Marc Erwin Babej: Bringing Chernogirls to New York City

Marc Erwin Babej is a fine art and documentary photographer who works exclusively in black-and-white. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1970, he received a B.A. in history from Brown University and an M.Sc. from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Babej began his career as a business reporter for Forbes, and also wrote about history and current affairs for Corriere della Sera, Die Zeit, and The Guardian. His extensive background in social sciences, strategy and media pervades his work, and an exploration of uneasy coexistences and juxtapositions are a dominant theme, as he strives to express the tension between seemingly contradictory beliefs and modes of being in the world.

Babej’s work is published regularly and represented by AB Gallery in Zurich, Amstel Gallery in Amsterdam and Adamson Gallery in Washington, DC. He also writes a column about luminaries in art and documentary photography for Der Spiegel. Here he reveals the motivations behind his latest project, “Chernogirls: New York City” with brilliant insight and heartfelt candor.

Q: You shared your “Chernogirls” images from Minsk and Chernobyl with us in October. The images showed young women from the first post-Soviet generation in the context of the Soviet past. The second part of the series places the Chernogirls in New York City – a context far away from the Soviet Union. How do you manage to stay on message when you are broadening the horizons of the work?

A: I’m a journalist by training, and my approach to shooting in the field is like reporting a story. You have an ingoing concept of what a story will be about – but as you report it, you have to be open to the story turning out different from what you had expected. Before shooting, the concept was about showing the physical and ideological collapse of the Soviet system: Chernobyl was about the former, Minsk about the latter. The images I had seen of Chernobyl, most notably by Robert Polidori and Pierpaolo Mittica, focused on the emptiness of the city of Pripyat. Their documentary approach wasn’t suited to conveying my point: a good image of a decaying building ends up aestheticizing the decay – which detracts from conveying the collapse of a system. To show this collapse for what it is, I decided to juxtapose it with a symbol of beauty and vitality. So in my mind, the Chernogirls began as a visual disruptor, an alienation effect in the mold of German playwright Bertolt Brecht (who, incidentally, was a communist).

When I shot the first scene, with Nastya Kuchinskaya and Nastya Tarasava at the Wall of heroes of the automobile factory in Minsk, I realized that the story was bigger than I had originally conceived: the Chernogirls were more than symbols of vitality that contrasted with collapse: they were larger-than-life protagonists.

Q: What made you decide on New York City?

A: When I wrote the artist statement, I found myself using the word cosmopolitan to describe the Chernogirls. At that point, I realized that the Chernogirls were no different than the Eastern European models in our ensemble in Mask of Perfection: the Chernogirls just happened to be at home for the summer, but spend most of the year in fashion capitals like Paris, Milan, London, Tokyo – or New York. To me, the surest sign of a good idea is when you say to yourself: “That’s so obvious – why didn’t I think of that earlier?” At that point, I realized that capturing the story of my heroines required that I shoot them not just in the places they come from, but the places where they actually live.

Q: Will you be taking Chernogirls beyond New York City?

A: Yes. You can’t tell their story without going to the political and cultural centers of Soviet society – so I’ll be shooting in Moscow and/or St. Petersburg this spring. And you can’t tell the story of post-Soviet women by just looking at the European side of the equation – so I’ll be shooting Chernogirls in the Central Asian former Soviet Republics next summer.

Q: The Chernogirls are not just beautiful; they also look sophisticated.

A: Sophistication is an important part of the story – but a sophistication that shines through from within, that extends beyond externalities like beauty, elegant attire and good manners. The Chernogirls are fashion models, but that’s not what defines them. They have degrees in visual arts, business administration, linguistics, theater, political science and architecture. They’re fluent in at least three languages. They had the courage to leave home for foreign countries at an age when other kids learn to drive. And, having lived abroad, they tend to be world-wise beyond their years. That kind of sophistication is not an air one can put on like an evening gown – it’s something you are, and have worked hard to acquire.

Q: How does one express sophistication from within through images?

A: Sophistication is an important visual component, to capture the defining theme of the Chernogirls: extraordinariness and its inevitable consequence – detachment. As post-Soviets, they are detached from their own history. They are detached from their motherland by living abroad. Abroad they’re foreigners; they are detached from their own appearance that makes them stand out like pro basketball players – and triggers similarly strong, often ambivalent reactions. Many are also detached from their profession, knowing that their ticket to the wide world is based on something as superficial as their appearance rather than their abilities – and that this ticket expires when they hit their late 20s.

Q: They are also outsiders in the settings you chose – why did you shoot Chernogirls NYC in industrial areas in Brooklyn, graffiti, Chinatown?

A: Imagine them in famous New York settings – say Fifth Avenue, Madison Ave in the ’60s and ’70s or SoHo: a model in a glamorous setting is just the kind of narrative that viewers, after decades of fashion media consumption, are conditioned to immerse themselves in. Immersion is highly desirable when your object is to sell clothes, or jewelry. But I want viewers to think critically – and to think about a thing, you need to be aware that you are outside that thing.

Q: Is this concept more of Brecht and his alienation effects?

A: Absolutely. I owe Brecht a debt of gratitude. One of the means that Brecht used to achieve alienation was a chorus, as in ancient Greek theater. The chorus is physically present onstage but outside the narrative. That’s what the Chernogirls are – not actors, but observers and commenters.

Q: One of the elements of art is artifice – consciously manipulating reality to convey a message. The images “Bail Bonds” and “Body Rub,” for example, seem to tell a story; they seem almost photojournalistic. What was involved in creating these image?

A: In most, if not all, of the images, you could cover up the Chernogirls and you would see it as a documentary image. Some images in the series place the Chernogirls as outsiders. In “Players,” “Outdoor Gym” and “Texting,” the other people take no notice of the Chernogirls, as if they were invisible. In “Bail Bonds” and “Body Rub,” they are engaged but detached at the same time – like an alien species, or androids, learning to replicate human behavior and interactions.

Q: I can see that; I was going to say that in “Economy Candy” and “Bus Terminal”, they look like mannequins.

A: Precisely. The French word for model is mannequin. In English, that meaning of the word has been lost, and the word now only refers to a dummy. My goal is to show different aspects of detachment, to a degree that makes the viewer wonder whether and how the Chernogirls are different from the rest of us. In “Bus Terminal”, the Chernogirls are standing in similar poses. But Natalia Zenina’s head is tilted to the side. A clear hint that she is not a mannequin, and at the same time an unnatural position.

Q: In Blowup 1 and Blowup 2, a car is burning like it’s about to explode. Their reaction is out of synch with the scene. How are the Chernogirls different from the rest of us?

A: From the outset, I wanted to represent them as my original heroines: Greek goddesses. I learned reading with a children’s version of the Iliad, and Greek mythology spurred my imagination. What fascinated me most was the interaction between the gods and mortals, starting with the judgment of Paris. For mortals, the Trojan War was a life-or-death struggle, a reality from which there was no escape for ten years. For the gods – anthropomorphic but immortal, it was a real time strategy game in which they had unlimited lives. Now imagine Greek goddesses in an industrial part of Brooklyn with a burning car that might blow up. For them, it might become a fun backdrop to try out poses, or to smile in a way that make you wonder if she set the fire to begin with. Being immortal and having divine powers has the effect of detaching you from reality: it’s not something that happens [italicize] to you and around you, but a playground of your whims. When I saw the Chernogirls in front of that burning car made me think of Natural Born Killers. Makes sense, because Greek gods would be considered psychopaths if they were mortals. So in this particular context, detachment couldn’t be conveyed with aloofness, but a totally inappropriate playfulness. I directed them to “look like you did it!” Spur-of-the-moment (we could already hear the sirens of the fire engines and knew the fire would soon be extinguished), Maria Subbotina interpreted it Athena-like, with as a blasé, derisive mien. Irina Josse, like Aphrodite, flashes an alluring smile… which looks demonic in this context.

Q: In the judgment of Paris, there are three goddesses – Hera (the mother goddess), Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Athena (the goddess of wisdom and just war). All of the images contain two Chernogirls, not three.

A: First, let me admit to some poetic license: Hera never did it for me (I remember thinking that in Paris’s shoes, I would have chosen Athena). The Chernogirls are amalgams of the two virgin goddesses, Athena and Artemis (the goddess of the hunt and the moon), and Aphrodite. I always show two Chernogirls at a time because the series is about duality: of the Chernogirls and their settings; of the naturally occurring and the staged, of documentary and art imagery. This duality is also represented by two kinds of light – in most images, the Chernogirls are shown in literally a different light than the others. They stand outside.

Q: Where will you be showing “Chernogirls NYC”?

A: At the moment, I’m working with Adamson Gallery to prepare for the showing of Mask of Perfection at Pulse Miami on December 4. For “Chernogirls NYC,” it’s still very early days – I just completed these images and we might even add another couple of shoots. But AB Gallery will show images from the series in Zurich next April. I’m also planning to publish all of Chernogirls as a book.

Thank you for your time, Marc!

- Leica Internet Team

Cast:

Olga Alexandrovskaya
Agnes Artych
Irina Josse
Anastasia K.
Olena Mandryk
Olena Lysenko
Natalia Zenina
Assistant: Alex Vanderheyden

Click here to learn more about his exhibition at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair during Art Basel in Miami. To see more of Marc’s work, visit his website.