At the very end of Igor Posner’s new book Past Perfect Continuous, there is a single sentence of background: The photographs in this book were taken between 2006 and 2009 upon my return to St. Petersburg, a place of my birth (then Leningrad), for the first time in 14 years. The rest of the monograph is steeped in austere silence. It contains no introduction; the photographs have no titles or dates. The images shun explanations and linear narrative sequence—but the one sentence about returning is enough.
After years of absence, an immigrant’s homecoming is an exercise in spectral doubleness. Returning to a city where one grew up, one understands the new order of things but fails to belong to it. Immersed in the here and now, one holds allegiances only to the past. At night, when the city’s sidewalks give off a speckled glow, the immigrant who walks them morphs into an apparition.
It is this brand of doubleness that I think informs Past Perfect Continuous. The book’s black-and-white photographs—grainy, often deliberately blurred, disjunctive, obscure—testify to a gaze that feels a sense of belonging only to memory and evanescence, which is to say, as the title implies, to time itself.
The photographs in Posner’s finely printed volume banish contemporary Russia from St. Petersburg’s streets; there are no cellphones, no signs of new-fangled capitalism, billboards or flashy cars. Each exposure transports the former capital into a state of timelessness, as if the artist was resisting the present moment, the quotidian instants that cover up murkier, deeper, more elusive strata of perception.
Posner’s St. Petersburg, seen through the double perspective of a returnee, is a product of nocturnal wanderings among old, Dostoevskian neighborhoods with occasional dives into the bars where drinkers hold fast their cigarettes and pints. The barflies’ uneasy expressions are washed away by the camera’s blur and long exposure. And they too are spectral.
The aesthetic is reminiscent of Daido Moriyama’s rough, obscure, out of focus are-bure-bokeh vernacular born on the streets of Tokyo, but Posner, unlike Moriyama, is no provocateur. His gaze doesn’t shock; it distills a private transcendence, one that relies on memory for its thrust. The artist’s longing to transcend the now coheres in the streaks of nocturnal sky, in the reflections of the flash bouncing against the snow, in the crumbling facades, in the murky interiors of Soviet communal flats, in photographs of old photos and frozen cinema frames. The past leers from everywhere. Ruins abound. Men buy their eternal drink at the kiosks. A trashed TV set sits on the stairwell. At night, on the playground, the rocket-shaped slide, ubiquitous in the USSR, points its fuselage into a communist future that never arrived.
Posner’s book charts an uncanny urban topography, an alternate universe born from a private dialogue with the city. Take the image of the luminous threads of snow falling at night by the entrance of an old-style apartment building. The gates are flung open. The lit windows are slightly out of focus. Antennas and barren branches reach towards the dark lead of the sky. Bright strings of snow keep time as they fall. The tableau is steeped in unreality. The moment of returning, whose impossibility is its very allure, has become a phantasmagoria.
Posner found his elusive visual style on the streets of Los Angeles and Tijuana and imported it to St. Petersburg. But St. Petersburg, unlike L.A., lives in past tense, forever recollecting its ghosts. At the meeting point between an off-kilter artistic inflection born in the States and a topsy-turvy metropolis lauded by writers as the most unreal of cities, Posner uncovers his own cityscape of the mind. Each image is like a memory of that city recalled in a dream, connected to others through subterranean correspondences.
Discussing the difference between memories and photographs, the late John Berger once wrote that “whereas remembered images are the residue of continuous experience, a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant.” Posner turns this formula on its head. What we get are residues, images of traces left on the mind, the look of things after we close our eyes and allow them to dissolve. Shunning the tyranny of focus that isolates the visible, the photographs, like St. Petersburg itself, are all liquid. The city is never allowed to fully adhere to the film, precluded by a subjectivity that wrestles with it, contorts it, and, in the process, liquefies it into a smear. The result of such poetics of dislocation is a new home beyond borders, perfect and continuous.
Lev Feigin is a Philadelphia writer, flâneur and, occasionally, photographer. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center and is an alumnus of The Writers Institute at the Graduate Center.
Past Perfect Continuous
By Igor Posner
Published by Red Hook Editions
Hardback/Clothbound with dust jacket
17 x 23 cm (6.7 x 9 in.)