A book about bus stops, you say?
If you were in a bookshop, or searching online, and found a book called Soviet Bus Stops, you would be excused for assuming this was a novelty publication. You know the sort; The Idler Book of Crap Towns or Terrible Estate Agent Photos. The sort of fun present you may receive at Christmastime as a panic bought Secret Santa gift.
You could not be more wrong. Christopher Herwig has created this body of work over twelve years. He criss-crossed over 30,000km and visit a dozen nations of the former Soviet Union to find bus stops to photograph. This is a road trip like no other. But photographing bus stops? Why on earth would you? These are no ordinary structures, and their history is fascinating and inspirational.
The Soviet Union, under the rule of Brezhnev, went through a period of stagnation. Political ideology regulated everything, including the arts and architecture. However, for those with will, ways are not wanting. The building of Soviet bus pavilions (their term for bus stops) was regulated by the state, but these rules were largely unenforced. This was the way to creativity! And oh, how the creative juices flowed.
Buses were an essential part of everyday Soviet life. Cars were not commonplace. And what better way to start your day than waiting in a beautiful, ornate, colourful, unique and sometimes grandiose bus stop. In some communities, especially in remote areas, these pavilions acted as social spaces to gather together. I did something similar in my teenage years in England. Herwig has captured the wonderful variety of architectural designs and artistic creations in this 192-page book, though not without challenges. He was once accused of being a Georgian spy whilst in Abkhazia and was threatened with a firing squad if he didn’t pay a bribe. Frightening stuff.
I’m so pleased he persevered and created this curious tome. Herwig has managed to photograph a varied selection which keeps you interested and entertained. From a beautifully adorned, folk art inspired bus stop covered in vibrant colours and butterflies in Lelyukhivka, Ukraine, to an over-the-top, sci-fi like structure that looks imposing but also rather ineffective as a shelter in Pitsunda, Abkhazia. This is where this collection of photographs excels. It demonstrates not only the bravery of the architects, allowing themselves to design and build in ways opposed to Soviet ideology, but also of the local governments who encouraged artists to get involved with the design process.
We gain an insight into the lives of the local people through bus stops. We learn more about their culture and creativity. From a simple, but striking, gull wing designed structure in Belarus, to an Islamic inspired, ornate shelter that could almost be a mosque entrance in Turkmenistan, we see what influences exist, and what matters to the communities who live there. Growing up in the UK with very standardized bus stops, I would love to see our local governments adopting such an attitude. It would certainly improve the modern identikit town and city centres.
You can only produce a body of work such as this if you are passionate about your subject. Herwig clearly enjoys his expeditions around the former Soviet Union. He shows us that something considered ordinary need not be so. It challenges historical perceptions of Soviet life. It illustrates the Soviet people still had a desire to show their individuality, even if the state demanded otherwise. The Soviets were not automatons after all.
You can only create such work if you commit to the concept of slow documentary photography. This cannot be rushed. Research and exploration take time, effort and money. Bureaucracy can create challenges and delays. Herwig stayed committed to his idea and the resulting work is testament to his tenacity and to a job well done. Published by Fuel, this book will change how you see simple, everyday objects and open your mind to creating a whole new world. Now where’s my drawing board…
Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig is available from Fuel Publishing for £19.95.