"Motherland,” the title of a photograph taken by Pavel Wolberg, now on display at the Negev Museum of Art, is a striking image of a commemorative statue at the Piskarevsky Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
The cemetery is both a burial site and memorial to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.
The statue – a piece of monumental sculpture – is imposing and stately and was the site of military ceremonies held in Wolberg’s youth.
“Rodina Mat / Motherland,” the title of the exhibition and of the monument, is also a reference to Mother Russia, an appellation that shows how Russians perceive their country and homeland.
The image of the female figure, with arms outstretched offering a floral wreath, exudes a kind of solemn grandeur and sets the tone for the exhibit. It is almost as if this mother figure is presiding over the museum’s top floor, the main focus of the exhibition.
“Rodina Mat / Motherland” presents a modest selection of large-format, black-and-white works culled from Wolberg’s back catalogue and what is considered to be a personal project. The exhibit, curated by the museum’s director, Dr. Dalia Manor, ranges over the two floors.
Wolberg was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1966 in what was then the Soviet Union. He came to Israel with his mother and grandmother when he was seven. The family settled in Beersheba.
Traveling from the imperial splendor of the Russian city to live in the Negev made an impression on Wolberg as a child.
“It was at the time of the Yom Kippur War, and there were images of Beersheba and the desert on our television screens in Russia. It was what I expected. Pretty, it wasn’t,” he said.
Wolberg studied at the Camera Obscura School of Art in Tel Aviv, graduating in 1994. He worked as a photojournalist – a profession he remained in till about 2010 – taking shots for Israeli and international publications, while also exhibiting his work in museums and galleries.
He built up a good reputation, essentially working in the tradition of Magnum photographers such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and following in the footsteps of Israel Prize laureate Micha Bar-Am.
Cartier-Bresson coined what is known as the “decisive moment” in photography, something he referred to as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
For Wolberg, this “moment” translated into spontaneous, gritty scenes from Israel’s political, social and religious landscape and also involved him working in and out of the West Bank and Gaza.
“I think it influenced my work, although it is not always important for press photography. The decisive moment is symbolic, gestural, and it can be difficult to plan. Many media outlets want something more immediate,” he said.
Situated on the ground floor of the museum are several excellent shots of Wolberg’s press photography, including photographs of religious Jews in the settlement of Havat Maon and Israeli soldiers at rest in a field close to the Gaza border.
Located on the upper floor is the core of the exhibition, featuring Wolberg’s “personal project,” composed of photographs shot in Kiev, Tbilisi, St. Petersburg and Beersheba.
Also on display is an installation similarly connected to Wolberg’s upbringing and some landscape photography.
“The project started about five years ago. I was doing some work for the European Press Agency and traveling through Georgia and Ukraine. Traveling through those countries led me to St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. Around that time I began losing interest in press photography and started to make photographs that were more personal,” said Wolberg.
“I had a loosely formed idea and knew what images I would need and that they should be linked to my past and my identity. The Motherland statue is a good example because it was important to me as a kid. My mother and grandmother both survived the Siege of Leningrad, and my father was in the Red Army. In the Soviet Union such statues could seem like religious objects,” he continued.
In the catalogue text Manor refers to Wolberg as a “photographer/ hunter,” a phrase that in the context of Wolberg’s former role as a press photographer suggests pursuit, someone who roams and forages – in essence, a seeker of images.
Wolberg’s travels through the former Soviet Union and the resulting images, combined with the photographs from Beersheba, are not exhibited with the intention of telling a story or revealing a narrative. Rather, the viewer is presented with snapshots and glimpses of people and places, some with resonance for Wolberg, others that were the result of random encounters.
Stark comparisons and contrasts are seen in images of desert and snow-filled landscapes.
Wolberg shoots the lone figure of a Beduin selling goats at a market set against the rugged desert terrain, and the grandeur of the Peterhof Gardens under a cover of snow.
His use of perspective reveals the empty expansiveness of the desert. St. Petersburg has a vastness of its own, reflected in images of desolate urban locales peopled with solitary figures and derelict buildings.
The photographs of landscape and cityscape, many of which show cold and impersonal scenes, are offset by the warmth and intimacy seen in the indoor shots of Wolberg’s family and close family friends from his first years in St. Petersburg.
“I remembered them from my childhood. Most were friends of my mother and I saw them a lot. That’s why I went to visit them. I felt the need to see them while it was still possible,” he said.
The shots of Wolberg’s immediate family and many of the images from Beersheba are in black and white, contrasting with many of the color photographs shot in Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.
Wolberg’s excursions through these countries, as well as being an exploration of his identity, might also have triggered questions as to what it is today to be Russian. A reading of some of the photographs on display suggests a time line deeply connected to Russian history.
The aforementioned image of the Peterhof Gardens, a photograph of the much loved author Alexander Pushkin and the decorative plates in the installation allude to Imperial Russia and possibly to the Imperial Porcelain Factory located in St. Petersburg and patronized by the Romanov czars.
A photograph showing an outsized, skewed sculpture of Vladimir Lenin’s head in front of some office blocks, and another of a Red Army commander on a dilapidated building, show figures that appear like detritus in the modern city – bizarre leftovers of the Soviet regime.
Elsewhere, there are hard-hitting shots of political turmoil in Ukraine and photographs of city life that suggest countries are still coming to terms with the political and social upheavals that have taken place since glasnost and the Gorbachev era.
The images skirt across three time periods of Russian history, all of which played some part in the photographer’s youth. Wolberg is forthcoming about his connection to his former country.
“When I first went back, I felt this is the place I really know. I have many memories from Russia and feel I have a stronger connection to Russia than Israel. This is part of the idea behind the exhibition, how people feel when they are displaced,” he said.
The exhibition shows a small selection of photographs from Wolberg’s travels. It’s possible it might be part of an ongoing project. The exhibition runs until April 30. For more information: www.negev-museum.org.il/index- _e.php