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Igor Posner

Notes from Underground

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It started in 2006, a year when I returned to St. Petersburg for the first time in 14 years.  At the time I had no idea what I wanted to get out of this place, photographically anyway. I just knew that I wanted to immerse myself into its cold, gloomy winter and take pictures. Trip after trip as images started to appear I noticed that somehow the pictures started to reconstruct this city’s heavy, yet poetic soul, like captured by Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Bely, Brodsky and others.

Excerpt from a personal diary (February, 2008):

“Leningrad creates a feeling of a lost and a haunted city, an open nerve, where little tragedies of every day life that seem universal are so acutely brought to surface…with its bars, streets, drunks, communal apartments this place creates a sense of an inexistent dream within an authentic nightmare, and yet paradoxically conveys a feeling of poetic nostalgia and melancholy.”

Images used in this slideshow are chapter fragments from a book project about St. Petersburg (2006-2009) – “Notes from Underground” (working title).

Music by Alfred Schnittke – In Memoriam II, tempo di valse

Special thanks to: Olya Vysotskaya, Anna Bocharova



Born in St. Petersburg (former Leningrad), Russia, Igor Posner moved to Los Angeles, California in the early 90s. Early work includes photographs taken in south-central and downtown Los Angeles, Tijuana, Mexico.  Igor returned to Russia in 2006, taking up photography full time.

In 2007, Igor moved from Los Angeles to New York City. At present, he lives between St. Petersburg, Russia and New York.  Currently he works on two series: first, about Russian immigrant communities in Brooklyn and LA, and second, about former Jewish ghetto settlements in Russia, Western Ukraine and Belarus.


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Igor Posner


Editor’s note:

please only one comment per essay….

-david alan harvey

81 thoughts on “igor posner – notes from underground”

  1. “I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man”…I’m an impressed Man.
    Fyodor would be proud!
    This has been one of the best essays published on BURN ever! alomost 6 minutes …man I could have gone 60!

  2. I usually would struggle through a 6 minute slideshow but this went nicely. Some of the text made me feel “I’ve read this before”, but then it was ok. Two or three images slightly let it down, but in overall a brilliant essay! Many images to remember (dog eats baby, woman on sofa, man walks into the sea, etc.), aesthetics that melt the past into the present, and faces that work accordingly.

  3. This is just terrible photography. You’ll go far as a “deep, arty” photographer. But you need to learn to focus that camera and hold it still. B&W film can produce grays, too.

    I know, it’s a personal vision of the place. A really, really dark one. Not a book I would buy, nor many others, I suspect.

  4. this is dark.
    I rarely saw such a dark essay .. the music makes it even darker ..
    very consistant .. I’m impressed.

    congratulations and thanks for showing your pictures on burn.

  5. I love this movie. Great photography, mood, music line.

    I am against “photography movies”, I like movies about photography.
    And it’s looks like Ackerman’s work but in many times even better.


    I am a big fan and have a big respect that you always have your own strong, unchangeable opinions. And you not afraid to said it always. I agree with you many times and disagree not ones as you know.
    But long time I have not read such ridiculous and senseless opinion.

  6. Wow! Igor very interesting work. Very cinematic!, love your perspective on so many shots and some are just brilliant! it feels as though we are in another time period and in a Roman Polanski film. And yes Bob is going to love this one.

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  8. “I don’t remember the word I wished to say.
    The blind swallow returns to the hall of shadow,
    on shorn wings, with the translucent ones to play.
    The song of night is sung without memory, though.

    No birds. No blossoms on the dried flowers.
    The manes of night’s horses are translucent.
    An empty boat drifts on the naked river.
    Lost among grasshoppers the word’s quiescent.

    It swells slowly like a shrine, or a canvas sheet,
    hurling itself down, mad, like Antigone,
    or falls, now, a dead swallow at our feet.
    with a twig of greenness, and a Stygian sympathy.

    O, to bring back the diffidence of the intuitive caress,
    and the full delight of recognition.
    I am so fearful of the sobs of The Muses,
    the mist, the bell-sounds, perdition.

    Mortal creatures can love and recognise: sound may
    pour out, for them, through their fingers, and overflow:
    I don’t remember the word I wished to say,
    and a fleshless thought returns to the house of shadow.

    The translucent one speaks in another guise,
    always the swallow, dear one, Antigone….
    on the lips the burning of black ice,
    and Stygian sounds in the memory.”
    –Osip Mandelstam

    “From our ugliness will grow the soul of the world.”- Platonov

    In order to carve out the stories of the world and places and people around us, we must first begin the measure the hum and drum of the caverns inside us, for if not that we have seen nothing but vanquishment. In order to speak of a place, we must first learn to listen to and interpret the language that is alphabetizing the thoughts inside us: one breath after another, tum tum tum. Without a sense of how to recognize all that hum and holler inside us, how can we possibly begin to recognize anything or rather make sense of anything but through the radar of our own imagining.

    In russian, there is a word (a world really) that I cannot properly translate into English. I even asked Marina how she would translate the word, but English has no real equivalent: Тоска…(toska, emphsis on the final ‘a’)….Toscka is a world of many emotions, sometimes conflicted, it was also one of my favorite Russian prose writer, Andrey Platanov’s. Toska is a combination of nostalgia (a wound) and sadness, an emptiness born of longing, a physical sadness that errupts from a sensation of connection, hunger, weakness to a place, to a memory, to a moment…it is more beautiful and more sad that nostalgia or love-sickness…maybe it is, fundamentally, a feeling that must be conveyed in Russia, and somehow also speaks of the long, cold wind in the Russian steppes, the physical weight of grey Petersburgh, the sound of the Neva, the creak of the volga….Igor’s story contains this word and this word and for that, it is blooming…

    I have know you Igor for how many years now?; ))…seems like forever…and it is such the pleasure to see your story unfold here, not merely because I have seen you bloom so richly and mature so well since those days of pictures in the museum and on the hills overlooking LA to your mexico exploration and pointing toward your eventual return to Peters and friendship with Michael and love with Olya and all this spatial hum signaling not Le Fin but Le debut…….

    I am very proud of your and very happy to see this essay here, though not surprised :))….

    just gorgeous and filled with the body of your very own spirit and that has both to do with and nothing to do with Peters…..

    bodies, grown rich and bent like small trees under night’s weight, along the pagegent and crack of ice, water and snow….

    lublu ohcne…

    i ti tozhe…

    kisses to O too :))

    ochen krasivie, ochen-ochen!


  9. Posner’s adumbrative style places us immediately in his mind’s eye, and we walk directly with him through the modern-day culture of St. Petersburg. The title associates us with Dostoevsky, and with it we feel a hovering epileptic seizure about to descend upon us, as the city we enter is his – pre-grand mal. Finally, Romanovich Raskolnikov appears, and we share his Nietzschean pretensions to uberman.

    A remarkable journey and a wonderful experience; I have flown from the complaints of motion blur and missing mid-tone contrasts long ago…

  10. Wow, great stuff. I like everything about it. Composition, narrative, the varied shots, the Dostoevsky-ish vibe (which is particularly difficult to pull off without being ridiculously clichéd). Normally, I agree with Jim about the greys, but I think the contrast works here. And technically, I think it’s fantastic. Often with these types of shows, I suspect the photographer doesn’t know how to handle the camera so makes the best of a poorly exposed or focused image. Not here. It appears the photographer has control over the medium and that while these images are not technically mainstream, they are technically very difficult nevertheless.

    The only thing I’d lose is the title. It’s already taken. I don’t think your work is derivative, at least not as a whole (seems I’ve seen that woman lounging in that pose before? Gauguin?). Why suggest it’s derivative before anyone even sees it? Or perhaps derivative is the wrong word? More likely it’s meant as an homage to the underground man or Russian lit in general. Still, why not let the viewer figure that out for his or herself? Find a title that hints at it rather than states it so directly.

  11. Knowing your work for some years now, Igor, I can see why the name ‘Ackerman’ comes up, but I’m also happy to see that you’ve moved on- and forward, that’s great! For sure a book I’ll buy.. or better yet, the prints.. here’s the wish for an exhibition..

  12. Gustavo Aragon Garcia

    Dostoevsky inmediatly came to my mind.
    This has been one of the best essays published on BURN ever! alomost 6 minutes …man I could have gone 60!
    I agree with it.

  13. I’ve had that dream before…
    music was
    storytelling in itself…
    do you see this work projected
    in an alcove in a gallery?
    with your prints on the wall?

  14. I am moved… high art… this doesn’t happen to me so often at photo presentations. This Russian guy sooner or later is going to belong to Magnum… and probably sooner. Igariok, privet iz Litvi… tak derzi

  15. Fantastic, I really enjoyed the sequencing, the symmetry between the music and the photographs, and the ‘plot structure’ of sorts as the photographs became more and more discomforting/”invasive” in such a way that it became hard to look at yet hard to look away. In your statement, you write,

    “Trip after trip as images started to appear I noticed that somehow the pictures started to reconstruct this city’s heavy, yet poetic soul, like captured by Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Bely, Brodsky and others.”

    This really surprised me because these authors are all I know about St Petersburg, and it seems as though you feel as though your photographs fell into this tradition without deliberation. From my [very limited] perspective, I would presume more of an agency on your part to follow in these authors footsteps, rather than this accidental stumbling upon of the emotions of these great writers. I wonder how this question of whether you tapped into their emotions “deliberately” or “accidentally” affects the validity of your project, or if you believe that if you had set upon the project “following in their footsteps”, that would somehow take away from the end result of the product.

    I believe your title is very apt, because in many ways these photographs could function as a pictorial illustration of Dostoevsky. Considering the heavy contrast, the tendency to blurriness and other techniques that tend to discomfort, I am curious how Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg figured into your motivation to adopt these techniques. I would love to see your earlier work in California and Mexico to see how you have changed your technique according to location.

    Thank you for sharing.


  16. What an experience! I wanted to be in a movie theater seeing this on the big screen in a darkened room rather than on my laptop. It felt more like an art/documentary film than a photo essay to me. You took me there, visually and emotionally. Such a mood! Really stunning work. And the music added a sense of drama. Yes, it was long but I didn’t want it to end. Bravo!


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  18. A truly wonderful story.

    It is more of a film than an essay for me, a film of stills. I caught myself filling the gaps and intuitively guessing what would come next. The music has a lot to do with it I guess. Most of the times I was wrong and that was rewarding. The sense of walking in these cold, dark streets and the occasional stopovers in wonderful (Underground) places was overwhelming. Certain images were captivating and I wished there was more time to absorb them but life moves on quickly anyway and before you know it these moments are gone.

    I have to say that the film works well without the music as well and a different choice of music would certainly give it a different taste. As it stands though it’s very dark and effective. This is a story I will come back to, many times, if only for the clear vision and commitment involved.

    Many congratulations Igor, thanks for sharing this, I’ll follow you closely.

  19. I really enjoyed this essay. Very dark and moody and a unique style. However I began to find the music distracting, so turned it off. I watched a second time without music and found it much more compelling.

    Congratulations Igor…

  20. Wow, something to sink our teeth into.

    I love this. Though I’m usually not a fan of dark, fuzzy, grainy, blurry, over the top contrasty, it works here. There are several spectacular images, the men on the street, hats and shoulders covered with snow, and many of the simpler images. Love the night image with snow streaks. Even the industrial strengh spooky music, which usually leaves me feeling manipulated, works.

    Let me borrow tom hydes’ comment “So rich, so dark, so, so good. Inspiring. Thank you”

  21. Amazing!! somehow it remains me of the Dostoievsky novels spirit, and love the blurring, It gaves the pictures an expressionist touch, very evocative very emotional. I will be following your tracks Igor.

  22. very good, almost incredible – throughout there were constant surprises. however i thought the essay lost its way a little towards the end – somewhere in the last 5-10 images – dunno if anyone else felt the same way? also the “fin” photography felt too contrived for what was an un-contrived essay.

    inspired choice of music.


  23. Amazing work!

    When I first watched this essay it reminded me of an early mystery or horror movie. The music underlines this mood. Unfortunately I get scared easily…

    Everyone is refering to Dostoevski – never read anything by him, but thinking about reading him for a long time – so my next book will be by Dostoevski. Any recommendations?

    Have to agree with Ben about the “fin” image. Too easy and too obvious.

    My way of taking pictures is totally different so it was a revelation for me to see this amazing work!
    Thank you!

  24. Dreadful imagery and atmosphere as if the year 1937 had never gone by or as if today people in Russia were still haunted by the memory of the great terror (even if they seem not to be aware of it).

    I’m astonished that some call these pictures “wonderful” — I think they are utterly frightening.

    When I saw the picture of the marching officers (if these undulating men in long coats and fur caps whom you photographed from behind are military people at all) and then, next, the photo of the veiled lady I could not help thinking of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem”.
    When looking at some of the other pictures, I had the sensation as if a door bell rang, late at night.

    Oh, and by the way, I disagree with what Jim Powers said in his comment above. Don’t worry about allegedly not focusing properly or not holding the camera still — “failing” to do so still did not keep Robert Frank from becoming one of the greatest photographers either…

  25. That was great. What a distinct photographic style, the grain, blur, and contrast heightened the experience. Igor, you have incredible talent. I also loved the presentation.. the movie and music brought a solid essay to an even higher plane.

  26. Pingback: Notes from Underground by Igor Posner (BURN Magazine) « Emerging Photographers « The 37th Frame – Celebrating the Best of Photojournalism

  27. Reimar, start with Crime and Punishment, that’s what this essay reminds me of. I kept waiting for Igor’s photograph of Raskolnikov killing the old woman and her half-sister, and that photograph of the man drinking and looking directly into the camera bears more than a striking resemblance to Dostoevsky himself. Photographically, these remind me of Koudelka’s early theater work. Igor, this is great stuff; capturing a city’s psyche using a medium devoted to surfaces is no easy thing to do, but you’ve managed to do it.

    PS. I looked at the essay before reading the comments and the first thing I thought when I got to the second image was: “Jim’s going to really, really hate this.” And, lo and behold, he does. I am getting psychic in my dotage ;-)

  28. Life at 1/4 second… captivating, unique, genuine… not sure in some cases what i was looking at but as a whole it works. This guy’s got talent.

  29. Very good. Music and photos played off each other well. I think at some points the flow of photographs didn’t really sync up with music, especially the powerful crescendo at the end. But overall, a good multimedia piece, and some of the photographs are brilliant.

  30. Fantastic. This is exactly where I see photography going in the sense of a cinematic experience. Reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu except in B&W. The slow deliberate mood created out of scenes with hardly any movement but conveying a heavy sense of foreboding that Herzog uses seem to be similar to the mood portrayed here. That was before I read the artist statement. I wrote an English essay in high school on Crime and Punishment contrasting and comparing Dostoevsky’s life with that of Raskolnikov. Both ended up in prison and found redemption through a women and the discovery of their higher self. Is this essay in any way autobiographical for you, apart from the homicidal tendencies?

    Congratulations, one of the best published on Burn.

  31. This essay scared me to death. I loved it. If I ever had any plans to move to Russia they are gone now! The two with dogs were especially scary. And the one with the white things floating through the air. Good work. Dark Russian, Scary, interesting, and I am going to watch it again and again! Best essay in a long, long time here on Burn.

  32. Truly enlightened storytelling Igor. The editing is superb, I can see someone else failing to understand how to put these images together, and coming out with something repetitive and boring. You however, paced the images so that the viewer is forced deeper and more personally involved with each photograph. The results move with ferocity. I found myself going through a continuum of emotions; disturbed, sympathetic, terrified, feelings of guilt and then innocence, curiosity and then arrogance. Thank you for sharing this story, I hope to see prints in person some day, either on a wall or in a book.

  33. Good, strong and powerful. Congratulations, Igor!

    “In comedy of life the pleasantries are little,
    We have to master roles in tragedy of people.”

    Boris Zubry

  34. Possibly just as effective with a shorter edit, simply because its great strength is in the faces. They made me think of Peake’s illustrations, though that doesn’t do this justice.

  35. After seeing it at full screen and headphones, I’m still very impressed. Very powerful images.
    One of the best essays I’ve seen at Burn.

    Igor, thanks for sharing it. Congratulations.

  36. I often visit “Dpreview” where a mix of amateur and professional photographers congregate to discuss equipment and to show and critique photos. Critiques there often drive me nuts, because so many commentors seem incapable of seeing a photograph beyond its most superficial values: does it have noise or that plastic-smooth low ISO digital look, is it in sharp focus, does it have a smooth gradation of tone? If it has that smooth, plastic, look it is good. If it has noise, it is bad.

    What matters far more to me is a photograph carries a message, tells a story, creates a mood, generates impact. If it does, I don’t care if its blurry, noisy, grainy, contrasty or whatever.

    I’d say every single photo in this essay tells a story, carries a message, creates mood, generates impact. And technically, I would call them excellent. It would be very easy to try something like this and then create something that just looked contrived. Not so here.

    Now that I have watched it, a few photos come back to haunting life in my mind, where I still see them sharply and in detail; others recede into the darkness and the music and I cannot see them clearly – yet I continue to feel them.

    Among those that haunt me clearly – the young woman sitting with the brave but desperate smile and a mug of beer, the cat receding into the wall, the dog chewing on the doll, the men walking away with a dusting of snow on their shoulders, the nude woman – gaunt and abstract – like she is not there, the nude man, the view from above looking down onto the street where the building bulges forward, the three boys who appear to step out of a very early 20th century portrait.

    As to the music, it was appropriate and good – yet, I felt that I would rather browze through the pictures at my own pace, with no sound effects.

    Maybe one day I will get to see the book and then I will do so.

    And — Igor, I think you may have set a record for Burn – certainly for all the stories that I have managed to look at. I don’t know exactly images you included, but I’m sure it must be over 60.


  37. Beautiful Work Igor. From every perspective a success. The variety is extra-ordinary as is the implementation of the technique. It’s easy to feel like the recipient of the bold mood you’re striving to express. A book would be a natural next step with this work and one i’d love to have on my coffee table.

  38. I love the subtlety of the timing. During those extra seconds of blackness, my mind thinks how wonderful the intimacy, the beauty of the streaks of lightness, too bad it is over. Then the second ends and another shot appears that only enforces what the brain was thinking a split second ago.

    This is photography that lingers.

  39. Certain of these images are for me, like magnificent paintings: complete stories unto themselves rendered with depth and integrity and mastery, and I delight in swimming in your consciousness. I so look forward to your future work.

  40. This essay has only one smile.

    I have just experienced the power of multimedia. Expressing feeling through imaging is now something we should all contemplate in this new manner of communicating. The imagery is retro and in many cases very two dimensional, but it contains content. What is most interesting about this piece is the devolved photography. The daguerreotype feel
    of these images is what really makes this so well executed.

    The first viewing found me asking traditional questions about reproduction and quality, but having looked at it again I’ve accepted it for what it is and in the form that it is displayed. A book perhaps, but a digital book would have so much more power. The timing and sound raises the value of this work far more.

    This essay has only one smile… thank you Igor

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  42. I’ve been looking at Igor’s work from some time now, it was a nice surprise to find his work here…
    He has such a stunning style that I simply love, each one of his photographs leaves something in my stomach…his diary is full of life and feeling, simply real and straight to the point.

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  44. I was rivited from beginning to end. I love the aesthetic look of these images; as far as conveying a mood. They are a set of images that conveyed not only a mood but the circumstances of , these people, this city.
    Can see you have an understanding of the mood of this place.
    Thanks for putting it together and sending in. Well worth the effort from where I stand.

  45. Daring, bold images. Not contemporary, from the twenties. Haunting. Some so beautiful they take my breath. I thought of movies, and of books, and of stories in old east European cities. Very powerful.

  46. thank you anton and david for publishing this essay on burn; and i thank all of you for watching and responding.


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  50. Igor Posner has been a revelation.
    His photos tell a St. Petersburg characterized by little tragedies of every day life that wear down in the streets and, especially, in bars. Are just pictures taken in the bars that caught my attention. In fact, they remember me the scenes of bohemian Paris, described by Degas, Picasso, Lautrec. Men and women lost in their glasses with gloomy and vacant eyes.
    Stories to the margins of society today as then.
    His “pictorialism” ispires me and encourages me to be able to one day do photos like yours.

    p.s. Sorry for my bad english!

  51. hi, dada )

    ‘seen this slideshow in Petersburg a few weeks before NY. that was a deep night on the last floor of an apartments, located on crossroads of 2d line & sredny prospect with the sight of st.michael lutheran chirch from it’s window… nothing to say more. perfect shot in my head & heart. thnx a lot for your work

    & thnx 2 sushka too )

  52. Very stunning. dark, sinister, and moving. Its one complete piece. I love the fact that each image can stand on its own and yet together, they make a unified and compelling statement.

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