I seem to be developing an affinity for “Eastern Bloc” photographers and photography. Lately in looking at the many electronic newsletters that hit my inbox, I find myself looking in greater detail at those photographs and I haven’t been able to figure out why yet. Possibly because there seems to be a sense of “rawness” to them. The subjects and landscape are not refined as in the West. Perhaps it is the emergence of truth that I’m sensing that is coming out after years of being suppressed behind the Iron Curtain.
David Hlynsky is a photographer from the American Midwest and has taken over 8,000 photographs of shop fronts throughout the Eastern Bloc countries. The photographs depict the scarcity of products and produce. The few products that are available are very simply displayed in the window. There are no name brands adorning the shop windows either.
There are a couple of Hlynsky’s images that I particularly like from this article. The one is a window display of camping supplies in Prague. The shop window’s border is painted orange and there are an assortment of camping paraphernalia (also orange in hue) displayed: a fold-up chair, sleeping bag, rucksak and duffel bag. All very 1960’s style. These contrast with two identical large photographic prints of a forest of trees against a blue sky and displayed in front of them are blue sleeping bags, and portable gas burner. What really intrigues me the most is the presence of a vacuum cleaner or carpet sweeper alongside the rucksack and sleeping bags. Do the people take vacuums/sweepers along when they go camping to clean their campsite? Or is it just a stray product that happened to come into the store owner’s hands?
The other image which intrigues me is one of a vase containing a huge display of lilies with one pair of shoes in front of it. The rest of the window is empty. The interior dark and uninviting. The long, tall, brown vase and shoes are so placed that they look as if they could be one item. At first I thought it was a florist shop, and couldn’t figure out why there was a pair of shoes in the window. But on seeing the reflection of a man in the window I figured that it must be a shoe shop. Its a very sad and lonely image.
Says Hlynsky in an interview with American Photo:
However, if we read the windows only on the surface, we risk missing the depth of their meaning. These shop windows revealed nowhere near what they obscured about the Socialist economy, so much of which operated in the shadows and alleyways through unauthorized hard currency exchanges. In reality, the best commodities ended up in the back rooms rather than the storefronts in anticipation of shortages. Advertising was replaced by rumor and gossip; currency supplanted by favors.
As a youngster I had heard the stories about people queuing up outside a shop, the line sometimes going around the block, without knowing what they were lining up for, but for the sake of being able to purchase the item that they might possibly need, like a loaf of bread. It is pretty hard to imagine a life like that.
Like the novel, Animal Farm, Hlynsky’s images tell two stories. The first story is the superficial one that we see straight away when viewing his photos – the hardship that the people in the Eastern Bloc countries had to endure with lack of products and produce. The second story is a story of capitalism. The very absence of it in the images is extremely telling. We in the West can look at these images and wonder if all the hype of advertising and branding that we are exposed to on a daily basis are really worth it. Is advertising not just geared to make one buy something that you don’t really need in the first place?
It is a bit of a double edged sword really. I know that I can definitely do without the constant bombardment of mindless ads, especially on the television, but at the same time I do value the freedom of being able to choose which brand I might prefer, preferably without someone fighting to insist that their brand is the one I should buy.
Hlynsky, David. David Hlynsky Photographs [online]. Available from: http://www.davidhlynsky.com/ [Accessed 18 March, 2015]
Reznick, Eugene (2015). Go Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain: Communism meet Consumerism. [online]. American Photo. Available from: http://www.americanphotomag.com/go-window-shopping-through-iron-curtain [Accessed 18 March, 2015]