Oleg Zotov. Fog over the Kresta bay
The epic distant land of Chukotka
A new exhibition recently opened at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow shows Ida Ruchina and Oleg Zotov, a celebrated photographer from the world of glossy magazines and celebrities, focusing on one of Russia’s most isolated and neglected regions – Chukotka.
‘Chukotka. An Epic Saga’ is part of a new project, called ‘Big Photo Premiere’, intended to support Russian photography, whether it be through work with established photographers or with young talents. For its first exhibition, the project brought together two photographers with very different backgrounds. Ida Ruchina (b. 1956), photographer, researcher, member of the Creative Union of Artists of Russia, author of four photo albums and dozens of personal exhibitions in Russia and abroad, and the cousin of billionaire Roman Abramovich, who was a governor of the region from 2000 until 2008. Ruchina devoted most of her life to the Arctic, including 20 years in Chukotka. Moscow-based Oleg Zotov (b. 1962) has been at the forefront of high-profile magazine photography in Russia for decades.
Zotov began his career in the Soviet era, working in the late 1980s as the in-house photographer at the legendary Leningrad Rock Club. That was the first institution allowed by the authorities to stage concerts featuring Russia’s underground rock stars movement. He later opened his own advertising agency and rose to photographing the ballets stars of the city’s famed Mariinsky Theatre, before moving to Moscow, where he covered fashion and celebrities for the the country’s leading magazines. For Zotov, the chance to travel to Chukotka in Russia’s Far East presented new challenges and an entirely new perspective. “People just don’t understand the scale of this region. Chukotka covers an area double the size of France or three times that of UK. The space is incredibly vast. We were offered the chance to take photos of reindeer at ‘the nearest grazing grounds’. What that meant in reality was taking a ferry from the airport of the main city, Anadyr, followed by a 90-minute flight, followed by a three-hour car drive and then a six-hour one in a jeep.”
Until now, Chukotka has largely been the subject of nature or reportage photography, but Zotov’s approach is different. The photographer took large amounts of lighting and studio equipment with him, which he used to create images with a dramatic, staged quality that matches the tales and legends of the region’s native people. “Whatever you shoot in Chukotka, it’s always going to have that epic, fairytale quality to it,” Zotov explains.
Although the project might look like a new approach for Zotov’s photography, the images in the exhibition draw extensively on the what he developed in his earlier work.
“If you look at the photographs of the people of Chukotka that we took, at the portraits and the staged images, you’ll see that it’s really not that far from fashion photography or from shooting the portrait of a celebrity or a star. For me, a star is simply somebody who possesses a lot of energy and with Ida we found those people and that energy in Chukotka,” Zotov said.
'Chukotka burst into my life at the turn of two centuries. Working for the Pole of Hope and Chukotka Red Cross charity foundations made it possible to learn firsthand the everyday life of ordinary people, to feel the inseparability of the connection between nature and man, which enables them to live in harmony with themselves and the world around them. That is why Chukotka occupies a prominent space in my oeuvre, this beautiful land of strong-willed people, unique culture and ancient traditions how to discover your true self,' says Ida Ruchina.
Zotov is keen to stress that the photographs currently on display at the Tretyakov, and which can also be seen on a virtual tour of the gallery, are just an introduction to his collaboration with Ruchina. A single exhibition could never do justice to Chukotka, he admits. The next exhibition in what is planned as a trilogy, will focus on the demanding and often heroic lives of the region’s inhabitants, while the final exhibition in the series will feature the new enterprises and undertakings that are seeking to realize Chukotka’s full potential.