Saint-Petersburg. A Glance from Below
Vadim Levin, Igor Smolnikov, Roman Zemlyachev
From June, 7, to August, 19, Art of Foto gallery will hold an exhibition «Saint-Petersburg. A Glance from Below». It is a second part of the «project-triptych», which demonstrates three
different points of view on the city, three self-sufficient as well as complimentary
projections, which «develop» together a three-dimensional image of the city life, its history
The first part of the project was dedicated to the roofs of Saint-Petersburg (the exhibition
«Saint-Petersburg. A Glance from above» was held in Art of Foto in the summer 2016).
The final part will be on the entrances of the city (the exposition «Saint-Petersburg. A Glance from the inside» is being prepared to open in 2019). But in what regards the actual
exposition, which links together all three parts, it represents one more angle, one more
point of view on the city space — from the depth of well-type courtyards, from mysterious
world of Saint-Petersburg’s backstreets.
One can find well-type courtyards in other cities of the world as well, but so many of them
are located only in Saint-Petersburg. This is why, and it is not a coincidence, that a welltype
courtyard is considered one of the symbols of our city (together with palaces, canals,
bridges and fountains). To be honest, compared to splendid palaces, granite quays and
swing bridges, those well-type courtyards symbolize another Saint-Petersburg, not the
official, sightseeing one, but hidden and informal. So, well-type courtyards are a kind of
city’s inside. They have another purpose, another sense and even another geometry.
While gala Saint-Petersburg is a horizontal line following the «sky line», well-type
courtyards are something else, in particular – vertical, striving to reach the sky spaces,
initially designed not for contemplation, but for everyday «rough», often tough and
The history of inside courtyards is tightly linked to the time when so-called «revenue
houses» (buildings including apartments for rent) appeared in Saint-Petersburg. These
colossal buildings, that have their majestic facades open onto the streets and prospects,
hide labyrinths of well-type courtyards. Some time ago different kinds of supply closets,
warehouses with coal and firewood, cesspools were located here. Also such courtyards
were an entrance for service stairs which were used by not-so-reach residents of upper
floors as well as servants. The narrowest well-type courtyards could also be used as a
kind of air trunk.
The rise in construction of revenue houses took place in Saint-Petersburg in XIX - XX
centuries, and after that there exists this unspoken division of «parade city» – with its
squares, quays and avenues – and «hidden city» of backstreets, and after the year 1917 –
the city of communal flats, which had their windows open onto numerous well-type
courtyards. The study of semantics of those spaces, their connection to the city and its
history as well as photography of the most «powerful» according to a number of criteria
(wall texture, the height of the courtyard and its geometry, illumination etc) well-type
courtyards – that’s what the authors of the exposition, photographs Vadim Levin, Igor
Smolnikov and Roman Zemlyachev were occupied with lately.
«We were exploring, choosing, making photographs of well-type courtyards of Saint-
Petersburg during different periods in autumn and spring for three or four weeks, — says
Roman Zemlyachev, one of the authors of the exposition, — We needed some kind of
regime light, so we had to shoot in the morning or in the evening, before the twilight. The
shooting took place on a long exposure, about 40 minutes, and we could only make two or
three frames during one shooting. It’s interesting that only after, during printing, we had to
reject several frames because there was underground under some of our courtyards and
vibration, completely imperceptible for a man, affected the quality of our images».
«When working on this series we were feeling very vividly, that every courtyard not only
has its own history, but also its own character. Personally I remember two shootings —
continues the photograph — first is a suspended courtyard on Kirochnaya street (we are
speaking here about the revenue house of Julian Bak, built in 1905 and located on
Kirochnaya, 24 — com. by Art of Foto). There are roofed galleries hanging over this
courtyard. In night-time they are enlightened by their windows and it looks fantastically. I
will not mention the address of another courtyard, because when we tried to shoot there,
guards of the theatre located in the courtyard almost attacked us. Luckily, the victory was
ours — we managed to make a photograph».
Courtyards of Saint-Petersburg are involved in a number of mysterious stories. In ancient
times wells, that were used for finding potable water, were believed to be a kind of
«portals» connecting the world of men with a world of spirits, and likewise today well-type
courtyards can be regarded as pillars, supporting the connection between the past and the
future of our city. Photographs, presented on the exposition «Saint-Petersburg. A Glance from Below», clearly have a sense of succession between the present and the past, the
connection between impermanence and immortal. The houses, built more than a century
ago, their cracked walls against the genuine background of Saint-Petersburg’s sky, the
geometry of roof lines, the game of light coming out the windows — all those details and
forms help one open for himself a brand new beauty of the city, hidden from tourists.
The exposition includes 20 photographs, shoot on large-size cameras, which represent
black and white barytic prints from 6 x 12 cm and 8 x 10 inches negatives. All photographs
were developed manually on a silver-gelatin paper in Art of Foto laboratory.
Text: Daniil Shiryaev