Photography: Russia – From St Petersburg to Moscow

This article was written and first published before I began using digital equipment, but I hope it may still be of interest and have some relevance. For all these images I used a Leica IIIc with two 50mm lenses: an f2 Leitz Summitar colour-coated lens – and a Jupiter 3. All images were taken on Ektachome 200 ASA film: – one of greatest colour transparency films.  I hope the limited number of images here give some idea of the depth and clarity of colour and contrast that Ektachome gave us.

(Please click on the images for larger and higher res reproductions)

I flew in to St Petersburg, and – as soon as I got settled – made my way to one of the local outdoor markets. One of my Russian friends reckoned they were a good bet to find some good used camera equipment: I wanted to try some Russian lenses made for Leica thread mount cameras and their copies. In particular I was after a good example of a Jupiter 9 – the 85mm lens – and a decent Industar 22.

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The Summer Palace of Catherine The Great

My friend was right – there were plenty of people selling old cameras in the market; – and a couple of hours later I had those lenses, – and more: a Jupiter 3 – reckoned to be the top end of Soviet lenses – a 50mm f1.5 copy of a Sonnar; a Jupiter 8 – copy of the Sonnar f2- (I have a fine uncoated Sonnar, but have never been able to find an adapter for it); a Jupiter 12 – 35mm f3.5 and a copy of a Zeiss Jena Biogon.

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Gold leaf restoration on the Summer Palace of Catherine The Great

If you are still using film, and need to buy film in Russia, it is still fairly readily available. Russians had told  me that they’d gone digital, but only because of the cost of buying and processing film. Fuji, Konica, and Kodak print film seem the most popular brands, and Russian made films are available – especially for those needing 35mm and 120 roll film. Slide film, on the other hand, was more difficult to find. One of the biggest retail outlets is FotoUR, and this chain is accessible on the internet. I took all my slide film with me and used Ektachrome 200.

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The magnificence of The Winter Palace – now The Hermitage museum in St Petersburg

Black and white films include Slovitch – from Czechoslovakia; Fomapan 100 – very similar in look to Agfapan; and Svema 120 pan. Moscow and St Petersburg are sophisticated cities, and there you’ll find almost anything you need. There are excellent camera repair facilities, and you can find many of these on the net. I had a Russian guy do an excellent overhaul job on one of my Leicas. He was quick, and only charged a fraction of the cost of similar western European rates. In the UK I was once quoted AUD370.00 to replace the shutter curtains on a Leica III, and the same job cost me the equivalent of AUD9.00 in Russia. True, the Russian ones were probably made for a Zorki or Fed, but who’s to say that the guy in the UK would not have had his supply from the same source?

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This church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg. It was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881

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It was May – a lovely time of year in northern Europe – and the Neva river was only just free of ice. I had to play one concert and go on to Moscow, and had planned a trip by river. If you decide to go to Russia, try and be there around this time of year; the spring flowers are beautiful, and the weather is warm enough to be pleasant. And I can recommend the relaxed trip by river from St Petersburg to Moscow or vice-versa; you get an idea of the vastness of the country, and visit a number of interesting cities along the way. .

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Spring on Kizhi Island in Lake Onega and the wooden Church of the Transfiguration

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I wrapped my cameras and my old and new lenses in a towel and put them in my army disposal shoulder bag. I never travel with expensive luggage – it’s the quickest and surest way of drawing attention. Nondescript clothes and old or plastic bags: a tip I had from an artist friend of mine years ago, and it works like a dream when I’m travelling. Smart bags and clothes? Not for me – I don’t want to be singled out as a mark. But not drawing attention is also the best way of getting decent photos.

One of the first things that struck me in St Petersburg was the number of artists and buskers in the streets; artists of great talent with stalls displaying their paintings; musicians – singles and groups – playing music of the highest calibre. A group of brass players dressed in 19th century band uniforms played with breathtaking virtuosity, and I remember one elderly lady playing a sublime Bach Partita on a street corner. I was riveted to the spot. And so it went on across the country; expert musicians – classical and jazz – busking on the streets for their living while the armies of bureaucrats of our modern commercial world – expert only at pushing paper and people around – sit comfortably in their offices – salaries and pensions assured. Will we ever get it right? Art is the measure of civilisation.

And then the great architecture of St Petersburg – the Hermitage – the Winter Palace by the river – and, outside the town, the lovely Summer Palace begun by Peter and completed by Catherine – destroyed in spite by the Germans….

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World War II War Memorial – Yaraslavl

….but now almost perfectly restored. Light is of the essence in these great buildings – the long windows of the Winter Palace opening onto the dancing iridescence of the river, and those of the Summer Palace to the rolling verdant vistas of the parkland grounds. Many of the rooms gain light from twin aspects, and were flooded in glorious radiance when I was there. Winter? I’m sure that’s another story.

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Pavilion by the lake at Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace

I was delighted by the light and bright colours of the older buildings; the warm yellows, ochres, and reds; the cooler white and blues and greens; – so good to see after the happenstance glowering drabness we are accustomed to in most of our unutterably ugly cities. In Russia that ubiquitous ugliness spills and litters the more recently built areas of the cities and their outskirts; – mile-upon-mile of facelessly monstrous apartments and poorly built sprawl. What a knack we have of making a mess of our world; and we show little inclination to change our ways….

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Statue outside St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow – The Cathedral of Vassily the Blessed