Stagnant photos from a stagnant world

Beautiful but boring, a less kind critic might say, but there are mysterious gems tucked into the aloof exhibition at Fotografiska of work by Inta Ruka, Latvia's most famous photographer, writes Ann Törnkvist.

Stagnant photos from a stagnant world

There should be a warning sign upon entering Fotografiska’s exhibition of images by Inta Ruka (1958-):

Eye contact does not guarantee intimacy.

Such a warning sign would need a bit of dissecting though. For example, does art demand intimacy? Of course not. Art demands nothing. Even quality is subjective. Yet Fotografiska has chosen to highlight the unprecedented access that Ruka got to a village near the Russian border in the 1980s. That she got to know the villagers, and they her. That she returned. That there was respect, a professional intimacy.

The result, however, regardless of its beauty, is a detached aloofness. The lighting is impeccable (you can’t fail with sidelighting in dark houses), as is the composition. Impeccable. Arresting, even. But not intimate.

A few images stand out. An elderly woman standing up in front of a TV. It is unclear, as she has her back to us, if she’s watching the flicker or watching her husband, tucked near invisibly into the frame’s right hand corner, watching the flicker. We could ask Ruka, of course, what she thinks. She’s talked with all her portrait subects. We could ask if the woman is watching the TV or her husband (if it is indeed her husband)? But who cares? It’s the mystery that is beguiling. Yet that one portrait is one of only a few others in the exhibition that contains that kind of narrative question marks.

Another example where the viewer wants to know more: In one frame a boy clamps his dirty hand to his forehead. Here again, the viewer stops to ask what on earth is going on. There’s also a man laughing to the far right of the frame while a dog cowers on the floor far to the left. Why the space? Why the laughter?

IN PICTURES: See more from the exhibition

The straight-on photographs, the ones taken in a classic look-into-the-camera way, outnumber these frozen moments, however. This could be the work of the Fotografiska curator, rather than Ruka, but regardless, the end result is a sort of stagnation.

But perhaps visual stagnation in a village seemingly frozen in time – stagnant – is appropriate.

Ann Törnkvist

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Inta Rukas “You and me” will show at Fotografiska in Stockholm until December 8th, 2013. The exhibition also contains a documentary about her, produced by Swedish filmmaker Maud Nycander. A second Nycander documentary, shot by famous Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk, follows one of Ruka’s portrait subjects – Daina.

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