arts and design

The big picture: a brush with greyness in 70s Russia

In November 1974, Brian Griffin flew from Luton airport to Moscow on a three-night Thomson Holidays city break with his flatmates. Griffin, who had spent the first decade of his working life in factories in the Midlands, had not long graduated from Manchester Polytechnic as a photographer. An “ardent socialist” at the time, everything about Moscow both fascinated and troubled him. On the first morning of that trip a military parade passed the Intourist hotel where he was staying. Griffin squeezed through the barrier with his camera and joined the procession as it passed the Lenin mausoleum and the watching President Brezhnev. The parade was the last to feature nuclear missiles. “The whole atmosphere was painted with greyness,” Griffin recalls, in his new retrospective book, Black Country Dada 1969-1990. “It was inspiring.”

Over the following days, Griffin ducked out of the mandatory organised tours and wandered around Moscow, followed, he later realised, by KGB agents. He took this picture at the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, the 100m-high titanium sculpture that stands at the entrance to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. The image was made by the Muscovite trying to navigate his way down the rain-slicked base of the monument as if caught in the rocket’s backdraft – the defensive briefcase and crouch emphasising a sense that he is a man swept aside by fearful progress. Later in the trip Griffin was confronted by the agents who were tailing him, who demanded his camera and removed the film; the roll that contained this image was safely back at his hotel.

Griffin became well known in the years immediately following that trip for inventing a style that was described as “capitalist realism”, in particular photographing the new corporate leaders of Thatcher’s Britain in lonely and minimalist surroundings. The Russian pictures are a kind of premonition of that visual language, very different takes on the contrasting relations of power and the individual.

Black Country Dada by Brian Griffin will be published next month by Cafeteria and an exhibition of the same name will be online as part of Format photography festival from 12 March to 11 April,


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