German photographer Frank Herfort began his photography series, Russian Fairy Tales, in 2005 as his final thesis to graduate from a photography and visual communication program at art school in Hamburg, Germany. His first image of Russia, however, dates back to 2000, before he decided to turn his shots of people, interiors, and landscapes from the post-Soviet era into a book. His return to Russia to produce commercial work for advertising companies and magazines exposed him to otherworldly architecture spread amply across the country. The sentiment of transformation throughout Russia is reflected in aesthetic cues he encountered in homes and public spaces. “From the beginning, I was fascinated by these public interiors and places with mostly people waiting in them,” Herfort told Interior Design.
He began capturing people positioned at in-between moments in public service spaces such as train stations, post offices, ticket counters, or metro stations, as well as locales which reflect a new world order after the collapse of the regime, such as cafes or museums. “I find it fascinating that most of the rooms are not immediately recognizable in their function and have an in-between atmosphere,” Herfort says. After traveling across the country for over a decade with his camera, he realized he had documented his own Russian fairy tales and continued working on his venture, while supporting himself as an interior photographer for various design and architecture magazines.
Recently, Herfort launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the release of Russian Fairy Tales, a book of 88 color photographs spanning his 15-year journey. He successfully reached his goal of publishing the book with Berlin-based publisher Kerber Verlag within a few days. His experience shooting scenes from an economically burgeoning Russia yields a specific lens demonstrated in figures and places in a humorous harmony, as often times witnessed in editorials or commercial shoots. “I use the public spaces as stages for real happening stories with real people acting in them,” explains the photographer about the distinction between the images in the series and those from his commercial work. Shooting with a tripod allows Herfort to slow down the photographing experience compared to quick shots with a handheld camera. “My public spaces are my studios, where everything should be real and authentic, nothing removed or added,” he notes. A sense of ambiguity runs through the images of ghostly museums, frozen lakes, and excessive restaurants, inhibited by people responsive to the photographer’s lens with determined postures and a somewhat ambiguous range of emotion. The architecture is equally present in each still—a witness of centuries-old upheaval and an emblem of rapid modernization.
Read Interior Design’s highlights of 10 interiors from Herfort’s Russian Fairy Tales.
Surreal arguably best defines the juxtaposition of four police officers, as young as age fifteen, resting on chaise-lounges inside a green-washed room. Herfort captured the boys in the psychology room of the Suvorov Military Academy in the Chechen capital of Grozny during their audiovisual relaxation therapy for trauma and homesickness caused by boarding school life. Classical music permeating the neon-lit room is invisible in the picture, but its relaxing impact for the barefoot loungers rests on their serene faces. The tropical image inside the light box is one of three “vistas” offered as part of the therapy session, which, through Herfort’s lens, resembles a quirky science experience or an edgy 1980s New Wave music video.
Elephant I, 2005
Herfort asked the director of Moscow’s Zoological Museum to pose with the taxidermy elephant on view on the museum’s ground floor. It’s massive weight hindered the gargantuan specimen from being exhibited with other animals on upper floors where tigers, wild boars and polar bears are displayed inside clinically-lit glass vitrines. The elephant, instead, found space in its exile at the ticket office. The woman’s graceful profile in her bold purple dress is reminiscent of the young socialite in John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, curiously connected with the gargantuan animal by their peeping gazes. The image is a striking example of the photographer’s discovery of the surreal in sleepy, reclusive interiors where extraordinary architecture backdrops an otherwise uneventful atmosphere.
Herfort’s model, here, too, is a museum worker, a guard in this case, perched on a chair by a portable heater for a moment of relief. She is surrounded by a wood-heavy interior, where the floor is worn and the sharp-edged staircase accentuates the museum’s visible Soviet architecture. The sinuous heater sits between the woman and a model of an apartment block inside a vitrine. The display is one of many architectural models the photographer encountered during an architectural exhibition about future plans for development of the Moscow urban area.
Doctor’s Consultation, 2010
The brutal winter had reached -11 Fahrenheit outside when Svetlena visited village doctor Elena Yegorova for a prescription after a night of heavy drinking in the small town of Budushee with a population of around 50, just outside Bologoye. Herfort remembers the inside temperature being at a less than congenial 23 Fahrenheit when he captured two women in the treatment room, where fading wallpaper is haphazardly sealed at the room’s corners. The patient solemnly waits for her prescription in a room, which seems frozen in time, similar to the naturally-iced nature outside.
“Almost all Russian apartments have shelves of great encyclopedias by a few major publishers,” says Herfort. Irina works as an archivist in the library of one of those publisher’s headquarters located on Pokrovsky Boulevard, a major road connecting central Moscow’s Boulevard Ring. The photographer’s lens captures two impossibly large windows, which imbue the office with the sanctity of a church interior. Light bursting through them casts a bright sheer glow over meticulous piles of cabinets, dark wood office furniture, and plants generously peppered around to contrast the hefty decor. Towered by the windows, a cornered Irina seems aloof to the dense scenery behind her, immersed in her universe with an archivist’s precision.
A colorful moment of chance in Herfort’s representation of Russia, this image is a stark discovery of the absurd in generic Stalin era architecture, which in this case is embodied in a type of staircase used in countless building complexes. “Every day, millions of Russians pass through such staircases differentiated only in color and arrangement of the tiles,” says the photographer, who was amusingly welcomed by a lone dog standing in an eighteen-story high-rise. The motif’s orthogonality and color harmony mesmerized Herfort, but the “spellbinding” appearance of the dog, standing amidst the yellow and blue medley on the walls, completed the missing puzzle piece for a perfect picture. “The cold and slaughterhouse-like atmosphere nonetheless radiated warmth, desire, and harmony as a result of this seemingly lost dog,” remembers the photographer.
Russian Soul, 2005
Herfort recommends waiting for your train at the VIP room of the Kazansky railway station, built by architect Alexey Shchusev during the first half of 20th century to connect Moscow with Kazan on the east and Ryazan on the southeast. For only about 5 Euros an hour, the teal-colored room not only offers a secluded waiting experience, but also dazzles with its gaudy over-the-top architecture which blends lavishness of a bygone nobility with generic consumerist habits of early post-Soviet era. Ornate mirrors in varying scales provide the room with depth and a 19th century extravagance, challenged by an army of corporate office sofas and flatscreen TVs entertaining those in transit. A quaint waiting experience is the room’s most charming factor for Herfort. The room has been the official welcome and check-in hall for all passengers traveling on the legendary Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, since Tsar Nicholas II christened the railway in 1890.
The Mission, 2005
Oddity is shared between a traveler’s curiously-wrapped package and the marble sculpture he stands by in a corner at the Kazansky railway station. The similarity between two vertical figures is uncanny, “a special relationship,” according Herfort, who admits to encountering such mysterious and puzzling situations less than before in post-Soviet Russia. “Now, there are ATMs, billboards, kiosks,” he says. A photographer of interiors and people’s relationships to objects, he observes the shift in the meaning of ownership of “things” from Communism to consumerism, represented here with the perplexing dialogue between an ambiguous object and a semi-abstract human figure.
The neon pink seating arrangement and the aquarium columns are noteworthy architectural details of a restaurant in the Chechen capital of Grozny, with a view of the Presidential Palace. The only customer at the otherwise empty eatery is a security guard from the Chechen Presidential Security Services, relaxing over a glass woodruff lemonade. The guard, who was enjoying a day off after a national victory in football, appears somber amidst the flamboyant interior, enjoying his equally flashy-colored green beverage while the fish rotate inside their vertical pools. A highly strict photography ban in the direction of the palace prompted Herfort to snap a picture of the guard and the restaurant instead.
Orthodox Bistro, 2018
Herfort captured a mundane moment of women enjoying their beverages, similar to a holy scene in Christian iconography, and in fact, the mise-en-scène would have been equally inconceivable until recently. Young, and social media famous, Orthodox priest Andrey, seen waitressing here, opened his church cafe, Two Fish, on the ground floor of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Khabarovsk. At his hip gathering spot in the southeastern Russian city, the young priest allows women to forgo wearing headscarfs and offers free seminars on holy foods and traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. The light emanating from behind the priest and theatrical gestures of other subjects in the view bring the image closer to commercial photography, while the cafe’s contemporary interior stands out among the general nostalgia of the series.