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Boris Smelov’s St. Petersburg photos


Boris Smelov’s photography spans from 1970s to 1990s within St. Petersburg’s culture. Connected to St. Petersburg, dedicated to St. Petersburg, defined by St. Petersburg. There are great residents of Leningrad, yet there are great residents of St. Petersburg. And Smelov is at the top of the list. In Soviet days, filming the city from atop tall buildings or rooftops was not a trend. Spies did that and such pictures always created suspicion. Maybe thats the reason why Smelov filmed from these angles - from top to bottom, to the side, diagonally. An unusual look at the city. Which even got its own name - Smelov’s angle.


Smelov was a real St. Petersburg man. The most St. Petersburg photographer of all. He created his own version of the city, which he decided to show for the first time in 1975. Smelov’s exhibition at Vyborg’s House of Culture stood for just one night and was scandalously dismantled in the morning - party members literally tore the photos off the walls. And today, 20 years since Smelov passed away, his photos are displayed at the Hermitage, at the Eastern Wing of the Headquarters.

Yuriy Molodkovets, head photographer of the State Hermitage: «Many say that Smelov took pictures against all odds. For instance, defying technical specs of a camera, like exposition. He flipped angles. Here’ for instance, on the picture with the boat».

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: «This picture is a mystery to me, because there are so many technical flaws here, and yet it sends shivers up my spine. Why did he take pictures like that - from top to bottom and diagonally?»

Yuriy Molodkovets, head photographer of the State Hermitage: « I need to answer that?».

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: «Yes!».

Yuriy Molodkovets, head photographer of the State Hermitage: ««I don’t know!». 

And in fact no-one knows why exactly Smelov’s St. Petersburg was a City - with a capital C. Boris loved St. Petersburg, couldn’t imagine himself without it. Maybe the answer is there. Or maybe because he always opted for the marginal state in his shots - when night turned into day, or when the very first autumn snow fell.

Smelov was a regular at Saigon, where he met one of the future Mitki - Dmitriy Shagin. He brought Boris to his home and introduced him to his mother - artist Natalya Zhilina. The photographer and the artist quickly fell for each other, so Mitya got himself a great stepfather, while Boris got himself a talented apprentice - his stepdaughter Maria

Maria Snigirevskaya, Boris Smelov’s stepdadghter, photographer: «Zhilina had a massive influence, they talked about their works all the time. When he came around, he was already a great artist, a genius artist - when he met my mum. My brother introduced him as such - «mum, this is a genius artist». And mum quickly married him. We only had painters in our circle, and suddenly a genius photographer appeared. Mum got into photography back then, and I followed - thought about painting at first, and then Boris came around. We influenced one another»

But nothing influenced Smelov as much as St. Petersburg. His series of photos of the Letniy Sad is one of the strongest art statements about the city of the late twentieth century. The Apollo’s head with spider on his cheek and raindrop on his nose. The expressive Seneca. Statues wrapped in plastic. Smelov captured the very Letniy Sad for centuries, the old one, the real one, the one that so many still remember.

Smelov created the so-called «St. Petersburg photograph», but it was never printed, not in Soviet magazines nor for the official exhibitions. After the crushed exhibit of 1975, the next one only took place in 1990-s, at Borey gallery on Liteyniy prospekt. At this place which is legendary for St. Petersburg’s informal art, we met Alexander Kitaev, photographer and Smelov’s associate. Alexander knows more than anyone what Smelov has given to St. Petersburg and what the city gave him back.

Alexander Kitaev, photographer: «What could St. Petersburg give him? It gave him the very self, opened up, let him photograph as no one else could. That’s why St. Petersburg chose him. And I think he knew that and used it well. I don’t mean to sound mysterious, but I had seen some pictures in my dreams, and years after I suddenly saw them with my own eyes».

That is what Smelov himself said about his «St. Petersburg photographs». The man who gave St. Petersburg to the world. The real St. Petersburg. He have been strolling its streets for hours at night just to see that shot from his dream. But on January 18th 1988 he didn’t make it back home, fell asleep on Bolshoy prospekt of Vasilyevskiy Island, somewhere between a chapel and a pub, and never woke up.