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Russian Portrait Photographer Yuri Afanasiev

Modern Russian photography has not been as well recognized as it should have been for reasons incongruous with its rich cultural heritage and deeply refined aesthetics. The motherland gave us literary giants such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, where War & Peace and Crime & Punishment are often required reading for high school students all over the world.

Then there is its uniquely unbelievable music from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, of which the latter’s Piano Concerto No.2 is likened to “a surrogate for human achievement” in the novel The Fountainhead.

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So back in March, when we saw the image of a beautiful golden sunset interrupted by a girl floating on top of the water, we were mesmerized and not the least bit surprised by its Russian origins. We reached out to the photographer, and amidst his travel and work, he graciously accepted our interview. The interview was conducted in Russian translated by my brilliant friend Nika A.

iLHP: Hi Yuri, thank you for speaking with us today. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Yuri: Certainly. I was born in Moscow in mid 50s and photography is my main profession. I took my first shot when I was two and a half years old. It was a portrait of my happy parents leaning over my crib. My father put the camera with all the necessary presets in my hands. The photo may be was not outstandingly sharp, but it did have very unusual for that time diagonal composition and was taken from a very low point.

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iLHP: I think that’s the earliest I’ve heard of someone taking a photograph. Haha. Your father must have been into photography too. How did you yourself get started in photography? 

Yuri: To give you some background, when I was born, my country was under the rule of communists and was very isolated from the rest of the world. One of the problems during that time was complete absence of freedom of information. In high school, I had a friend whose parents were artists. It is at his home where I first saw a photo book called “Nothing Personal” by Richard Avedon, a gift to my friend’s father. This was the moment that defined my choice of a future career.

My first camera was a Smena 8m. I think for most of your readers, the name will not ring a bell. It was a single-lens 35mm camera with a firmly fixed 45mm lens and central shutter. I think any smartphone now is capable of making photos exceeding this camera in quality.

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SonyAlphaRumors.com’s Reader Photo of the Week of March 8, 2015. http://www.sonyalpharumors.com/this-week-sar-readers-photos-selection-36/

iLHP: Oh Smena! I’ve heard of that brand before. I came across it when I was interested in rangefinders. It is made by Lomo and you can find used copies of old Russian rangefinders on eBay I believe. Anyways, we first came across your photography when you won Sony Alpha Rumor’s weekly reader photo selection. Please talk to us about this image. It is breathtaking! 

Yuri: Sure. Every time I leave my hometown for any journey, I take my photo equipment with me. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I also take a model. This is how it was that time. I was looking for a model before the trip to do some test photo shoots with my Sony A6000 camera. I was lucky to find a unique model, Daria.

I planned to do all the shooting in motion. Daria, with her weight of mere 43 kilo (95 lbs) was ideal for that. This is why when my wife, who has been my photo assistant for the last 30 years, and I decided to go to Maldives, we took Daria with us as a model.

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After a 9-hour flight, we arrived to an eternal summer after a harsh Moscow winter. The day of the photo shoot flew by. It was the time when the sun was about to make its final dive into the ocean. I looked at the sky and understood that we are going to have a most wonderful sunset. The wind calmed down. The ocean water was calmer than the water in a pond.

I asked Daria to run several times along the shore, in the shallow water, jumping high out of it. The camera was set on manual. It was clear the sun would shine right into the camera lens. The model would constantly change her position, so using automatic presets would not be prudent. I made a test shoot. Carefully studied the histogram. Confirmed all the camera settings. And began shooting.

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iLHP: That sounds like a wonderful moment. Great photos often happen when all the stars align. How would you compare the styles of photography in the Russia and Europe or America? 

Yuri: Everything I am going to tell you next is just my personal opinion. I am sure there will be people who disagree with me. Here are a couple of stories.

One of my first official jobs was a job in the State Literature Museum. There I found a great and very unique photo archive. I had free access to glass negatives of the photos taken in the end of the Nineteenth to beginning of the Twentieth century. Available technology of that time defined the general style of the photos. Low sensitivity to light, long exposure time, and shallow depth of field – all of it did not leave much room for photographers to experiment. The style of the photos back then was practically the same in U.S., Europe, and Russia.

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Then Russia was excluded from the international photo culture for a long 70 years. During that period, the level of photography in Russia declined significantly. Photography is the type of art that requires good technology. The lower the technology level, the more primitive the photos are taken.

Fortunately, in the few years of post-communist freedom, modern Russian photography grew to the international level. I do not see a lot of difference in style now. At the same time, each country has its own artists taking the art of photography to the new level.

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iLHP: Very well put and I think a poignant historical understanding of the circumstances. Could you tell us what equipment you have in your camera bag?  

Yuri: First of all, I’ve been using a photo backpack for a long time now! The contents of my backpack changed many times over the course of my 40-year career.

Right now I use Sony products. These are mirrorless cameras, the Sony A7R, the Sony A7S, and the Sony A6000. My lenses include the Zeiss 16-35mm f/4; Zeiss 24-70mm f/4; Zeiss 70-200mm f/4; zeiss sony 85mm f/1.4; Zeiss 10-18mm f/4 and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I would like to add that I do not have any preferences as to some specific optics as compared to other brands. In my opinion, the story you are shooting defines the technical requirements for the lenses you use.

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iLHP: Thank you so much for this interview! We are big fans of your work. Do you have any parting advice for photographers starting out their career? 

Yuri: Thank you! Here is my advice. Put a lot of effort into studying the technical capabilities and limits of the camera you are working with. Try to make some original shots that no one ever did before you. Most importantly, enjoy what you are doing!

My websites: http://www.photoru.ru/

https://www.facebook.com/photoru.ru