In undertaking his Ukranian odyssey in Ukraine Fotografien Austrian-born Reiner Riedler has captured a country on the cusp of change, and one that is acutely culturally diverse in a way that, say, Winchester and Edinburgh in the UK, or New York and San Francisco in the USA are not. Spanning eight trips over four years and four months in total, Riedler’s journey took him from the post-apocalyptic leaden-skied landscapes around Odessa, where shadowy solitary figures wander seemingly aimlessly, to the improbably blue skies of Yalta on the Black Sea. There, in contrast to the poor, ‘old before their time’ young mothers photographed in Zusammenleben, he witnesses sophisticated adolescents posing on the beach, bedecked in glamorous swimwear.
By chapter, the economic and cultural divisions are noted but not laboured: a peasant woman cooks over an open stove, showing a toothless smile, wearing hand-made clothes worn for warmth not style or comfort; while in the chapter entitled Fun-generation a club ‘dancer’ gyrates wearing stars and stripes bra and pants. If the irony is lost on her it is not on Riedler. Elsewhere, clubbers posture with the confidence of youth, looking to and apeing the clothes worn by westerners. By contrast the older generation are turning to religion, long denied them under the Communist yoke, in an attempt to make sense of their new reality. The totalitarian past, like a bad dream, is never far away. In one photograph a bust of Lenin broods still in the corner of a gloomy, dank-looking room.
To escape a troubled past a better future is often envisioned through children. Here, Riedler suggests the Ukraine’s path from childhood to maturity will not be an easy one. The babies and young children he captures look startled and emotionless, while the slightly older ones goon for the camera as boys will the world over. But it is a photograph of four shaven-headed, pyjama-clad boys, resembling gulag prisoners (as witnessed in De Keyzer’s Zona) that most hints at a far from easy passage to adulthood.
In a work so comprehensive it seems slightly crass to single out one image, but plate 73 so underscores Riedler’s Ukranian vision it would be remiss to overlook it. In the background a marriage has taken place: bride and groom are surrounded by several generations of relatives and friends. To the foreground with her back to view a young, blond woman wearing a short-skirted dress and designer shoulder bag looks on. It is not until one looks down from the hem of her dress to her feet that one notices her scuffed, ill fitting, clumpy, high-heeled white shoes that in an instant encapsulate the state of the nascent nation.
In Ukraine Fotografien Riedler presents a thorough documentation (100 colour images) of a country in flux; not for him a snapshot of one area or person that purports fictitiously to capture the essence of a country in a frame. The seriousness of his intent and dedication to his labour are admirable, and the resulting work is as illuminating as it is compelling reading.