Russian Inmates and Juvenile Delinquents, Posing

11.29.12 Marina Galperina

What’s a photogenic bunch like you doing in a place like this? Michal Chelbin didn’t ask them until after she shot the portraits.

Over the past six years, she travelled through seven prisons in Russia and Ukraine with rare access to caged muses. She shot the broken, scar-riddled faces of precociously violent youth, the coy ankle twirl of a teenage convict, with the crutches, holy icons and other misc prison world regalia. Why “Sailboats and Swans?” The title refers to “the idiosyncratic, and almost mocking, bucolic and fantastical murals and wallpaper backgrounds she found throughout the prisons.”

It’s true. Those Slavic wallpapers are quite festive.

“These contradictions of life in prison abound in girls’ flowery dress prison uniforms, murderers working as nannies to other women’s babies in the new mothers’ prison, young girls serving time alongside grandmothers – perhaps witness to their own futures, and the mesmerizing human blend of fear and cruelty in the boys’ and mens’ prison – where big tattooed bodies are now zombie-like, worn down by the daily travails of trying to survive being locked up in a world devoid of hope.”

Woah, that’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it? There is that bombastically sentimental, cinematic tone to the portraits, so it fits, but it feels like very formal sort of melancholy. It’s no departure from the photographer’s previous work, stylistically, but here, it’s effective, eerie. And may we also observe that the tattoos have gotten decidedly less hardcore? “Sailboats and Swans,” Michal Chelbin, Oct 18 – Jan 19, Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York