In an image taken at Cheryomushki District, Moscow, three teenagers sit along an elevated side of a creek bed. The afternoon light pushes gently through leafless trees, and water in the creek gurgles over rocks as it flows past. The grand setting could be almost anywhere in time or location, a slice of sublime nature as if captured by one of the masters of Romanticism. But the scene’s timeless beauty is betrayed by the high-rise buildings barely visible through the trees and the contemporary clothing of the girls sitting like the Three Graces.
Alexander Gronsky is a self-described landscape photographer with an uncanny ability to convey scenes in nature as elegant allegories that include rolling hills, spectacular lighting, and far-reaching horizons. Inspired by paintings from the Romanticism era, he skillfully uses perspective and composition to draw the viewer’s eye deep into the vistas and generate a sense of awe for each place.
Gronsky’s photographs in the series titled Pastoral depict city dwellers who are drawn to the urban hinterlands for precious moments of leisure. The people in these images seek sun. They yearn for tranquility. And they are determined to find respite in nature, away from the stresses of day-to-day life, away from tall city buildings, urban commotion, and crowds. Many go to great lengths to claim that piece of grass or patch of sand, or they may wander deep into secluded wooded areas looking for solace and protection from prying eyes.
The photographs serve in a dual function. They document this all too human push beyond the city. But they also serve as respite in themselves. They are a breath of fresh air, allowing the viewer to rejoice in their own escape.
Gronsky roams these areas as an unobtrusive observer. He stays at a respectful distance from the people he photographs and rarely engages with them directly. In fact, most people are probably not aware of him or the camera at all. In most cases he uses no tripod, since many scenes he spots only last for a moment. He relies on his medium-format camera to be able to respond quickly. One moment later he, or the critical moment, could be gone.
In a relationship that is usually structured one-to-many, Gronsky emphasizes collective human behavior rather than individual action. The lush landscape and the comparatively small human figures paint a picture of nature’s grandeur that celebrates the landscape without downplaying the people within. The photographs are printed large even by today’s standards. With the option to get close or back away from the images, the landscape can seem endless while retaining minute details in facial expressions and gestures in the human figures. Image after image demonstrates people’s insuppressible need to occasionally leave the confines of the city behind and recharge.
Within the constancy of human presence, the locations of these recreational moments vary greatly. They are hidden deep in forested areas or splayed out at open beaches. They can be found in secluded niches or popular gathering places. Meanwhile, Gronsky never loses sight of the proximity of big city life. The escape is only temporary, a day pass from our walled-in existence that is built on an illusionary sense of privacy. Glimpses of high rises and industrial parks in the telltale aesthetic of Eastern European architecture can be spotted at some distance through the trees, along the horizon, or sometimes in surprising proximity to the people in their leisurely pursuits.
These places are temporary and makeshift. And they are honest. Unlike vacation resorts they do not create the illusion of a life without tension, stress, and other big-city maladies. Instead these problems are only put on hold. No attempt is made to hide nearby structures from view. The city, residential building blocks, and nature coexist with calm unease, like a brief truce in the midst of an ongoing battle. There is no pretense that the day will not end with the return to a boxed-up existence in a cookie-cutter apartment and a life of concrete.
All photographs in Gronsky’s series were taken around the city boundaries of Moscow—Russia’s most populous city that is home to an estimated twelve million people. Moscow’s peripheral areas are rapidly changing. As the city expands its grasp, fringe areas shift to claim new tracts of land. Many of the secluded places in Gronsky’s earlier photographs have already given way to more construction of residential or industrial projects. Gronsky follows the flow of people as they lead him to unusual and sometimes rough-edged areas where the sprawl of the city sometimes casts a dirty mark onto the land.
Gronsky’s photographic style is consistently pristine, but the stretches of nature in his images are not. Scattered trash ranges from picnic utensils to furniture to construction debris. These are places where rural areas clash with urban sprawl and industrialization, and where the state of the land varies between idyllic vibrancy and careless neglect.
Gronsky refers to the land’s condition as the “wounded landscape.” The land bears deep marks made by the encroaching city and the careless habits of people. There are no signs of conservation efforts or even a glimmer of public awareness of the need for such initiatives. The land is too much in flux. Not quite park, not yet tomorrow’s construction site. A paradoxical mixture of beauty and decline.
From a distance, these places still allude to a pastoral picture of Eden; and people flock to them in surprising numbers. Yet despite the imperfections of these unlikely places of respite, they provide sanctity and escape. Sometimes a moment of leisure, claimed despite the city’s reluctance to provide it and with all its ideosyncrasies, is good enough. It still provides a much-needed escape from urban life to people, who in all likeliness, will return many times.
Gronsky’s vision for his images never waivers regardless of the state of each site he photographs. He finds beauty in any place, calm within the noise of playful sunbathers, and magnificence even as leisurely pursuits come face to face with construction efforts. Other concerns—for the environment, the people, the expanding cities—are subtly layered into the complex images, yet his appreciation for the land prevails. In the end, the series’ title Pastoral may refer equally to the artist’s own yearning to find something timeless and wholesome in every place as it does to the city dwellers’ hope for the perfect spot in the sun.