Soviet artist Valery Stigneev scrutinizes a group of student photographs with a concentration many artists reserve for their own work. As his dark eyes dart back and forth, comparing, evaluating, he taps several images gently, almost as if he were encouraging them. He communicates with this work in a way that vaults the barriers between Russian and English.
The series of nearly a dozen black-and-white photographs expresses a day in the life of LaShawn Johnson's mother. It was shot at Johnson's home in northeast Baltimore. As the 16-year-old student at the Baltimore School for the Arts awaits the opinion of the master, her apprehension seems almost palpable.
"Please explain that the students feel nervous and shy about showing him their work and that I'm making them do it," photography teacher Katherine Kendall says to art scholar and translator Irina Racheyeva.
Stigneev nods as Kendall speaks; the language of concern is universal. He rearranges the order of Johnson's photographs, making her out-of-focus pictures of movement -- "poetical" he calls them -- fall into better stride with her crisp portrait shots. He asks Johnson to think about creating an order that reveals the pulse, the heartbeat, of the series. He shows her how to avoid monotony by contrasting darker and lighter prints, by shifting from a shot that shows only her mother's face to one that shows her entire figure. He suggests enlivening the narrative with photographs of details that speak to the larger story.
Johnson's eyes widen.
As the critique becomes more specific, an air of excitement builds: Master and student have passed through the perils of preliminary criticism to a place where they stand equally in the service of making this work the best it can be.
The surprise is that this lesson is occurring in the former Greyhound Bus Service Terminal, the Centre Street building that temporarily houses about 250 contemporary photographs by Soviet artists.
"Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R." is the second exhibition presented by the Museum for the Contemporary Arts, a "museum without walls" dedicated to showing the international arts of the present. This show, which runs through June 21, offers a selection of work by many of the most innovative photographic artists in the Soviet Union. Until the era of glasnost loosened the stays of government censorship, many of these works were not shown publicly; "Photo Manifesto" marks the first time most of them have traveled outside the Soviet Union.
By combining portraits and avant-garde forms of photography, the show presents an intriguing view of the spiritual underpinnings of Soviet life during this intense period of change.
The Museum for Contemporary Arts has further clarified the subject by bringing Valery Stigneev, Irina Racheyeva and other Soviet art scholars to talk to Baltimoreans. Along with its panel discussion, film series and gallery talks, MCFA has scheduled various groups of high school students to talk with the artists.
(A free program of photography activities and Soviet storytelling for children aged 6 to 10 is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at the exhibition site. To register, call 462-3515.)
"You must know the classical photographers," Stigneev tells the photography class from the high school for the arts. "You must keep their images always in your head like melodies, like the music of Chopin and Mozart that professional musicians carry always with them for reference. It is important to be able to look through the albums of great photography when you are working."
Nods from the girls, acknowledging shifts of position from the boys.
Stigneev moves on to an interesting, moody portrait of a young woman by 16-year-old Nancy Hiebel. The subject is sitting in profile, on a couch, in a room that looks quite lived in.
"This is very difficult kind of subject, you must be a very good artist for this," Racheyeva translates. "There are too many details here, the person is lost in too many details. The less objects in the photograph, you may pay more attention to the person."
Later Hiebel says Stigneev has inspired her to redo the portrait. She goes on to praise the installation of "Soviet Manifesto" in a way that suggests she's an accomplished observer.
"I really like this building. I would come to see it even if there was nothing was in it," she says. "It's really raw, unfinished, and bringing this show about real life to a setting that's unfinished, well, there's a unity to all of this. And I like the natural light, too. It keeps changing things. It emphasizes the life of this space."
"The photographs are breathing freely here," says Irina Racheyeva, the young art historian who has accompanied Stigneev on this intercultural mission.
"Just the experience of this exhibition is very important because holes like this are empty in our country and we think our mayors can also give to the artists empty buildings such as this," Stigneev says.