Odessa bags by Hannu Lehmusvuori · Bag cavalcade with words · Without many words
Click on any miniature photo to see it. I hope you enjoy this bag of pictures.
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Hannu Lehmusvuori
First Entrance Gallery · Studio Hannu Lehmusvuori´s Homepage

The photos you are about to see in First Entrance Gallery´s first exhibition Odessa Bags were taken several years ago in Odessa, Ukraine that was then (as my old Webster puts it) the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. These exposures (and several of their mates) have kept me musing over them all these years since the early ´80s.

The project was originally meant to be published as illustrations in a series of articles on the Soviet Union which a small group of young, eager and enthusiastic Finnish journalists-to-be was working on.

The story of how the pictures were salvaged

In those days we were only able to take an inexpensive, wintery tourist trip to Odessa with a group of students from the University of Helsinki. The shortage of means and official connections was highly beneficial. Had we been officially invited to do photo journalism in a part of the Soviet Union, we would very likely have been rich with food and spirits and other hospitality, but perhaps also too abundant with historic monuments, show-case locations and certified people, etc.

Instead we walked the streets, alleys and backyards sensing the atmosphere and studying people. And doing it undoubtedly with too much inquisitive zeal, because a righteous minded civilian once protested my street photography by calling in the militia. No polite excuses were enough. The uniforms walked in on us and soon enough a pair of plainclothes men. A civilian Lada was forced to stop in the middle of the avenue and take me and my friend along with the men in plain clothes to an unknown destination. At least that was the way we saw the situation. Afraid? You bet. The kind, apologizing words whispered by one of the uniforms didn´t quite comfort.

Through turns and crossings we had no idea even existed in beautiful Odessa, we finally stopped in front of an innocent looking four storey building. Our silent escort led us up the stairs to 3rd floor. We couldn´t help the feeling of being in a cheap espionage movie. But honestly speaking, at the moment uncertainty and angst were far stronger feelings.

With detective manual certainty we were left to ourselves in a dim corridor to sweat on worn-out chairs while the detectives entered a room and closed the door. Through the door we heard words we didn´t understand.

Finally we were beckoned to enter the room. A third, higher ranking, officer made us understand that we should hand over our cameras. He uttered the word "tourist?" two or three times. We admitted the assumption (probably to our very best). He held our cameras and with some words of English he let us know that he was amazed why we wanted to take pictures of such "unesthetic" subjects as backyards, workers unloading a truck, and old peasant wives in their everyday clothes when there were such beautiful sites in Odessa. It crossed our minds that we had actually been followed for a bit of our way. And later on we understood that being very plausible, because we learned that our´s was the only group of tourists in the whole of Odessa at that moment.

We thought he´d simply open the cameras and let the films be ruined, but he handed them back to us and asked us to unwind the films and hand them to him. And after that we were just asked the name of our Hotel, and let out to the street where we felt totally lost. We had no idea where we were. And we were getting pissed off now that the nervousness gave way to aggressive feelings. We honestly thought we had been viewing and photographing the Odessan reality with kind eyes and qenuine interest, and now our films had been confiscated. My friend lost everything he had shot, but I was fortunate to have been a lot more laborious - I had three exposed rolls in my pocket.

And I also had unexposed film in my camera bag. So, I loaded the camera and tossed the carton on top of a full carbage can. Then I got this childish idea of taking a symbolic picture of the Kodak Tri-X box in an Odessan carbage can. That was about to turn into a disaster. When I was looking for a dramatic angle and focusing, a man rushed in on us very swiftly, pulled some sort of a document from his breast pocket (the fellow actually did have one of those semi-long, dark and heavy leather jackets on), waved it in front of my face and grabbed my camera. Out came the film, and undoubtedly some very nasty words. Intimidated we were, but that was all of it. The man walked away.

Next day in our Hotel. The guide, a Finn, has been contacted by the officials, and reprimanded of the ill conduct of some members of his group. The word was not to let this photography happen again since 60% of my friend´s pictures had turned out to be "subversive". And 70% of mine. Now I can say that it´s nice to have had one´s photos officially classified. Also I´m happy that somewhere there are some of my best photos of Odessa. Aren´t the lost photos always the best?

Due to several personal incidents on one hand, and the breaking up of the group on the other led to these pictures remaining as my personal memories until the present day (March, 1996).

The esthetics

As can easily be seen, this is a collection of photos very much in the gendre of street photography. Fast, intuitive capture of events as they pass by. Full-frame shooting with no cropping and re-doing in the darkroom.

I have all through these years been interested in why the photos turned out with so similar characteristics, even though some central elements in composition were not consciously worked out while taking the pictures. One of the similarities is the use of the edges of the frame - something is getting out or coming in or both at the very proximity of the edge... But this is getting too verbose to be in my liking. I´d rather say that I loved the streets and market places of Odessa, and the genuine people inhabiting that city called "the pearl of The Black Sea", and hope to have been able to say something about them to the one willing to have a look through the Bags and beyond bags.

Hannu Lehmusvuori

First Entrance Gallery · Studio Hannu Lehmusvuori´s Homepage
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