Polaroids from St. Petersburg

Not all unforgettable journeys start with the best impact. This is known to travelers and photographers – especially the ones working with Polaroid. In this immediate world, disappointment can have a happy ending. In his trip to Saint Petersburg, Daniel Blaufuks’ camera landed in an "endless city" filled with "empty buildings," which, three weeks later, had become a different town – a place he needed to return to. But, before that could happen, he had to move to an old hotel next to the train station. Rules number one and two: without style it is not worth leaving home. Daniel Blaufuks is always photographing and travels a lot.

Uma Viagem a São Petersburgo occurred in sequence of an invitation by the organization of the Encontros de Fotografia in Coimbra, in 1998 (travel in August, exhibition and book with the same title in November of the same year). Blaufuks had no expectations, and on arrival he received even less.

Saint Petersburg was, to start with, the "gloomy airport," the "cement blocks," the "endless corridor in the hotel that had so many rooms and so little people." To cut it short: Saint Petersburg still had Leningrad all over, with all its Soviet props, "the monuments of a past revolution," the radio set glued to the wall of the hotel room "looked more for being heard than to listen to," wrote the photographer in the catalogue. Fortunately, this was a wrong impression. Daniel Blaufuks got to know Saint Petersburg when "the Soviet flag served only to cover the taxi’s trunk, now that is has no other use." What was there to uncover - "the architecture, the scale, the History," the photographer remembers – is much older than Leningrad (the name Saint Petersburg received in 1924). The charm of the town of Peter, the Great – the Czar who paid for human monsters, preserved in vinegar or vodka in the “art chamber” – can still be seen afloat above the canals. As if the Socialist concrete had never existed. In 1998, Blaufuks was blessed with the experience of a summer with few tourists. It is away from the crowds that one makes the most of the overwhelming richness of the Hermitage, one of the greatest museums in the world and the only one where it is said one may experience all. "It has everything!" one imagines in just one day of visiting: paintings on top of paintings, statues shoving other statues – and the (dimly lit) rooms, the ceilings, the pavements, the windows that always give a different view over the channel.

Nevertheless, that is not what fills the travels of Daniel Blaufuks. "The best of traveling is not going here and there. It is having nothing to see." The nothing can be crossed. It is that absence that fascinates Daniel Blaufuks in North America: an anonymous landscape, with no specific inscription or, to the same effect, with an excess of recognition, an index to what is already seen before having been seen for the first time. Blaufuks’ photographs show that "America" is everywhere. Or, on the contrary? "America" comes from everywhere, and also from Russia. He writes in his diary: "Saint Petersburg looks like a crossing between Old Europe with its palaces and canals and America with its apartment blocks, big automobiles, wide avenues and mass produced products." Like in the USA, Blaufuks’ Russian travels were seen through the eyes of the cinema. Saint Petersburg is, for example, Eisenstein’s October. Or something even stronger, a journey through devastation, maybe in the huge lake Ladoga in search of the Valaam archipelago and the Khizi island: "We went for a cruise in the northern islands. Unbearable. Like a Tarkovski for three days... I wanted to see the wooden churches, with the onion-style roofs. On each island we stopped there was a woman playing the fiddle." And the boat, terrible, with waitresses named Olga or Lena who wore invisible skirts and see-through blouses. "There was a megaphone that informed the day’s schedule, in Russian. Breakfast at 8:15h." On board there was a bar where you could listen to only two tapes: one of them by Sting ("I hope the Russians love their children too") "and the other something Russian, unbearable." It is superfluous to ask the name of the bar (Bar Tolstoy.) "And it never stopped raining...".

By now Daniel Blaufuks also learned that "the worst things in traveling can make for the best of memories: it is what we end up retelling." The northern cruise ended in a desperate train escape, returning to Saint Petersburg via Petrozavodsk (that’s where they sent the exiled). "We didn’t say anything to anybody in the ship, because they only spoke Russian. They probably still think we fell overboard." After the last Polaroid, the photographer has been conquered by the town and the journey ends like all others with a futile but sincere promise: "We’ll meet again in Saint Petersburg".