Alexey Titarenko: City of Shadows

5th-18th January 2021


Titarenko is a Russian American artist born on the island of Vassilievsky in St Petersburg in 1962.

I was very interested in Alexey Titaranko’s interview which I watched on Prime Video’s ‘The Art of Photography, Artist Series, Season 1, Episode 1’, the interview spurred me on to research his series ‘City of Shadows’ further. My notes from series 1 can be found on the blog post link here.

I actually emailed Titarenko and asked permission to use three of his artworks for this blog post, he kindly said yes, and the images that I chose can be seen below.

Alexey Titaranko, City of Shadows (1991-94) © A Titaranko uploaded with kind permission from A Titaranko (permission 12.01.21) images source: (accessed 06.01.21)

I am fascinated with Alexey Titarenko’s work, especially the series titled, ‘City of Shadows‘ (1991-94). The black and white images are broken by an interlocking of haze grey shades or black smoke like formations, which give the sense of a dark and dominant depression. The feeling of unease that I get when viewing the images is quite other worldly because each image is intriguing, darkly beautiful, yet represents an even darker tale of Russia’s economy collapse, which changed lives for the worse. Should I look at the series and feel awe and wonder, when really I am looking at ghostly forms of despair which intertwine with their despondent environment, and whose haze of movement represents hardship and woe?

Not all images from the ‘City of Shadows’ are dramatic. Some are simple long exposure shots where the environment is seen as it is in reality, solid, but holds a ghostly figure, created through the technique. Sometimes subtle ‘ghosts’ try to blend into their surroundings, other times they haunt the composition, dominant, drawing our eyes into their flat 2D environment.

This series of work really does capture all that Titarenko wanted to say about the hardship and distress of the Russian people in a time that was dark and hard for them to live in.

Essay: City of Shadows

Titarenko’s ‘City of Shadows’ essay which is published in ‘The City is a Novel’ (Damiani, 2015), recounts his life and experiences living and working under an oppressive Communist regime, as well as the social and political context of his work which is influenced by these experiences. In his recounts he describes what he saw and what he lived through within the city of St. Petersburg.

In addition to discussing his life from childhood, influences and experiences as well as the ‘City of Shadows’, he writes about another series of work called, ‘Nomenklatura of Signs’ and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who ‘…was one of the writers who sparked his desire to discover this hidden facet of things… also instrumental in fostering my desire to know classical music’. Titarenko, City of Shadows.

I have bought a copy of the book ‘Nomenklatura of Signs’ and will review the work and the book at a later date. I will insert a link on this blog post once the review is written.

In his essay Titarenko writes,

One day in the winter of ‘91-‘92, I was hanging around on a street in the center of town, a place that had once been cheerful and teeming with people. Now, on a late afternoon, it was barely lit and devoid of cars. In the eerie silence, interrupted only by the banging of doors in shops with empty display windows, I could hardly recognize these people, seemingly lost men and women, soberly dressed, their faces filled with fatigue and despair, breathlessly carrying out the daily search for some basic food to make a meal. They were like shadows—shadows that had not been seen in Saint Petersburg since the war and the blockade. The scene impressed me strongly, and I felt the need to communicate this distress and suffering to others—to express it through my photographs, and to let myself be carried away by a leap of humanity towards these habitants of the city of my birth. Such ill-treatment of human beings, victims of an extraordinary injustice throughout the twentieth century—this metaphorical representation of “men-shadows”—the pillar of my new vision—must first be conveyed through photography. Thus I chose a very long exposure time.

Alexey Titarenko, City of Shadows, THE CITY IS A NOVEL (DAMIANI, 2015) alexey-titarenko.square


Influenced by Louis Daguerre’s long exposure photograph, View of Boulevard du Temple (1838), Titarenko began to research and experiment with the same long exposure technique. It was also at this time that Titarenko began to recollect the melody of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and associating this piece to his surroundings, he was moved emotionally.

When I listened to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 while viewing the ‘City of Shadows’ series, I was deeply moved. The emotions within me surged from high to low and as many times back and forth. As I viewed the Russian people lost in a bleak and hard world within Titarenko’s images, and knowing their background struggles within a harsh environment and time in which they lived in Russia, I felt over whelming sadness. I was also thinking in pictures in my head of Titarenko’s written descriptions, his words which gave such insightful information of places, people and their destitutions had become personal, as though I had experienced that which Titarenko had.

His essay is a powerful source, a diary and a historic reference, one that has enlightened me, so much so, that I have purchased two other books, ‘The Commissar Vanishes’ which looks at the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia, and ‘Russian Revolutionary Posters’ which looks at political and cultural posters in Russia, both books by David King. I will also review these books and add links on this blog post when the reviews have been completed.

Titarenko wrote in his essay,

This concerto soon became my best friend; I could listen to it all day, every day. As I walked in the city, I began to realize that Saint Petersburg again and again offered living illustrations for this music. The monotonous opening melody was that of despair, but also of anticipation. The way the piece was composed—a reminiscence of dramatic episodes of the composer’s adolescence, followed by baroque passages and moments throughout, with a certain drifting sensation of happiness—was decisive in the conception of several images. For example: old women hastily selling food and cigarettes to passers-by, trains, and people leaving for their dachas, as well as peaceful views of the rain falling on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main avenue. 

Alexey Titarenko, City of Shadows, THE CITY IS A NOVEL (DAMIANI, 2015) alexey-titarenko.square (accessed 06.02.21)

You can hear Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto below.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 2, Opus 126, written in 1966
Conductor: Seiji Ozawa Cello: Mstislav Rostropovich, uploaded to YouTube by Damon J.H.K. Feb 2017
(accessed 12.02.2021)

Titarenko’s Essay ‘City of Shadows’

Darkroom Post-processing Techniques

All of Titarenko’s photos are printed by hand in his darkroom allowing him to take much more control of his printed work. He uses the technique of bleaching and toning the negatives. In his interview on Prime’s, The Art of Photography, Artist Series 1, I discovered that he manipulates his images with chemicals such as the silver reducer process and sepia toner. Using these processes he lightens and darkens areas to emphasise them more.

The video below is an interview with Alexey Titarenko where we are able to see more of his images while listening to him discuss his life and work.


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