Sasha Arutyunova, Shelter

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by TIS Books (here). Softcover (16×24 inches), 48 pages, with 30 black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sasha Arutyunova is a New York-based photographer, originally from Moscow. She left Russia when she was six years old, but regularly goes back to visit and document her family; she got her first camera at the age of 14, as a present from her grandfather. Her commercial work has appeared in The New York Times, WSJ Magazine, TIME, and The Atlantic, among others, and her photographs and short videos (often shared on her Instagram account, here) use light, texture, color, and movement to create an intimate atmosphere. In 2017, she was included in PDN’s 30, a list of new and emerging photographers to watch. 

Last year Arutyunova published her first photobook, filled with photographs taken in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic; its title, Shelter, echoes the search for comfort and protection in that time of chaos, isolation, and confusion. As a photobook, Shelter is a small thin publication. A black and white photo of snow smashed against the frozen surface of a pond dominates the cover, signaling that something traumatic has happened. The title appears at the top of the book cover with the artist’s name at the bottom, but both almost blend in with the image. The visual narrative inside consists of black and white photographs with a generous amount of white space around them. There are no texts, captions, or page numbers, inviting the viewer to become immersed into the uninterrupted visual flow. 

The photographs collected in Shelter were taken in places across Brooklyn and in upstate New York. There is no obvious linear story – Arutyunova’s photographs capture beautiful and tender moments, considering the nuances of isolation and disorientation, but with glimmers of intimacy and hope. The opening photograph shows a little boy on a rock on a summer day, probably in a park. The photograph is black and white, but the sunlight is beaming, setting a potential stage for the quiet moments that will follow. The next spread is a shot of a window from inside a dark apartment, a common view during the pandemic as people were staying at home. Another spread pairs a fragmented self-portrait (a shadow of the artist on the wall in her apartment) with a shot of a young moon over a pond. The juxtaposition creates an intimate and even poetic formal comparison.

Arutyunova’s photographs of people are mostly obscured and dislocated, perhaps reflecting the uneasy physical interactions set by pandemic protocols. Likely as a reaction, the artist often turns her camera to include the comforting presence of children and babies. A photo of a baby peacefully napping on a bed is paired with a shot of sunlight reflecting off a quiet pond. A few spreads later, there is a portrait of a smiling mother holding her baby, while the image on the right focuses on a wild plant. These images symbolize innocence and intimacy, providing support and ultimately hope. 

Arutyunova’s photographs are often calm and refined, creating formal studies out of ordinary moments. She pays attention to lines, movements, and particularly light, tying the images together through the use of geometries and brightly lit perception. Gentle light contributes to a consistent atmosphere of intimacy, elegance, and tenderness.

In another horizontal photograph, two friends are laying on the grass: one gently covers her eyes from the sun, while the other exposes her face to sunlight, wearing a mask while outside. This picture is the only direct hint at the ongoing pandemic, but a number of other images indicate that something is off: a bottle of milk spilled on the street, a wooden fence collapsed over trees, and a cracked mirror left on a sidewalk. Shelter ends with a photograph of a residential building taken from across the street, as sunlight reflects off the windows. It feels calm and peaceful, providing a literal glimpse of a place providing comfort and hope. 

Shelter is an unpretentious and subtly elegant publication, enlivened by thoughtful sequencing and editing. It offers a series of meditative reflections and careful observations, ultimately finding solace in small overlooked moments. It’s a measured and grounded artistic statement from a photographer still early in her career. It will be exciting to follow Arutyunova’s practice as she finds her way forward. 

Collector’s POV: Sasha Arutyunova is represented by Claxton Projects (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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