Photographer Michael Turek documents the “absurdity, humour and grandeur” of Siberia
In the winter of 2016, the New York-based creative began photographing the small towns and villages of Siberia. Here, he tells us more about his fascinating project.
- Ayla Angelos
- 6 April 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Michael Turek’s first venture into photography began, like many, at an early age. He was just eight years old when he received his first 35mm camera for Christmas – a gift from his aunt and uncle in Yorkshire. “It wasn’t a gift I was particularly enthused about at first,” he tells It’s Nice That, “and I didn’t use it until the following summer when I was spending the holidays in Yorkshire.”
The Dales national park in Yorkshire is where he spent much of his childhood, and it was this “whimsical fantasy land” that he loved more than any other place. Then, one day he had discovered how he could capture, “memorise and savour” the landscape through the medium of photography – especially because he’d end up missing the place so much come September when returning to school in the States. “I loved the sensation of framing the world in a box, and afterwards looking at the prints with great intensity, thinking in my child’s mind that perhaps if I looked hard enough, I would be able to magically return to the summer days in Yorkshire.” Daydreaming aside, this never happened. But this “obsession” with taking pictures began to grow and soon enough he was taking on photography as a “serious hobby”, and later decided to pursue his studies in the medium at Rochester Institute of Technology before moving to New York in 2004 – where he began assisting and shooting his own personal projects.
Spending much of his time either working abroad on assignments, or at his desk at home, the New York-based photographer now boasts a client list ranging from AARP, Architectural Digest, British Airways High Life, Conde Nast Traveller, Harper’s Bazaar and The Economist. His most recent project, Siberia, began like many others: with an idea. What’s different about this one, however, is that it spanned years, when usually his assignments typically last no longer than a week. Because of this, Michael found himself returning to places that had “at first felt strange and foreign”, that in turn became familiar, replacing the “sensation of alienness”.
GalleryMichael Turek: Siberia
Travelling to Siberia changed the way he photographed. “The longer I spent in Siberia, the less I shot,” he says. “For instance, on my first trip to Siberia, I shot 1,400 images over the course of three weeks. This was a typical rate for me, equivalent to the amount I shoot on assignment. But on my final trip, which was a full month, I came back with just over 400 images. That’s an average of 13 images per day – a roll of film is ten shots, so I was barely using a single roll per day.” Michael notes that it felt less like an assignment, and more like he was photographing at home. “It wasn’t quite that I was bored in Siberia, but I had become less shocked by its exoticism and more amused by its everydayness.”
The result is a documentation of the small towns and villages of Siberia, where slowness and stillness prevail. The project began during the winter of 2016, when Michael was joining British writer Sophy Roberts on a trip. She was working on a book project of her own, titled The Lost Pianos of Siberia, “which became a story of our slightly mad hunt across Siberia in search of a piano for a Mongolian concert pianist.” Traversing across seas for a total of five trips, totalling 100 days, the photographer – working in sync with his companion – notes how he became aware of Siberia as an “almost country”, for the fact that it occupies seven different time zones from the Urals to the Pacific. “Geographically it’s Asian, but culturally it attaches itself to European Russia. It’s a place of conflicting identities.”
This sparked an interest for Michael to continue shooting. He had always had a fascination with the area though, particularly a curiosity to see what lay behind American mythologies of “Siberia as a place of exile,” something which stems back to a memory of a teenage friend who hung a Soviet hammer and sickle flag in his bedroom.
Michael recalls a specific moment photographing a piano tuner in Novosibirsk: “I was positioned behind the subject, wedged between a grand piano and a wall,” attributing the image’s success to the fact that Sophy was just out of frame to the right, “sitting with her interpreter”. The pair would often interview and photograph their subjects at the same time – a testament to just how unified these two projects really are. What’s more, Michael captured hours of video footage to go alongside the stills, recording interviews with subjects.
“I’m currently speaking with a production team with a view to cut a documentary short, or perhaps even a full feature-length, which may require a return trip to Siberia,” Michael concludes. “So much of the absurdity, the humour and the grandeur of Siberia is best described through motion picture and sound, so I’m very much looking forward to sharing more of this project.”
Michael Turek's Siberia is published by Damiani on 5 March and available to purchase at £40.