When the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 to study the fledgling country and a moment of economic and territorial expansion, he noted a tendency towards a disequilibrium of wealth, as great fortunes were made. It was a period that reached its apogee 50 years later in what became known as the "Gilded Age". This new wealth came from steel, railroads, mining, oil and banking – and the fortunes amassed by families such as the Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Gettys led to a blossoming patronage of the arts, the likes of which had never been seen before. The finest painters of the day, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, became the court painters of the new rich and produced exquisite, and occasionally controversial, portraits of both them and their families.
Fast forward to the Russia of today – as captured in the work of the young photographer Anna Skladmann – and you might reflect that some things never change.
The upheavals that marked the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s ushered in a new era of rampant capitalism that resembled nothing so much as America's Gilded Age. Fortunes were made and lost over the subsequent 15 years as the Soviet Union transformed itself into the "New Russia". By 2008, according to the Russian business paper Finans, there were 101 billionaires in Russia – more than in any other country – and the annual Moscow Millionaire Fair was, perhaps, the gaudiest party the world had ever seen. It was as the dust settled on this brave new world that Skladmann – who was born in Germany of Russian parents in 1986 – began to photograph the children of the emerging elite.
She had first visited Moscow in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her parents took k her to a New Year's masquerade ball held in the Grand Opera, where there was a table around which children sat and ate their dinner, dressed up for the occasion. The formality of the event and the preternatural poise of the children made a strong impression on the teenage Skladmann: the seriousness in those so young is something one does not often see in the West, where children are encouraged to be more rambunctious. It made her think about the new society forming in Russia and about how its inheritors are being shaped. She thus made it her project, when she herself reached maturity, to portray her subjects, all aged between six and 12, in their own environments as they play "dress-up", trying out roles for their lives in the future; and the almost otherworldly self-assurance of her subjects inspired the project's title: Little Adults.
Over the course of several trips to Russia, working on assignments for The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire and Tatler Russia, she explored the lives of children and adults in Moscow and elsewhere. "The series explores what it feels like to grow up as a privileged child in Russia, a country where its radical history still rules k the daily life," Skladmann explains. "It is an exploration of the recently growing society of the new rich, in which these children have been raised to become the elite and to behave just like little adults. It touches on the control of family aspirations, ideas of normality, the loss of childhood and the constant desire for fame."
Skladmann uses the conventions of classic portraiture but her subjects are identified only by their given names – Alina, Vasilisa, Roman, Antoshka. Partly this is to protect the children, but it also provides for a portrait of a generation, virtually all of whom have been born in this new millennium and more than 10 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As Irina Tchmyreva, the chief curator of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, notes, these are "children who are aware of their unique place as distinct from the majority. [They are] children who are aware of their mission and who are members of a very elite club. When the children do know that they are different – be they little wizards or kings – a mark of the knowledge reveals [itself] on their faces."
Indeed, Skladmann's "little adults" are totally aware of being photographed. They are as complicit in their self-representation as the artist is in representing them. And it is in their faces that the photographer, only 25 years old herself, finds what she is looking for.
Beyond the bling and trappings of the new rich, their directness of gaze and knowing looks of confident authority mark out her subjects as inheritors of a country emerging after chaotic change into its own Gilded Age. They will be the ones, when they grow up, who will fulfil De Tocqueville's celebrated prophecy of Russia, that country between East and West, taking its place on the world stage as a rival to the United States. These "little adults" seem to be ready, for all their childhood years, to take on the world.
This is an edited extract from Bill Kouwenhoven's introduction to Anna Skladmann's 'Little Adults', published by Kehrer, priced £34. Kouwenhoven is a curator, author of numerous texts on photography and international editor of 'Hotshoe' magazine