The Russian photographer and vintage camera collector, Yury Nezdoyminoga first came to photography after an injury saw his ballroom dancing career come to a premature end. What followed was a very personal journey, as he immersed himself at first in the iconic works of legendary photographers, writers and theorists and thereafter in the world of black and white photography. His images display a rare, contemplative take on everyday life. Often portraying people at leisure, his street photography also touches on the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, as well as the innocence of youth. All the while his images are permeated by a nostalgic sense of longing, thanks, in part, to his aversion to modern technologies and love for vintage, analog cameras – his collection includes a Leica IIIA and a Leica IIIF RD ST. We caught up with Yury to find out more about his inspiring route into photography and his ritualistic photographic process.
Can you start by telling us how you got into photography?
Before I got into photography I spent over 20 years in ballroom dancing. I had a perfect career as a professional dancer but in 2006 I suffered a serious injury and was not able to continue dancing anymore. I was depressed and broken. To save myself from going crazy I decided to study at one of the famous film universities in Moscow as a director of photography. The course required a photography background and therefore decided to go into photography first. It was the year that the first governmental school of photography named after Alexander Rodchenko opened. All the professors from the film university were teaching at that school as well. During my two years there, I fell into photography and I made the decision to commit to it as my only form of artistic expression, instead of cinematography. I’ve stayed true to this commitment to this day.
When did you start collecting vintage cameras?
To be honest, at the beginning of my photo career I used to take rather boring shots featuring beautiful women and lovely landscapes with digital cameras. But one day I saw a review of the Leica M9 and I was intrigued as to what kind of camera it could be with such a price tag. At that time I owned one of the top set-ups from a well-known Japanese company. I went to the official Leica store in Moscow and made a few test shots with the Leica M9 and Summilux 50mm ASPH. I was amazed by the color rendition and the lens focus. That was the day I put my entire set-up up for sale and the next day I was the happy owner of a Leica M9 and that Summilux lens.
My sense of self-importance went off the scale and I considered myself to have become a real photographer. At that time my beautiful models and lovely landscapes were especially gorgeous! I considered myself a real rangefinder guy and having all that equipment I thought I had become a member of the closed and cozy club of rangefinder camera lovers. I expected to become a revelation in black and white photography, despite knowing nothing about real beauty and aesthetics. I hoped to surprise the “photography natives” with, what I considered, my amazing pictures. How surprised I was when instead of delight, I received sarcastic, offensive and mocking comments from the club members. On that evidence, I was sure that some people are just ignorant in questions of beauty and art but the doubts crept in.
I locked myself away and started to study the works of the great photographers, such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Rene Maltete and others. In parallel to this, I went back to the material I used at photo school. I also started to engage with more theory, such as the Golden Ratio, color in painting and essays on painting. I was carried away by literature, especially from the Decedant Movement (Oscar Wilde) and Modernism (Hemingway, Kafka), as well as poetry (Mandelstam, Cvetaeva, Brodsky). I spent more than 6 months discovering a world of art completely new to me and I hardly took a single photo during this time.
When I finally felt ready to hold a camera in my hands again I realized that it was paramount for me to have a picture in my head first, rather than just to shoot what I see. That was also the first step away from digital and into the world of analog photography. I changed my Leica M9 and Summilux 50mm for the Leica M7 and Summilux 35mm. I had no problems with the film developing process itself, as I had a strong analog background from photo school. That was the day I started my new analog photography life and that is the story of how I got into collecting vintage cameras.
What is it about Leica cameras, which you appreciate the most?
I love my Leica cameras because they have a rangefinder and are both compact and silent. When you look into the viewfinder you have total control of the picture you wish to create.
A lot of your images are hard to date due to their analog style and the lack of contemporary features. How much of this is down to your set up and how much is a conscious decision on your behalf?
It’s true that my photos are kind of “out of time” and this is not an accident. However I have no desire to make retro photographs, it is much more the will to show the unique moments that people barely see nowadays. The reasons many people don’t pick up on these moments are contemporary technologies such as smartphones, earphones and suchlike stuff stealing people’s attention. That is why I consciously strike these gadgets out of my images.
This series of street photography also has a strong emotional feel to it. How do you go about capturing such moments?
There is no secret to capturing these types of shot. You just spend a long, very long time watching people in their ordinary lives and each time you imagine what could happen in the next instant, what you would like to see in your viewfinder. Sometimes you are lucky and reality provides you with that, which you already have in your mind. The moment comes and you’re already there.
The majority of these images show a complete cross section of society during their leisure time. Your subjects are often unguarded and this also helps in capturing their emotions. How do you manage to achieve such candid shots?
The more time you spend on the street among people, the more invisible you become to them. They just stop noticing you and show their real faces. Once you’ve achieved this, the two lines cross and the moment merges with your creative vision. The important thing to remember also is that you are only able to see in other people, that which you are yourself.
Which camera(s) and lenses did you use to shoot these photographs? And what do you see as the advantages of your set up?
The main cameras I use according to the situation and mood are the Leica IIIA, Leica IIIF RD ST, Leica M3, Leica M2 and the Leica M4. The lenses I prefer are the Summilux 35mm ASPH, Summilux 50mm Pre-ASPH, Summaron 35mm, Summicron 50mm V.1 and Summitar 50mm. The cameras are silent (which is so important for street photography), reliable and I know them inside and out, they are like very good friends to me.
Why do you prefer shooting on film for your street photography? Do you also shoot digital? Why/why not?
I have no prejudice towards digital photography. It is a nice tool in the hands of a professional. But for me film takes priority because I like to work hands-on with the materials themselves, I like to print images in the dark room. The analog process is an important and essential part of my life, which consequently informs my decision of what to shoot. The only digital camera I own is the camera on my smartphone. Digital photography gives you that range of freedom that I don’t need and it also requires the time-consuming efforts of postproduction to make the shot look the way I want. I prefer to spend this time in the dark room alone with myself, taking in the scent of reagents and having a glass of wine. This gives me a taste of life itself.
Why do you shoot primarily black and white photography?
18 months ago I decided to give up creating color images because I realized that black and white composition and color composition are two very different worlds. I want to live in one of them completely, improving my appreciation of this world as much as possible. Nevertheless, I love color and enjoy the tasteful color images of other photographers.
You also develop your photos yourself. Can you explain your process?
I develop my images on my own. The process itself is very standard and repetitive. Developing, washing, fixing and washing again. But the interest for me is in the ritual, my own superstitions, which I believe lead to great pictures. Everybody knows that during development it is required to periodically turn the tank to strengthen the development process, this is called agitation.
After each agitation, you must hit the edge of the tank on the edge of the table to shake off the air bubbles formed on the film. Each time I hit the tank on the edge of the table, I tap one of my favorite melodies. My friends say that at that very moment the silver halides merge to form the perfect picture for me. This is what I like to believe.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their street photography?
The main and most important advice that I can give is that you cannot simply learn photography, it is impossible to learn how to make a touching picture. But you can teach yourself to feel and to see, and the best aids in doing this are poetry, prose, music and, of course, painting. In fact, it’s not important what you shoot but it is important, who you really are because your pictures will reflect your whole being.
From the perspective of a collector, what would you like to see from Leica in the future?
I really like the new cameras and I would really like one of them in my collection, especially the black Leica M-A. But I would also like to see reincarnations of the legendary models, such as the Leica M3 (maybe in a small series), because the world has never known anything quite like it. The viewfinder made for the 50mm lenses is something incredible! The x0.92 magnification allows you to focus accurately and quickly, without losing sight of what happens at the edges of the frame. For me it is very important because I never crop my own images after the fact.