The Fabulous Russian Photographer Who Hid Her Art in the Attic - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Fabulous Russian Photographer Who Hid Her Art in the Attic

The Fabulous Russian Photographer Who Hid Her Art in the Attic

By Dan Peleschuk


Masha Ivashintsova’s photos never saw the light of day — until her daughter started cleaning the attic.

By Dan Peleschuk

As far as housecleaning goes, Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan got more than she bargained for. What began as an otherwise routine renovation of her St. Petersburg home last year led to the discovery of a lifetime. Rummaging through the attic with her husband, Ivashintsova-Melkumyan found a trove of some 30,000 negatives and undeveloped photographs belonging to her late mother, Masha Ivashintsova.

Asya knew her mother had been plugged into the city’s Soviet-era artistic community, and she was always taking pictures. “For her,” Asya says, “it was a natural process that was intertwined with her life.” In images spanning four decades, Ivashintsova captured the monotony, humor and quiet tragedy of everyday life under communism. More than just street photography, her work is clearly colored by a deep interest in her subjects. “She has a really humane language,” says Anna Shpakova, a veteran photo editor in Moscow.


But few ever saw Ivashintsova’s photographs. She believed she was eclipsed by the formidable creative men in her life, and so she squirreled away her invaluable visual records of Soviet life. Victim of a tyrannical system that had targeted so many of her compatriots, Ivashintsova was committed to a series of mental hospitals, robbed of the opportunity to fully realize her art.

Now, nearly two decades after her mother’s death in 2000, Asya is presenting her uniquely captivating work to the world. And, albeit posthumously, Ivashintsova may finally be receiving the recognition as a female Soviet photographer — of which there were precious few — she has long deserved. 


Love and longing were major themes in Masha Ivashintsova’s life. Among her partners was renowned Soviet photographer Boris Smelov. Here, she’s pictured with Smelov in her mother’s apartment in 1974, the year she and Smelvo met. Smelov later gifted the Leica camera shown — one of the most popular at the time — to Ivashintsova. She used it frequently in subsequent years.


Although much of Ivashintsova’s work focused on her native Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was formerly known, the Soviet Union’s open borders with member republics meant citizens could travel to distant and diverse locales. In 1976, Ivashintsova and her daughter, Asya, visited near Lake Sevan, in Armenia, where Ivashintsova photographed this elderly woman who welcomed mother and daughter into her home and offered them fresh bread.


Many of Ivashintsova’s subjects, such as these two men and a boy, photographed in the western Russian region of Pskov in 1976, were strangers she met throughout her life taking pictures of ordinary people. “What I really understood about my mother,” Asya says, “is that it was not possible for her not to take photographs.”


Much of Ivashintsova’s life was wracked with turmoil, stemming in large part from her personal relationships — such as that with linguist Melvar Melkumyan, her ex-husband and Asya’s father. “He tortured me with his will, locked me up, tried to break me with his words. I hated him,” she wrote in her diaries, which were recovered alongside the negatives. “But due to my inner helplessness I could not take a step without him.”


St. Petersburg enjoys a rich cultural history as the former seat of Russian imperial power and as the country’s window on Europe. Here, Ivashintsova captures the city in 1979, in the throes of a brisk northern winter, when its beauty is shrouded in grayness.


Something of an introvert, Ivashintsova rarely turned the lens on herself. When she did, such as in this 1976 self-portrait, her eyes betrayed the sadness that permeated her life. Unable or unwilling to hold down a job, she was admitted to a series of mental hospitals — part of heavy-handed Soviet policy cracking down on unemployment.


Even a quick glance at her work reveals that Ivashintsova photographed with purpose, says Anna Shpakova, a Moscow photo editor: “Her passion is astonishing.”


The abundance of Caucasian culture, with its flavorful food and legendary hospitality, deeply impressed Ivashintsova. The southernmost Soviet republics of Georgia — a few of its citizens are pictured in this 1989 photo — and Armenia, her ex-husband Melkumyan’s homeland, stood in stark contrast to Leningrad’s often dark and uninviting climate.


Although sometimes hurt by people’s actions, Ivashintsova built a quiet connection with her subjects. “She could see their essence,” Asya says, ”and she deeply admired and respected others.”


With its rigid rule, clumsy command economy and broken bureaucracy, the Soviet Union made daily life difficult. After its collapse in 1991, the absurdities and misfortunes that plagued people’s lives lingered well into the 1990s — and can be felt even today.


Ivashintsova’s photography — “lyrical, and at the same time tragic,” says Shpakova — captures the essence of Soviet life as it was experienced by a wide variety of people, such as these young boys in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains in 1976.


A central part of Soviet life, as well as a mechanism to cope with difficult living conditions, was to immerse oneself with close friends and family at home. Kitchen conversations became a common and trusted way to vent discontent with the system.


To Asya, this 1978 photograph of Marta, the family dog, reflects her mother’s life as a lone soul surrounded by “beautiful emptiness.”


Asya, pictured here in 1978, held her mother in her arms as she died from cancer in 2000, at age 58. Today, Asya’s mission is to reveal Ivashintsova’s work to the wider world in the hope it will “echo in the souls of many.”


But what gave Ivashintsova her tendency to stash away her photographs, and what would she say about her newfound fame? “Probably,” Asya says, “my mother would feel perplexed, as she never considered her art as something worthy of attention.”


Most photography fans would likely disagree. Just months after the publication of her photos, Ivashintsova is already being compared to Vivian Maier, a talented American street photographer whose star power was discovered only after her death in 2009.

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