Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow - Photography that's off the wall and in my suitcase

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The Independent Online
"WILL YOU come to my exhibition?" Igor Lapshin was on the telephone. He is the local photographer, the man who takes portrait pictures of children and newlyweds and babies at baptism. But this was to be an exhibition of his artistic work. "Of course I will come. It will be an honour," I said.

I went to the Photo Centre on Gogol Boulevard, not quite knowing what to expect. I was stunned. Igor had been working with a digital camera and, with a colleague, Dmitry Saparov, had put together a collection of pictures that seemed more like paintings than photographs.

There were some of his portraits, coloured in extraordinary ways, and kaleidoscopic cityscapes of Moscow as it might look under a Caribbean sun. A series of ballet dancers seemed to echo Degas. And was that an ironic reference to Chagall in a still life of vodka bottles, arranged like St Basil's Cathedral, with a drunk flying ecstatically over the onion domes?

I was looking for a birthday present for someone special. I chose a simple shot of a vase of Chinese lanterns lit in such a way that the orange pods glowed like lamps. Igor took it off the wall, leaving a gap in the exhibition, and with the photograph under my arm I dashed to the airport for my holiday flight. The customs officer tried to give me a hard time, claiming it was a piece of Russian heritage, but I had a signed letter from Igor permitting me to export his work.

On my return to Moscow, I invited Igor over to Samotechny Lane for coffee. He brought some more of his photographs, this time astonishing panoramic views of Moscow that in real life only a dragonfly could see with its 360-degree vision. Each was composed of 15 to 20 shots, pasted seamlessly together with digital equipment.

Igor's tale is a true Russian success story, not of riches made overnight by dubious means and just as easily lost, but of steady achievement. A graduate in microelectronics, he began work in a Soviet radio factory, then took jobs on the metro and the railways. "I was searching for myself," he said.

Feeling the need to do something creative, he tried to get into film school but was offered a job instead as a photographer on Path to the Screen, the official newspaper of the State Institute of Cinematography. Photography had always been his hobby. With this job, he was able to sit in on the film school lectures while earning a living with his camera.

Igor also earned a little on the side from private commissions for portraits. This was how I first met him. I was learning to sing and he took some promotional pictures of me, playing with the light so it appeared there were stars in my hair.

But the star being born was really Igor. He went to work as a photographer for a computer magazine. The tasks seemed boring - photographing computer terminals or, if he was lucky, Bill Gates at a press conference - but he was learning the new technology of digital cameras and the scanners and printers that are the modern photographer's laboratory.

Plodding along at Computer Weekly, he was earning the equivalent of about pounds 250 a month, not much considering that he and his Uzbek wife, Nellie, have two budding ballet dancers for children and their tuition does not come cheap. "New Russian" friends said he could earn a lot more by going into business. But, since last August's economic crash, they have lost their middle-class lifestyles while Igor's pounds 250 now seems a respectable wage. Today, he works for an Internet agency called IT InfoArt Stars and you can see his pictures on www.infoart.ru and www.stars.ru

Word of the exhibition got out on the Internet and visitors came from far-flung regions as well as Moscow. "The sponsors were thrilled. They did not expect the show to make a profit. Now we have been invited to St Petersburg." Several visitors wanted to see the original photographs so they could understand the changes Igor had made. But that is his secret. Many of the images are like dreams, beyond explanation.

Igor himself said he felt very gratified. He used the word repeatedly, "dovolen, dovolen". So often, in these hard times, it seems that Russians are unhappy. How cheering it was to see some fully justified Russian satisfaction.

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