David Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine an unexpected light on our consumerist culture

Between 1986 and 1990, Hlynsky took more than 8,000 photos in Kraków where he tried "to decode what the streets are all about"

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The Independent Online

David Hlynsky was born and raised on the American shores of the Great Lakes at the height of the Cold War, when Washington and Hollywood tag-teamed to depict the land of his grandparents as backwards and bad. Instinct, and later work with a gang of creatives in 1970s Toronto, challenged that view, and in 1986, he packed his camera and travelled to Kraków.

"The tourist brochures said you'd get into trouble for taking photos on the street, but I never did," he says from Toronto, where he still lives. "I met artists and writers and people who were a lot more informed than I expected them to be. My own ignorance came at me from a new angle."

Back in his studio, while Hlynsky examined his portraits and city scenes, he tried "to decode what the streets are all about". The shops and windows that he had ignored as background leapt forth, and during several more trips to the Eastern Bloc during the final years of the Soviet Union, a new focus for his work emerged.

"We were told that the difference between east and west was freedom of thought, expression and religion," he explains. "But in my own culture I saw those things were not that important to most people. It was really about free enterprise and who owned what, so the windows became the front for that."

Between 1986 and 1990, Hlynsky took more than 8,000 photos, including 500 portraits of shop windows. Almost 200 of these now feature in his new book, Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain, a fascinating view of an old era of consumerism that began to crumble with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

A single pair of shoes, three loaves of bread, a shop devoted to taxidermy and hunting supplies – the windows are minimal still lifes, museum pieces that, Hlynsky says, remain open to interpretation. "The fact that there were three loaves of bread in a window did not mean that people did not have bread," he says. "It meant that they didn't advertise bread in the way we did. They did not wrap their bread in consumerist fantasy."

Hlynsky, now 67, begins to sound nostalgic for life under the yoke of Communism, but his book is no eulogy. "I'm not saying this was a better system, I'm saying I still don't think we've figured it out. As consumption goes through the roof, is our solution right? If this book does anything it should say, let's look again at what we thought we understood."

Seven years ago, Hlynsky returned to Prague, one of the cities he had visited, to exhibit many of his photos. "People who had lived through Communism and the transition looked at them with tears in their eyes, and tried to tell the younger people what it was like," he recalls. "The younger people saw silly pictures of quaint, goofy shops and laughed at the old people".

'Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain' by David Hylnsky is released on 17 February (Thames & Hudson, £14.95). To order a copy at £13.45 plus free p&p, call 0843 060 0030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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