The quest to find Leonid Lubianitsky's exhibit, "People," is confusing but ultimately fulfilling. On display in the Harriman Institute, the dazzling array of this Russian photographer's black-and-white portraits of cultural figures such as playwright Arthur Miller and musician Duke Ellington shake us out of our daily monotony and require much more than a passing glance. Although the choice of exhibition space, a mundane office area on the 12th floor of SIPA, seems as if it might be disruptive to the overall experience, this place of quotidian human interaction complements the humanizing impulse behind Lubianitsky's work. It also strikes a stark contrast to the more sterile typical gallery space. Harriman staff members work diligently alongside the striking portraits, perhaps stopping to gaze at the image of a young Baryshnikov as they cross the office for a cup of coffee. In an interview, Lubianitsky explained that his greatest challenge is to capture the dynamism of his subjects. "'People photography' is most difficult because of the threat of people looking like still lives," he said. To capture a person requires, in Lubianitsky's words, "spiritual communications" at the subliminal level. "Every person on this earth is photogenic. It is the role of the photographer to present it. It is in the substance of the person. You have to feel it. I try to make the sitter a collaborator in the process," he explained. True to his word, Lubianitsky truly seems to capture the beauty of the soul of his subjects. The curator of the exhibit, Regina Khidekel, is also the founder and executive director of the Russian American Cultural Center, an organization that represents the Russian-speaking community and its artists with gallery exhibitions and readings. She chose Baryshnikov's portrait as the central image (both on the Web site and the exhibition literature) to represent the exhibit because he embodies the Russian American artist's experience. Emphasizing the value of authenticity, she said of Lubianitsky's work: "It is as if he can see their souls." Unlike many professional photographers who work entirely with digital cameras, Lubianitsky continues to develop his own work in the darkroom, often spending four hours printing a negative. He feels digital photography to "still be in its embryonic stages." The rich tones of the gelatin silver print accentuate his subjects' shadow-wrought facial expressions. Photography often serves as a source of instant visual gratification, yet Lubianitsky's work forces the viewer to enter into a more contemplative, dream-like space. Lubianitsky's portrays his subjects faithfully and without glamour, free of the airbrushed quality so familiar in images today. Khidekel's curating choices compliment Lubianitsky's philosophy—she creates connections among the photographs, sometimes placing contrasting images next to each other and at other times allowing two friends or colleagues to closely share exhibition space. She and Lubianitsky could not have made better artistic partners. "People" runs through Feb. 27, 2009, and a reception for the artist will be held Feb. 5 from 6-8 p.m. at the Harriman Institute.
Columbia Spectator Staff