Visiting Russia, Canadian photographer David Burdeny fell in love with Russian solidarity, discovered an underground sun in subway stations and saw a reminder about achievements of Russian culture in Hermitage docents. In the interview for Bleek Magazine, the artist answered conceptual, technical and just human questions about his work

Canadian photographer and architect David Burdeny is known for his distant and cold, but atmospheric images of interiors and landscapes. He has dozens of exhibitions and photographic awards under his belt. Visiting Russia, the artist fell in love with specific Russian solidarity, discovered an underground sun in a subway, and saw a symbolic and narrative extension of Russian history and politics in the spaces of metro stations, theater and museum halls. Burdeny calls his series «A Bright Future» which was shot in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as a research of Stalin’s concept of «palaces for the people».

David Burdeny

David Burdeny. From the series Russia “A Bright Future”

Bleek Magazine: David, there are no artist statements for your series on your web site. Is it an appeal to viewers to interpret the series by themselves?

David Burdeny: In the same way poets and writers can communicate concepts and emotions without images and publish whole bodies of work with words alone, I’ve always felt that if my images are successful, words are simply redundant.  That’s not to say I don’t feel they are necessary, but I still prefer to concentrate on image making and let those who represent my work disseminate the written and conceptual information.

David Burdeny

David Burdeny. From the series Russia “A Bright Future”

Bleek Magazine: Your shooting geography is impressive. What kind of things attracted you in Russia from the first sight?

David Burdeny: There is a certain pride and love for the country and a devoted sense of nationalism that doesn’t exist elsewhere.  Russians are proud to be Russian and I really enjoyed being immersed in that sense of togetherness. Also as a photographer, I appreciate the winter light that is moody and darkly romantic and a joy to make images in it. I was also happy to see the urban planners respected the established Urban Fabric and scale of St. Petersburg.

Bleek Magazine: You choose the deadpan aesthetics for the projects, a sort of dispassionate view. How does it help you to transmit your ideas?

David Burdeny: If they come across as deadpan, it’s an indirect response to the spaces and the way I felt they should be captured.  As a digram the spaces are symmetrical and in my option best suited to being captured as a one-point perspective.  The one-point perspective formally suggests an entry and exit to the image the same way the trains enter and exit the stations. As well, I have always preferred the absence of people in my images.  It is a formal arena I’m used to working in, and it seemed natural to extend it to my interior work.  The first interior images I made were in fact abandoned spaces and the presence of people would have been slightly contrived. I like the idea of the viewer injecting their own narrative to the work and by leaving out people the spaces are almost read as stage sets where you anticipate what has happened there or what will happen in the future.

David Burdeny

David Burdeny. From the series Russia “A Bright Future”

Bleek Magazine: How do you achieve this technically? Is it the large format or a scrupulous postproduction?

David Burdeny: I’m using a medium format digital camera which has a very long tonal range which allows the image to retain great detail in the highlights and shadows. I’m shooting a raw image which allows me to play with the exposure afterwards; and with this work I wanted to express the original designers motive to make these space symbolic of an underground sun. I intentionally made them feel bright, white and luminous.

Bleek Magazine: Please, tell us a bit about the concept of the series you made here in Russia. Why do people suddenly appear among the vast majority of deserted and lifeless images, and nature landscapes – among the scrubbing, almost perfectly symmetrical interior pictures?

David Burdeny: The original concept of the designers was to make the metro a physically and conceptual extension of the city – «palaces for the people» was the catch phrase, if I recall correctly. Juxtaposing the palaces next to the stations reinforces that notion; and by selectively introducing people, I’m gently reminding the viewer of the human element that made these places and the people who currently use them. The inclusion of the Hermitage docents represent a human link to Russian history and its great achievements to those who currently live in or visit the country.

David Burdeny

David Burdeny. From the series Russia “A Bright Future”

Bleek Magazine: And what happens in the images with stage curtains?

David Burdeny: «All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages». I couldn’t help but think of this Shakespeare’s quote when I was making the images.  It wasn’t until later that I though the notion could extend beyond the description of human life and its various stages to that of a country, a city and its architecture.  When you experience the metro and the urban fabric above ground, you really get a sense that it’s this living breathing entity. There are layers of history and time that you really feel and see. Architecture has a lifespan just like that of human occupants and I’d like to think the inclusion of those stages reminds us of that.

Bleek Magazine: What is the determinative meaning for you in the phrase «A Bright Future» which is proverbial for Russian people?

David Burdeny: Stalin’s design directive was to make the concept of «A bright future» an integral part of the Metros aesthetic.  As an architect, I love the idea of symbol and narrative in built form and I felt the foundation of the design to be expressed in the title of the series.

Bleek Magazine: How difficult it was to manage shootings here? I guess it is not so easy to break through workers of the Moscow metro at nighttime.

David Burdeny: As a Canadian requesting permission directly, I found it impossible to get an answer back. I was probably doing something wrong in my communications, but it proved to be a dead end.  As soon as I teamed up with a local fixer, everything fell into place and within a matter of months we had permission to make the images.  My producer was very skilled with negotiations and I’m convinced that any other person wouldn’t have had the same results. 

David Burdeny

David Burdeny. From the series Russia “A Bright Future”

Bleek Magazine: What was the most surprising thing for you here not as for a photographer, but as for a man?

David Burdeny: The most surprising thing for me was just how excited I was to finally set foot in St Petersburg.  I’ve been to every continent and I’m always excited to finally arrive, but to arrive here was different. I can’t really put my finger on it but I just couldn’t believe how excited I was to finally be here… in Russia! It was everything you imagine and yet like nothing you can imagine at the same time.

Bleek Magazine: After one completed project – I know you are going to make a photo book A Bright Future – would you like to return here? What would you shot here about in your next potential series about Russia?

David Burdeny: I would love to photograph some domestic interiors.  The intimate personal spaces where the people of the city live. Rich, poor, middle class… all of them.  I think that would be the next layer of the puzzle to unravel. How people really live.

Bleek Magazine: Do you feel you have a mission as a photographer and as a man?

David Burdeny: I’ve been a photographer most of my life and the two are inseparable to me.  I wake up every day with the same bright-eyed wonder a child has about the world. Photography to me has been tool that open so many doors for me.  I’ve seen so many great experiences simply because I had a camera with me and I think that’s why I photograph so many different things.  I want to see it all and experience it all.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Feodora Kaplan.