Living in Germany for nearly two years, I was considering heading home in Spring 1984 when the opportunity to go to then-Soviet Union on a student trip came up. I leaped at the chance. OK, so it would be early March — thus a likely cold, icy transitional season – but to take in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow was on my bucket list.
Naturally, myself and several others on the trip found the mandatory museums unbearable – I mean, who came to Russia to visit exhibits of Monet and Manet in museums there? So we would bus into town with the group, then immediately take off to wander the streets and take in real life in back courtyards and shops.
The subject: The Peter and Paul Fortress is the birthplace of the city. Situated right next to the Neva River, its looming stone walls had housed, among other things, a military base, burial grounds of Imperial families, and the home of many government departments. Today, it is mostly a museum, but urban traditions continue. Like this one….
The inspiration: Passing near the river and looking across at the stone walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, I suddenly spied all these semi-naked people. What the heck were they doing there in the middle of the winter? It was, dare I say, freezing! Turns out they are nicknamed “walruses,” and are indeed sunbathers who come to turn their faces and bodies to the sun during the long dark Russian winters. They gather in a relatively windless corner along the beach below the fortress wall that tends to warm up. (Warm being quite relative, I’m sure.)
What a sight that was! See those boards? Well, heck, it may look warm but don’t be mistaken. The last thing you want to do is lean your bare back against that cold stone!!
Take a real close look at all of the mini-scenarios going on outside the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress: the man on the far right looking as if he’s posing for a Gucci ad, the woman third from right who perhaps stopped for a little Vitamin D after some shopping and just unzipped her pants while still wearing her “Ushanka” fur ear hat (and a real don’t-mess-with-me stance), and a couple of men just making their way past are fully wrapped in wool. Take a few minutes to really look at what’s going on.
Artist’s tools: I shot slide film back then on my old Nikon FM SLR. Oh, I loved that camera. All manual, interchangeable lenses, a no-fuss mechanic, and a super compact and durable body. Too bad it was stolen a few years later. With my background in journalism and influence from photojournalism, I tended to shoot strictly wider angle. Without remembering exactly, this could have been an 18mm lens, although I sometimes switched out to a 50mm.
I recently found my trove of slides from that trip to the Soviet Union in 1984, and we scanned them all the best we could, thus the slightly grainy appearance of the Peter and Paul Fortress sunbathers. That’s what happens when slides are left unprotected for 30-plus years! Processing? Nah. Why ruin the vintage look.