sociological terms, the relationships created across the Dmitriev–Razbezhkina axis are remarkably intimate and personal. Razbezhkina’s team poses her modern subjects—often at the original site of Dmitriev’s photographs and before enlargements of the originals—collecting the stories they tell as they gaze into the phantasmatic mirror image. As Razbezhkina (2013) explains, “When I thought about the shape that the film was going to take, I understood that I should show these photos to our contemporaries. We made three-meter posters, choosing people from different social strata, still existing nowadays. In this way, seven stories were created, and we filmed them.”

optical axisIn the end, the film is as much about the stories created and told by Razbezhkina’s contemporary subjects as about Dmitriev and his work. In the opening episode, the residents of a homeless shelter examine the faces of Dmitriev’s fin-de-siècle vagabonds, narrating for the voiceless figures: “That woman sitting at the edge glowering at us…she’s quite distrustful. 'What do you want?' she’s saying.” Others note that nothing has changed for people like them, a century apart: “We should ask if they were kicked out on the street in the same way.” Perfectly capturing Razbezhkina’s metaphor of the optical axis, an elderly lady turns to the camera and remarks, “They are looking at us like I am looking at you.” The pictures offer an opportunity for others to reflect on their own lives: “My brother drank the flat away. That’s why I ended up here…he later hung himself.” A second remarks, chillingly, “I don’t exist.” A third man asks, “Did you find your grandfather there?”

If some of Razbezhkina’s subjects see their ancestors in the photographs of their town a century before, others see themselves. At the State Bank of Nizhny Novgorod, locals in the year 2013 are asked to decide which of the figures in the photograph they would have been in 1903. Someone asks, “Did you find yourself [in the photograph]?” These encounters produce eerie reincarnations and entangled subjectivities. A business woman points at a figure in the foreground: “I think that’s me…I was so serious, sad even.”

optical axis Occasionally, identifications across the optical axis fail. In one episode, modern strippers perform under the towering figure of a popular cabaret singer of 1900. One of them is unable to identify with the women in the photographs, alienated by the image-surface: “It’s all different now. People look different. Take hairstyles, for example… Even they were completely different.” For her, the photograph has become merely a residue of passing time and transitory fashions; as Siegfried Kracauer remarks, “One day the diva will lose her demonic quality and her bangs will go the same way as the chignons” (1995, 62). The cabaret singer of 1900 has lost her aura, her fatal allure, and only her coiffeur holds documentary value. Other subjects remark: “How are we different from them? We’re just dressed more modern than them.” This disagreement seems to reveal a tension between the potential sociological or ethnographic meanings of Dmitriev’s photographs and the subjective, imaginative experience that various subjects attempt to narrate.

optical axisRazbezhkina praises Dmitriev for his “realism.” In interviews, she remarks, “He loved life as it is. He didn’t want to invent anything. He didn’t want to make it more beautiful than it was. That is his understanding—and mine—of what reality is.” Razbezhkina’s commitment to “reality” is expressed through a series of cinematic prohibitions: she does not use artificial light, non-diegetic music, narration, or zoom. In its austerity, Optical Axis has much in common with Sergei Loznitsa’s images of rural Russian folk in Portrait (Portret, 2002) (which also reflects on the relationship between the still photograph and the moving picture) or his images of labor in Factory (Fabrika, 2004).

The sum of all these parts is more than a memorial to Dmitriev or a longitudinal study of Russian social types. It is a meditation on photography and the practice of looking, on the relationship between image and narrative, between still and moving pictures. Razbezhkina’s metaphor of the optical axis comes fully into view: it is the line that light travels from an object through a lens. It is a figure for the mysterious connections between subject and object, mediated through the camera lens. As Roland Barthes states, the photograph “represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object, but a subject who feels he is becoming an object” (Barthes 1993, 14).

Mieka Erley
Colgate University

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Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1993. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang).

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1995. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Razbezhkina, Marina. 2013. “Comments”. Antipode Sales Website.

Optical Axis, Russia, 2013
Documentary, color, 90 min
Director: Marina Razbezhkina
Screenplay: Marina Razbezhkina
Cinematographers: Irina Uralskaia, Denis Klebleev
Producer: Marina Razbezhkina

Marina Razbezhkina: Optical Axis (Opticheskaia os’, 2013)

reviewed by Mieka Erley© 2015