Awash in concrete, the landscape of post-Soviet Eastern Europe lives with the stubborn remnants of the Soviet age. Intractable and cruelly resistant, the concrete buildings and monoliths are both an obstacle to progress and a crumbling reminder of an older age. Rafal Milach's Black Sea of Concrete explores the coastal landscape of modern Ukraine as it lives with this formidable legacy while also struggling to move forward. Trapped between an oppressive but known past and an uncertain future, the path ahead is far from clear.
Originally commission by the Belgian-based NGO Altemus, Milach began the project in 2008 and quickly decided to focus on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Shooting intensely over the course of two weeks, Milach then spent the next year tightly editing the work. He then worked with Ania Nalecka of Tapir Book Designs, who designed the book. The book went on to win the 2009 PhotoBookNow award-contest. Although it took four years to publish the book, Milach published two additional books in the interim, In The Car With R (Czytelnia Sztuki) and 7 Rooms (Kehrer). He has also kept busy with various projects as part of Sputnik Photos, a photo-collective of which he is a member. Unlike his prior two books, which had traditional publishers, Black Sea of Concrete is self-published and is only available as a special-limited edition collector's item with a print. While this may disappoint his fans with limited budgets, the book is beautifully produced and printed.
Shot in the years following the Orange Revolution* and immediately preceding a new election, the work has an undercurrent of anxiety. Boys on piers play with and trade cellphones, cranes sit idle waiting to complete a bridge or roadway and military men stand at the ready – all waiting and unsure of what is to come. Throughout the book, the sea is a constant and contrasts the endless immobile concrete. It serves as a reminder not only of the region's rugged beauty, but it also as a conceptual thread. Endlessly lapping at the shore, seeking, somewhat futilely, to break down the concrete shoreline and lingering edifices of the past.
In addition to the images, the book also contains a series of wonderful personal texts that give some historical background and context, and feature people in the images. Appearing on various pages throughout the book, the texts are arranged in cascading wave-like lines – echoing the coastal imagery of the book. Never intrusive or self-indulgent, the text blends perfectly with and supports the images. In a subtle, but fantastic, design detail, facing each image is the text of its location that aligns with the image's horizon or coastline. Repeated again in the back, the locations trace various towns and cities along the coast. Another design element worth noting is the graphic, text-free cover. A painted faux-waterfront on a concrete jetty or wall, cracks, rebar and metal disrupt the otherwise bucolic scene. It's a perfect cover for the book. The same image is offered along with the book as a print.
In the years since the Soviet Union's collapse, it seems like the former Soviet republics are ground zero for innumerable photo projects. From the early work of Jonas Bendiksen and Rob Hornstra to Carolyn Drake and Milach, as well as his colleagues at Sputnik Photo, and others not mentioned, photographers have turned their attention to Central Asia and Eastern Europe to document the region during this difficult time. Although the Cold War is over, its aftermath is far from complete and often ignored by Western press. At times, such work simplistically relies on a voyeuristic portrayal of post-Soviet decay – showing the downtrodden apartment complexes, the crumbling Soviet monuments and requisite statues of Lenin. While Milach does not shy away from the monuments of the past or the decaying infrastructure of the coastal region (it's an unavoidable and crucial part of the work), the book is at once compassionate and critical, offering a nuanced look at the Black Sea and its inhabitants.
As Milach himself notes, the project is about the cost and trappings of "post-Soviet nostalgia." However, the price for such nostalgia can be high. In the book's opening text, Milach writes, "change happens slow." In the end, the sea may eventually wash away the stubborn concrete. How long this eventually takes is up to citizens of the Ukraine.
*The Orange Revolution was a series of protests and political events that occurred in the aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian election run-off beginning in late 2004 to lasting until early 2005. —Adam Bell
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.