Aunties: The Seven Summers of Alevtina and Ludmila
By Nadia Sablin
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University/Duke University Press 2015
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
As a young girl, before moving to the United States, Nadia Sablin would visit her grandfather Alexey at his house in Alekhovshchina, a village three hours’ drive outside of St. Petersburg. “My grandfather, I adored,” writes Sablin in the Afterword of Aunties: The Seven Summers of Alevtina and Ludmila. “I would bring him wild strawberries and beg for fairy tales, long ones with bog devils and languishing princesses.” Wounded in the Second World War, Alexey had rebuilt his house in the village to be closer to his extended family. “He took his house apart, log by log, a Roman numeral carved onto each one, and floated it down the Oyat River to its present location and reconstructed it.” In her grandfather’s house, Sablin would read: “Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Haruki Murakami introduced me to Magical Realism – a world that I was already inhabiting”.
Ultimately health issues would prevent Alexey from staying, and care of the house passed to his two oldest daughters, Sablin’s aunts Alevtina and Ludmila, who, along with the house and its rural surroundings, are the subject of Sablin’s book. Sablin’s pictures, many of which are made in collaboration with her aunts, invoke life at the house as she remembers it, and as she would like to remember it, from her summer visits over seven years. It is deliberate in its romanticism: the photographs speak not only to the women’s self-sufficiency, hard work, and quiet harmony, but also to the sense of security that the environment clearly evokes for Sablin.
Aunties powerfully conveys the feeling of quiet companionship shared by the two sisters; the relationship feels almost mythological. We see the women maintaining the house and its gardens: sawing wood, picking vegetables, preparing meals. We see their rewards: small pleasures like fresh strawberries; a home and clothing made of an extraordinarily vibrant array of floral print fabrics; the leisure of working on a puzzle. A fine edit animates both the place and the things that inhabit it with an other-worldy vibrancy. The women clean grapes that look like faceted jewels. We see them go off into the forest with matching white pails, and in the next image they return, the pails still empty. Twinned tree stumps suggest twinned sisters; fruit, linens, thread and rocks echo and comment on the activities of the women. Flowers, everywhere. Sablin casts it all in beauty, and her sense of light and color is impeccable. Everything feels intensely alive.
The photographs, in their careful execution, present a complete world in this place, inhabited only by the two women. The half-year that the sisters spend away from the village is not referenced. It seems that they are always there, all the years’ summers blending into one. Sablin has been careful to exclude also any trace of contemporary technologies (though a television remote control is visible in one picture). There are no children, no one else to carry on after this generation passes. In one of the few images not set at the house, one of Sablin’s aunts walks past a ruined building, its roof overgrown with weeds, the ground strewn with rubble. There is nothing left in the world outside of the house. It’s as though the seven summers exist outside of time and history; perhaps this arcadia is better read not as a pre-modern idyll, but as a mythical return to nature after the fall.
Aunties is exceptional in the way that Sablin creates a descriptive narrative that speaks to widely shared longings for a pre-industrial past, and renders it with a palpable emotional charge. The book points to a fantasy of holding onto a disappearing pre-modern bucolic lifestyle. This idea of simple, rustic living, where there is only work and leisure, but no doubt or confusion, has a broad appeal; we see it expressed in advertising and design. And while many people today continue to live close to the land (where doubt and confusion are unlikely to be absent), for those of us who don’t, Aunties will speak to a powerful, shared bundle of desires.
But beyond the longing to return to simplicity, there is something notably powerful about the way the pictures feel. Sablin has infused a set of pictures that appear straightforward and descriptive with her own emotional investment, and her love and respect for her aunts is channeled through the carefully circumscribed world that she creates. As Sablin explains, this book is about her personal experience of this place, of the idea that one could live close to the land, close to a loved one, in peace. “The images, both real and imagined, are part of a process of forgetting and remembering. Life there is never easy, and the hard realities of my aunts’ physical labor jar me when I first return. But then my memories and my imagination flood my perception and Alekhovshchina begins to transform back into a magical place all over again.” The book is less about Sablin’s aunts’ lives as they are lived, than they are about Sablin’s wish for their happiness, and her wish to preserve her own happy memories. Like a fairy tale, the surface story, enchanting as it may be, rests above layers of emotional intensity that wait to be revealed.
Aunties: The Seven Summers of Alevtina and Ludmila was the winner of the 2014 Center for Documentary Studies/ Honickman First Book Award.
All images © Nadia Sablin.
Leo Hsu is a photographer and writer based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Contact Leo here.
Support Fraction and purchase Aunties: The Seven Summers of Alevtina and Ludmila here.