Disarming the Russians

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McGill Reporter
April 11, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > April 11, 2002 > Disarming the Russians

Disarming the Russians

On March 21, Russia's one-woman photo revolution returned to her alma mater to give a slideshow of her work, courtesy of the department of Russian and Slavic Studies.

Photo Heidi Hollinger
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Shortly after graduating from McGill in 1990 with a BA in modern languages, Heidi Hollinger traveled to the Soviet Union, a part of the world then largely inaccessible to Western visitors. Skirting the Iron Curtain via a cut-rate tour package "for Finns who like to drink and go to Russia on the cheap" (a tip courtesy of Finnish relatives), she hoped to brush up on her Russian grammar, absorb some culture, and decide what to do with the rest of her life. A former photo editor for the McGill Daily, Hollinger naturally brought her camera with her. Little did she know that she would spend most of the next decade living and working in Moscow -- and in doing so, dramatically change the look of popular Russian photography.

"I feel like I'm a tour guide up here!" Hollinger quipped as she projected slides of the old, grey Moscow: familiar images of generic storefronts with long queues of would-be shoppers, "and statues of Lenin everywhere." She next showed some classic Russian political publicity photos, dour black-and-white portraits reminiscent of the unsmiling visages found in police mugshots. A lot has changed in Russia in the past 10 years -- not the least of which is the way its politicians deign to be photographed.

Hollinger didn't plan to start taking photos of Russian politicians, it just sort of happened that way. Six months after she began taking informal photos at outdoor rallies, Hollinger had her first exhibition. She soon set up a studio and began taking portraits of politicians, striving to capture the personalities behind the often grim figureheads. It wasn't always easy to negotiate the bureaucratic channels (some sittings, Hollinger said, took years to arrange), but the results are striking.

Slide after slide illustrated how Hollinger brought Rolling Stone style to Red Square. Vladimir Zhirinovski, a high-profile right-wing Russian nationalist, uncharacteristically stretches out wearing nothing but Y-front underwear. Josef Stalin's great-grandson (Jacob Dzhugashvili, an artist) moodily smokes a cigarette...and grabs his crotch. (Unlike Zhirinovski, Dzhugashvili is wearing pants.) Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of Russia's only Buddhist republic, Kalmy Kiu, and of the International Chess Federation, stands tall in full formal regalia. Heidi Hollinger's work is colourful in every sense of the word.

Searching for new subject matter, Hollinger next took this same approach to a series of portraits of regular Muscovites, capturing plumbers, housepainters and bakers in their quotidian glory. Although such folk may not share the fame of, say, former Hollinger subjects Vladimir Putin or Mikhail Gorbachev (not initially, at least -- but a police officer became an instant celebrity after his portrait was used on the cover of a popular book), the photos nevertheless possess the wit, grit and humanity that has become Hollinger's trademark.

Cradling her toddler son in one arm, Hollinger casually introduced a final series of images, this time about her. As the press clippings sped by on the screen (a smiling Heidi mugs with artist-musician David Byrne, a pregnant Heidi poses à la Demi Moore for the cover of Amerika magazine, a happy Heidi gets Fidel Castro's autograph), it became clear that the photographer of celebrities had become a celebrity photographer. But the most Hollinger would allow about her own fame was a wry comment regarding a photo of her with Na-Na, a wildly popular Russian boy-band: "When this photo came out, everyone was asking, 'Is she going to be the fifth member of Na-Na?'"

When asked about career highlights, Hollinger was hard pressed to pinpoint specifics because "there's just so much." One typically self-effacing remark, however, perfectly captured the spirit of her work: "I almost made Putin smile!"

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