Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Aperture (here). Hardcover (11 x 8.5 x 1.5 inches), 216 pages, with 116 color reproductions. Includes essays by the artist and Lynda Myles. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Santa Barbara is the first photobook by the Armenian-American photographer Diana Markosian. It is a moving and brave re-enactment of her family’s story, from post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s to the sunny shores of Santa Barbara in search of a brighter future, and her unconventional approach to storytelling blends real and fictional elements into a nuanced visual narrative. 

Markosian arrived in the United States with her mother and older brother when she was seven, but it took twenty years for her mother Svetlana to share the true story behind their move. Their previous life was only getting more grim after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Svetlana had a PhD in economics, but had to help her husband, an engineer with a PhD, to sell homemade Barbie doll dresses on the black market. Under economic, political, and emotional stress, their marriage collapsed. Like millions of Russians, Svetlana found escape watching the glamorous American soap opera “Santa Barbara”. Feeling betrayed and looking for a better life, she placed a classified ad searching for a man who could help her to move to America.

Markosian uses the soap opera as inspiration, telling the story through the perspective of her mother. Markosian collaborated with Lynda Myles, the original scriptwriter of “Santa Barbara”, to write a script for the project, and cast a set of actors to play her family. She then re-enacted her childhood memories, from the departure of her family for America to their first years in the new country. The result of her efforts is this photobook titled Santa Barbara, to be followed by an upcoming short film and an exhibition. 

Santa Barbara is a medium size photobook, heavy, but still comfortable. A screenshot from the original TV series appears on the cover, capturing the profiles of a man and woman as they look at each other; the title of the book, using the same typography as was used in the TV series, is placed right between them. The endpapers feature illustrated palm trees printed in gloss on matte paper in black, adding a stereotypical California design element. The narrative of the book is built using a variety of approaches – re-staged shots referencing the TV show, actual stills from the original production, real family photographs, paper clippings, and various scene descriptions – deliberately mixing fact and fiction.

The book opens with a photograph of a couple getting married – a man signs a marriage certificate while the bride stands behind him in white dress and bridal veil, holding a bouquet of flowers. These are Markosian’s parents getting married, and the story begins here. The following spreads are images of the film scripts, with sets, crew, and cast. From the very first pages, it is clear how the story is constructed and where we are. The “Santa Barbara” TV series ran for a total of 2137 episodes, and Markosian refers to her story as episode #2138. It consists of 7 separate scenes, taking viewers first to the Moscow apartment, then to the Los Angeles airport, and on to marriage at the courthouse in Santa Barbara, early life in California, and then years later, to a Motel 6 and yet another new life in Los Angeles.

In the first scene, Markosian takes us back to the dark Moscow apartment where the three of them are watching “Santa Barbara” on Russian TV. Personal ads and letters pull the story along, and the second scene titled “The New World, Los Angeles, CA, 1996” opens with a strikingly stylized photo: a mother in a white dress is seen from the back as she holds a suitcase with her children next to her, standing on a red carpet facing the desert. This photograph symbolizes hope, fear, and the reality of jumping off into the unknown. 

Markosian creates an immersive atmosphere as we follow her family life. At the airport, Svetlana is greeted by Eli, a much older, heavily-set American man. He takes Svetlana and the children around the sunny desert of Santa Barbara: one shot captures them having breakfast at IHOP chain restaurant, another is a full bleed image of the family’s shopping cart getting filled at the supermarket (which stands in stark contrast to an earlier picture of people in line back home to get bread). These staged scenes capture the essence of the many small changes the family was going through as they adapted to life in America.

The photographs successfully depict a range of emotions and family moments. There are plenty of happy times – children playing in a motel swimming pool; the family next to a giant pink dinosaur; Svetlana and Eli dressed up in line to the theater; the family celebrating New Year; and a series of goofy family photobooth portraits. But other images capture a more complex set of emotions – Eli and Svetlana sitting on opposite edges of the bed in dramatic light with the daughter between them; Svetlana gently hugging her son with their eyes closed; a shirtless Eli sitting next to Svetlana as they drink, his hand on her back while she looks disengaged. 

Svetlana and Eli’s marriage lasted nine years, coincidentally just long as the run of the original TV series. As the family was relocating to San Francisco, Eli dropped the family at a Motel 6 and left. Svetlana spent the night calling friends and police, and Eli eventually called the following morning saying he was leaving them. The last photo in that scene shows Svetlana posing, while the figure of a person next to her is cut out. 

In the final scene, Svetlana meets Ana, the actor who played her, for the first time. Ana asks her if she loved Eli. “I think I learned to love him, later on. I was thankful for everything he did for me, and for the kids. I was too traumatized at the time when I came, so I didn’t see the difference between thankfulness and love.” As Markosian dug into her family history, she realized that their story wasn’t that uncommon – many women just like her mother turned to becoming mail-order brides to escape collapsing motherland. Ultimately, Markosian’s project adds another perspective to the many stories of immigration that make up the history of the United States.

In recent years, a number of photobooks by artists from post-Soviet countries looked back at their families histories and archives. For instance, Xenia Nikolskaya’s book The House My Grandfather Built (reviewed here) looks into the Soviet-era history of her grandparents, and Irina Popova revisits her Russian motherland in If You Have A Secret (reviewed here). Markosian’s approach to storytelling also connects to a recent photobook by Guy Martin; titled The Parallel State (reviewed here), it uses Turkish soap operas to examine the political situation in the country.

Working on this project was a way for Markosian to come to terms with her childhood and to understand her mother – and her decision to abandon their life in Moscow, to marry a stranger, and to sacrifice herself for the future of her children. Santa Barbara is a moving reimagination and dramatization of a personal narrative. It stands out in its careful interplay between an idealized vision of American life and its more mundane and often difficult realities. By re-enacting her life as a soap opera, she has highlighted both the power and the fragility of those essential dreams.

Collector’s POV: Diana Markosian is represented by Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris (here) and Rose Gallery in Los Angeles (here). Markosian’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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