Portrait of a Russian region in decline


Pskov is dying.

By landmass, Russia is the largest country in the world. With such a sprawling landscape, there are places that thrive, and places that — due to a medley of circumstances and the ebb and flow of time — inevitably decline.

Pskov is close to Russia’s border with Estonia in the west of the country, and has the distinction of being one of the oldest places in Russia. It is a region where there is a greater demand for coffins than cribs.

It is also the region where Russian photographer Dmitry Markov has made some of his most affecting work, all of which he posts exclusively to Instagram, where he has amassed more than 350,000 followers.

A new exhibition of his work stylized with social media hashtags, “Draft Russia,” is on display at Agnès B Boutique Galerie through June 4.

Markov has worked for major clients, but his photographs of his hometown in Pskov are the ones that have the most emotional weight. They provide a window into quotidian scenes, both in Pskov and throughout Russia. People walk. Children play. The seasons change. His pictures are of life itself.

“In the photo, I try to capture an interesting and truthful moment from ordinary, everyday life,” said Markov through a translator over email.

Honesty pervades Markov’s photographs, and they offer a sympathetic, uncritical look at the people in and around his life. Having grown up in Pskov, Markov has worked in various capacities before taking up photography. At one point, he was a social worker, and volunteered in an orphanage as well as various community organizations. There is a good chance he knows the people he photographs, and it is that familiarity that gives his images emotional depth.

It is worth noting Markov photographs exclusively with his iPhone, reducing the distance between him and those in front of his lens.

“This approach allows him to translate the strength of what is in front of his eyes every day into a powerful and beautiful work without any form of prejudice or judgment,” said Agnès Troublé, the curator known professionally as Agnès B., over email.

Troublé first encountered Markov’s work at Rencontres d’Arles, a major annual photography festival in the French city of Arles last year. She sees his work in the tradition of photographers like Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley, who are famous, at least in part, for intimate photographs of their communities.

“I am fascinated by the work of artists who use their close environment as their artistic raw material,” Troublé said.

The images in the exhibition, 80 in total, have the nostalgic feel of snapshots with the nuanced, artistic sensibility of a photographer. It is on Instagram where Markov has found the widest possible audience to share his slice of life from one of the hardest-hit regions in Russia.

“Pskov is today considered a depressed region in which the death rate exceeds the birthrate,” Markov said. “Many young people leave from here to major cities.”

Yet, Markov pushes beyond that to show a place that chooses to live despite that fact.

“I feel my connection with the heroes in the photo,” Markov said.

Those heroes are everyday people. They are a part of the larger fabric of Russian life. While there are undoubtedly political forces that have shaped Pskov, they are not at play in Markov’s pictures.

Rather, Markov sees the potential for connection in his pictures. For some segments of the Russian diaspora, there is a universality to Markov’s images, a shared sense of home.

“I know that among my subscribers and viewers there are many people who have experienced the same experience as me,” Markov said.

By the numbers, Pskov is dying. One look at Markov’s photographs, however, and it becomes abundantly clear.

Pskov is living.