Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover (21.5 x 28.5 cm), 176 pages, with 111 color reproductions. Includes poems by Ilya Kaminsky. Design and production by GOST. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The new photobook Odesa by the Ukrainian-born photographer Yelena Yemchuk was first delayed by two years because of the pandemic, and was finally released earlier this May, framed by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine (proceeds from sales of the book are being donated to the charity Monstrov in Odesa). In this remarkable book, Yemchuk tells the story of the city with the delicate intimacy of an insider, while still keeping an outsider’s wonder and fascination fresh in her mind. The book is her love letter to Odesa, and offers a human portrait of a Ukrainian city often pictured today as war-torn.

Odesa is Yemchuk’s fourth book. Her previous photobook Mabel, Betty & Bette (reviewed here) was published last year and creates a complex study of identity using three separate yet interlinked female characters, via a variety of media including staged portraits, collages and stills. In 2017, she published Anna, a project that was shot over a period of 20 years and expresses an honest bond between two friends. And Yemchuk’s first book Gidropark (from 2011) was a study of an amusement park in Kyiv, a “Soviet version of Coney Island”. She has said, “I’ve been photographing in Ukraine for so many years. It’s part of who I am as an artist.”

Odesa is a slightly oversized book, and the title, both in Ukrainian and English, is embossed four times in silver against its light yellow cover. Inside, the color photographs appear in vertical or full spread horizontal orientation and always have the same white border around them, creating a sense of consistent visual flow. There are no captions or page numbers, and short poems by the Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky are sprinkled throughout the book, engaging in a conversation with the photographs.

Yemchuk, who today lives in New York, was born and raised in Kyiv; she was 11 years old when her family emigrated to the United States, forcing her to leave behind family and friends. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yemchuk began taking regular trips back to Ukraine to reconnect with the country. In 2003, she visited Odesa for the first time. It is the third largest city in Ukraine, and a major seaport on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea, legendary for its humor, openness, and diversity. She writes, “I felt like I had been shown a secret place. Like someone took me around a corner, pulled back a curtain and said, ‘Here look, look at this enchanted city.” After that first trip, she immediately knew that she wanted to make a series about the city, although a number of reasons ultimately delayed her return.

She started photographing Odesa and its people almost ten years later. The photographs included in the book were taken between 2015 and 2019, against a backdrop of an emergent war after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea the year before. Yemchuk photographed young people who were then beginning to volunteer for the army and who had trained at the Odesa Military Academy. But it quickly turned “into a depiction of the city and all the people who lived there at the time.”

The book brings together intimate portraits of ordinary citizens, particularly of Odesa’s youth, interwoven with moments of everyday life and atmospheric interiors. Yemchuk often photographs her subjects outside or in nature, with bright light. The book opens with a close up portrait of a young woman, slightly squinting at the sun. The following spread pairs a photo of a man’s shaved head with a word “discomfort” tattooed in all caps, next to the face of a young woman whose eyes are red from crying. Most of these young people grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the years Ukrainians were beginning to enjoy their independence and regain their sense of identity as a nation. Another spread pairs two portraits: a young man standing outside with his skateboard, and on the right a boy poses in swim shorts near what looks like a canal. Gentle sunlight in both shots adds a mood of relaxed tenderness. Like these and other portraits, Yemchuk’s photographs are consistently candid and there is almost no staging involved. 

Other images set a wider scene. The back of an old gray car, covered with birds’ droppings and dry leaves, takes up most of the frame in one picture, adding to the atmosphere of the city. Another photo captures a lively morning moment as residents of a two-story apartment building engage in a conversation and their daily routine; the wall is decorated with drawings of daisies and a butterfly, adding a cheerful element to the sense of swirling motion in the composition. 

Hints of a more surreal existence are sprinkled into the flow here and there. In one image, a young woman is lying nude on a blanket somewhere in a field, eating cherries with her head thrown back as they tumble out of a plastic bag; the top of a building or its ruins is seen in the background, adding another layer of a mystery. In another photo, a young woman is photographed outside in a field dressed in what resembles a Snow Maiden outfit. These images stand in contrast to more sober portraits of young people in uniform, reminding us that the rhythms of everyday life have been interrupted. One of the last photographs captures a young girl wearing a uniform, and poignantly symbolizes this loss of innocence. Yemchuk’s cast of characters reflects the complex and beautiful city, and as we move through the book, it is hard not to wonder where they are today and what awaits them.

Odesa captures the joy and freedom of the city, as well as some of its tensions and contradictions: young women and men in military uniform, spontaneous improvisations, young love, and moments of pleasure. As Ilya Kaminsky observes in his poem, it is “a city of immigrants, built by immigrants for immigrants. What is the common language of all immigrants? It is a language through which our souls moves as body moves through time.” Through excellent editing and thoughtful pairing, the book creates a mysterious, magical, and heartfelt portrait of Odesa, reminding us how fragile life is. 

Earlier this year, Strike Newspaper (reviewed here) documented the recent anti-war and solidarity with Ukraine protests in Poland, while a number of earlier books depicted the events of recent years as they were unfolding, often immersing us into the chaotic mood of the people. Yemchuk’s photographs also bring to mind the work of the Ukrainian photographer Yulia Krivich; her book Presentiment (reviewed here) captures the anxious, unsettled mood of Ukraine and its younger generation through more personal and calm images. And Julie Poly in her self-published book Ukrzaliznytsia documented an array of local characters commuting on a train in Ukraine. These projects offer a more nuanced portrait of the country and its people.

Yemchuk hopes that as people spend time with her book they will understand “how unbelievably horrible war is in general, and in the case of Ukraine, how peacefully people were living before, in this beautiful country that finally had its own strong identity.” The series compassionately shows the genuineness of the place, and depicts Ukrainians as they are and what they are now fighting for. As a sophisticated artistic statement in book form, this is one of the most outstanding and moving photobooks published this year.

Collector’s POV: Yelena Yemchuk does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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