The Take on Soviet windows

militaryshirts-moscowDavid Hlynsky shot 8,000 Hasselblad images on the streets of Communist Europe from 1986 to 1990, doggedly recording the banality of the Soviet Bloc.  Primarily store windows, the photos illustrate cityscapes “devoid of the trumped up and pumped up urgency” of the West. (Above: Military shirts, Moscow 1990)


I Shop, Hlynsky’s featured exhibition in the Contact Photography Festival, documents the mundane street life of Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and other regions as the Soviet bloc disintegrated. (Milk, Moscow 1990)


As it happens, the East collapsed not because it was “evil” but because its own marketplace of ideas and things finally ran out of promise.  Eastern windows are already filling with the Western simulacrum… a new utopia built out of flash and seduction –Artist Statement (Canned fish, Moscow)


“If we believe only the propaganda produced by Washington, Hollywood, and Moscow, the Cold War was a battle over fundamental freedoms and the rational distribution of wealth,” the exhibition notes explain. “In Hlynsky’s view, the battle was also about differing versions of our human connection to the material world.” (Nightgowns, Prague)


Hlynsky also took aim at pedestrians, including this construction worker, photographed in Budapest just before the visit of U.S. President George Bush in 1989.  (Below: Picking grape leaves, Bulgaria, 1989)



(Above: Subway map, Moscow / Below: Zippers, Bulgaria)


The East Bloc windows I photographed were far from bankrupt. Yes, they were unpretentious, naive and seemed ironic. But they also contained an inventory of our most common human needs.  –Hlynsky


David Hlynsky grew up in Ohio, had Canadian relatives, and moved to Toronto in 1970 to take a job with Coach House Press.  There, he worked as a designer, darkroom technician, layout artist, typesetter and editor with colleagues that included Canadian writers Michael Ondaatje and bp Nichol.  Read more about his trajectory through holography, performance art, teaching and the rest on his biography, here.

David Hlynsky’s website, here.

17 replies »

  1. Thought provoking…interesting view…very different than the one I possess(ed) of the Soviet Bloc during that time period. Thanks. I enjoyed this.


    • What I remember most vividly of the Soviet leftovers were the huge, steel obelisk-style statues representing power and authority. Very scary. There was graffiti all over them by the time we were there.


    • Your point about a documented past reality is a good one. I went through five eastern bloc countries in 2008 and although there were vestiges of full-on Soviet life, the scramble to Westernize was overwhelming. I didn’t see many streetscapes like this. So you’re right, most of us would never have had this glimpse, except for Hlynsky.


  2. i love the minimalist, geometric lines to the displays.
    the Canned Fish window really stands out to me.
    love the red font with the scrolled wooden backdrop.
    & the kids holding what looks like a globe in Subway Map.
    as though the residents of Moscow are made to view
    their city as the world in its entirety. it`s 2-D but pretty neat
    how they used real boots peeking out at the bottom as the kids` feet!

    Hlynsky himself sounds like a very accomplished artist!


    • That’s so true about the minimalism in the windows, and I’m with you on the cans of fish. That was one of my favorites. Thanks for your observations, interesting as always.


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