Tomer Ifrah’s Moscow Metro reveals both the romantic and futuristic vision that was 1930s Stalinist Russia, an opulent glittering subterranean utopia, and the austere fluorescent-green of a post-Stalin otherworld
The grandiose architecture and Soviet history of Moscow’s transit system, built in the 1930s, serves as the dramatic backdrop for Ifrah’s visual narrative. This architecture was not simply decorative, but also ideological, aiming to display the glory of communist government and the USSR, to both its own citizens and to foreign guests.
Crowded subway stations, with their dimly lit film-noir interiors, have always offered a dynamic visual playground for photographers. Commuters, just trying to get from one place to another in the quickest way possible, rush past, taking little notice of a camera pointed at them. Lost in their own thoughts, those who ride the subway often appear distant, world-weary, or disaffected. Subway commuters, superficially at least, seem to differ very little from one another, regardless of wherein the world they are commuting.
Moscow Metro, however, offers us something more. Between 2012 and 2014, Ifrah, an Israeli photographer, made several trips to the Russian capital to document its metro stations. “The visual aspect of the Moscow metro was very impressive—the light, people’s style of dress, and the Soviet symbols that were everywhere,” he states.
Ifrah first noticed that introverted Muscovites do not talk much in their daily commutes. The only sounds heard inside the stations were people’s footsteps and the coming and going of trains. Still, on the few occasions when he approached passersby to ask them to pose for portraits, he found them willing participants. He was fascinated by the way people dressed; long fur coats and hats that echo a classic Russian elegance. At the same time, the Metro is a place visited by all levels of society, rich and poor, young and old. “When you walk into the metro, you see all of the classes, all of the people,” Ifrah states. “Even the rich people, because traffic is too difficult.” Ifrah feels his images are a small window into a different reality.
That reality, as seen through Ifrah’s lens and vision, suggests a cinematic otherworldly dreamscape. Photographing in medium format, Ifrah patiently waited for moments to materialize, all the while trying to remain invisible as scenes and people moved past his lens. Indefinable colors remain dark and softly muted against flashes of vivid, symbolic red. Perspective and composition are often slightly skewed, exploiting the svetloe budushchee (meaning “a radiant future”) that Stalin’s architects and artists were told to design.
Stalin directed his architects to design structures which would encourage citizens to look up, admiring the station’s art, as if they were looking up to admire the sun and—by extension—himself as a god. With their reflective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow metro stations have been likened to an “artificial underground sun.”
Compelling, graphically simple compositions and smart use of light, give strength to Ifrah’s images. Dimly lit and red-encased escalator stairs, devoid of people, lead passengers to a bright, chandelier-lit room, where all that can be seen, while ascending, is the canary-yellow ceiling above, ornately carved in white and what appears, from these moving stairs, as gold embellishments. Ifrah contrasts that ascension with the image of a man descending from a hazily lit gray outdoors to the dark tunnel of a subway. Angularly framed, the man is in silhouette, except for his face under-lit in red.
Like any photographer who attempts to remain inconspicuous, Ifrah is an equally adept voyeur. When he moves away from the opulent Soviet backdrops to the more austere monochromatic green of the subway platforms, he still manages to create compelling photographs and near-perfect compositions. One such image reveals a train rushing by and a woman in the foreground, on the platform, moving at seemingly the same speed, while two lovers, in the background and lit brightly from above, stand in both perfect oblivion and clarity, and kiss. Their only backdrop is the blur of the moving train, and the only distinct color is the red jacket the man wears.
Not merely a patient observer, Ifrah also actively engaged with his subjects. Some, glancing at Ifrah from a slight distance, make a brief connection with him; others, he has singled out and photographed. He gives his subjects space within the limitations of a rectangular photograph, and places them front and center. Each of these individuals faces the camera full on and stares directly into it. Solemn and self-possessed, their expressions give away little, yet they appear completely at ease with themselves, and with this stranger from another country who wishes only to photograph them. In so doing, he gains insights into and an appreciation for these people and their unique culture.
One of his Ifrah’s most striking images depicts people moving fluidly amid this cylindrical yet sumptuous subway station. Chandelier-lit, their blurry images echo through the reflective marble walls, the multiple arched entrances, and the ornately framed scenes of revolutionary and historical characters, as well as those of common Soviet workers, farmers, and students. The walls all incline inwards, and people, past and present, seem to merge, making the entire scene suggestive of falling down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. This image, like most of the others, remains timeless. This one, in particular, translates as a dreamy outtake, set in a luxurious subway station built of another time and country, constructed solely as a “palace for the people.” This is 21st century Russia, where the past is a constant, always informing the present and invoking the future.