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Trying to freeze the moment.

by Natalia Merkulova

The first thing I understood was that I could speak to him about everything: about his thoughts and ideas, his views, dreams and plans, about his pictures and his work on them, about Saint-Petersburg and the globe in general. I was charmed and amazed.

And struck by his photographs. Initially, I saw his pictures, when they were exhibited in the “Borey” Gallery. Three small rooms of magic. The pictures that could speak. They were whispering with the help of poetry. Each picture had its own voice. And I couldn’t help listening to these voices…

Eli Perelman’s photo exhibition, “The passer-by. Almost a landscape”, was installed first in the Borey Gallery. Then it was shown in the Anna Akhmatova Museum, in August 2008. All the photographs depicted Saint-Petersburg and were accompanied by the poems of the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky. The main thing that stunned me was that each poem was so indissolubly connected with a picture, that it was impossible to say if the photographer had taken the pictures while thinking of the poems, or if he had chosen the poems as captions to his pictures. At the same time, I would say that not only the photographs became brighter and more expressive with the help of the poems, but that the poetry itself received a special new sense, which it had never had before. All the metaphors were opened and received a fresher insight.

After I saw the pictures I longed to see the author, because I was in love with his photographs, and was curious to learn how he managed to avoid stereotypes and cliches in taking pictures of Saint-Petersburg.

The city didn’t look as it usually did - as in so many black-and-white pictures - where it itself becomes a cliche. At times the city didn’t even resemble Saint-Petersburg. The reason being (and everyone felt this) was that the author was not from St. Petes. It was obvious. It was declaring itself in each picture. In their compositions. In the very view of the city and its character. These picto-insights were completely different. He managed to avoid stereotypes and cliches in capturing the city’s essence.

Eli has always been bewitched by the concept of a camera. Just a small magic box which has a magnificent power to freeze the moment. Eli is an amateur photographer. He speaks with a smile while remembering his first digital camera. It had no special features and functions at all, no huge object-glass, etc. Of course, some 20 years ago he had the famous “Zenit” camera and even a small laboratory for developing films at home. But it was always just a hobby. Only to freeze the moment. So that after 10 minutes or 10 years the moment will still be here with you. And it will be with you forever. Though that very moment may have only lasted for just a few seconds. And, even if you don’t understand that moment – you will. But a bit later.

This is why, as Eli explains, he started taking pictures of Saint-Petersburg: it helped him to understand the city. He came here for work. That’s why he had to stay here longer than a tourist, but at the same time he wasn’t born here and couldn’t sense the city. He had heard a lot about its rich culture and special spirit, so different from other Russian cities. Therefore he was fascinated, whilst paradoxically perplexed by it. He couldn’t even speak Russian the first time he was in St. Petes– so he substituted communication with locals by a specific dialogue with its streets, avenues, squares, buildings, capricious weather and character. He now compares his acquaintanceship with the city to the zoom effect of his camera: he first takes pictures of different objects from a distance, then zooms in on them, concentrating on minute details.

He never thought of making an exhibition of his work, but once a friend saw his photographs, they decided to make an exhibition, where they would create the idea of a compilation: “pictures + poetry”. And so it started. It took a long time to read the poems, selecting the right one to accompany each picture, and thinking of an appropriate title. “Passer-by or almost a landscape” – became an attempt to describe the double situation which Eli found himself in: he was neither a resident, nor a tourist. His role was ambiguous, hence his view turned out to be specific.

The attentive spectator may catch the reflection of the photographer in the pictures (sometimes even literally!!), and also his personal view, his delicate nature. He says that each picture is an opinion, that’s why he has sometimes stopped himself from taking pictures of something too sad or intimate. Never hurt anyone. And be honest. This is what he considers to be a principle for every photographer. The audience can feel his metamorphosis and growing love to Saint-Petes, that began from a total misunderstanding, surprise and may be even dislike, continued with a hard, sometimes rough process of finding ways to understand it, to look at it from another point, and finally feeling of a deep attachment and ardent regard.

Eli has traveled a lot and has always been against such pictures like, “Me and the Eiffel tower” or “Me and the Pyramids”. He tries to not only observe buildings, but the way people live. This is what really interests him: to observe the objects of life, find special moments, that can often seem strange, enjoy them, and freeze them. Once, he was somewhere in the country with a driver, the landscape seeming ordinary and dull, but suddenly Eli asked the driver to stop the car. It was a small village, and in the driver’s opinion, there was nothing special about it. To his surprise, Eli started taking pictures of it. Because it was real life and a real vivid moment that he wanted to freeze...... Sometimes, he can walk around the city all day and take only one picture. “You needn’t take dozens of photographs to have a good picture in the end. It can be one shot. And it’s enough.”

At that moment I understood that it was not the magic of his works, not even the magic of the artist’s talent, but the magic of the personality.

Looking at his pictures, speaking with this modest, delicate, polite and friendly man gives you the impression of a complete harmony with the surrounding reality. He is a true philosopher not only in his photographs, his ideas, thoughts, words, views, but even on a cold sunny September morning, drinking his fifth cup of coffee...

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