Centrepiece: Russian art and soul

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The Independent Culture
In 1991, Bertien Van Manen met a Siberian photographer called Kolya Bacharev who told her: "You in the West don't know what it means to spend a whole day standing around in freezing weather just to sell a small bottle of black-market vodka. You do n't appreciate our photographs, but we need photography like a drug, just to keep going. We take pictures with heart and soul. We don't understand your glamourous, commercial photography.''

From the Western point of view, Dutch photographer Van Manen's images, taken in Siberia and throughout the former Soviet Union from 1991-94, are far from glamorous and come straight from the heart and soul of Russian life. Thanks to a network of friends,she was able to access the real Russian way of life - the hidden view of poor, anonymous, ordinary families in cramped homes - as an alternative to the familiar Western photographs of tanks and soldiers and queues outside shops with empty shelves.

Van Manen's work is included in one of two smaller exhibitions on show at the Photographers' Gallery to complement the main display, "Photo-reclamation: New Art from Moscow and St Petersburg'', which looks at how photographic art from within the Soviet Union has interpreted the social upheavals through the years.

Van Manen found that most Russians would love to welcome people into their homes but are embarrassed by their poverty. One third of post-Soviet society is housed in "communals'', where several families live in one flat. Her photographs of these interiorsare brutally direct and harshly lit, revealing decorations and furnishings to be shabby, tasteless, even kitsch.

Most of the people who inhabit these interiors are seen through Van Manen's lens as pale, joyless creatures, but every now and then there's a spark of frivolity. For one young girl, at least (Odessa, Ukraine, 1992, right), life is to be enjoyed: a ray ofhope in a bleak outlook.

Bertien Van Manen, 21 Jan-11 March. "Photo-reclamation'', 27 Jan-18 Mar. Photographers' Gallery, 5 Gt Newport St WC2 (071-831 1772)

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