“Is OK. I speak English. Not very well, but we will be fine. We will talk photography.”

Volodya - Volyn Studio. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1997
Volodya – Volyn Studio. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1997

“Hey, Volodya, take care of this American lady,” Borys hollered down the hall.  A gangly young man peered around the corner.  Grunting to Borys in a “Ja, ja,” but smiling at me like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a young man took my hand and guided me down and around into a long narrow room soaked with the smell of chemicals.  “Is OK.  I speak English.  Not very well, but we will be fine. We will be friends.  We will talk photography.” Pointing to the enlargers, he said, “These are old Russian machines.  Not bad.  Nothing like you have in America, I bet.”

Using Soviet equipment and old paper was fine with me.  My imagination took over.  I was working in Paris in the ‘30s.  I was a dissident in the Soviet Ukraine.  I was making photos like Margaret Bourke White, Cartier-Bresson, Roman Vishniac, or Alexander Rodchenko . The noxious chemicals were a potent perfume.  Pouring ready-made chemical concoctions out of tall glass bottles, Volodya set up the developer, the bath, and the fixer.  “Sorry, the chemicals are left over from Soviet times, too.  Ha!  I don’t even know how old they are.  But, they work…kind of.  The paper’s the same. I mean, it is very old. Not good like that Agfa stuff.”

A few hours later, Borys wandered back into the darkroom.  “Woahhh!  Now, this is pretty good.  How about dodging the face?  … right here,” he said pointing to the paper.  “Volodya, next time give American lady Warsaw paper.  It’s better,” he ordered.  “But, that’s enough for now, don’t you think?  Volodya, clean up this stuff and call everyone! No, call everyone and then clean up.  Go get the vodka.  The good stuff.  Don’t forget the bread and the salo.  The garlic is in the cupboard.”

The studio wasn’t easy to find.  The Volyn Studio was housed in a colorless building hidden from the government, once Soviet now Ukrainian.  Dark, except for the people it attracted. 

Borys, a greying 60 year old man, ran his film studio largely unnoticed by Soviet authorities who were suspicious of nationalist Ukrainian art.  Borys recruited Ukrainian artists who made films on life, religion, and Bohemian art in Ukraine. He hid his studio in Lutsk, a small chunk of the detritus of a fallen empire.  In spring 1998, seven years after Ukrainian independence, Lutsk was recovering from the smell of mud and wet concrete after a harsh winter.

Volyn Studio was a place where extraordinary people hung out and looked for like-minded people to talk to, to create with, and maybe discuss new ideas.  A photography and cinematography center, it served mostly as a place to connect with thinkers, writers, poets, and artists.  As in Soviet days, it was a center for nationalistic gatherings, a place to discuss life in Ukraine.  It seemed to me to be a spiritual place.  With lots of vodka, cigarettes and bad coffee.

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