I’m not sure when I first came across Christopher Herwig’s project, but it appealed immediately. It’s the work of a photographer who has obsessively catalogued these Soviet concrete structures after first coming across them on a long-distance bike journey – right up my street.
Herwig is a Canadian born documentary photographer who’s photographed extensively in Central Asia and West Africa while working for NGOs, UN agencies and GEO, CNN traveller, Geographical, Lonely Planet, DAMN magazine and many more. The story of this project began in 2002 when riding a bike between London and St. Petersberg, he set himself the challenge of taking an interesting picture every hour of every day in the saddle. Once into the former Soviet states, he began to notice the effort that had been put into some of the bus stops, finally becoming obsessed with quirky structures.
After the trip, Herwig moved to Kazakhstan and during his years there to begin photographing bus stops in the surrounding ‘stans and beyond. 12 years later, he had covered 30,000km and 13 countries in his quest and the result was a kickstarter project to fund a book.
The project hit it’s target inside a month, allowing Herwig to self-publish a limited edition (of 1500) to exacting standards. The resulting 12″x9″, 132 page book is extremely impressive. Perfectly printed and bound, with a neat fold-out image of the particularly shabby, but stunning concrete structure in Pitsunda, Abkhazia. It begins with an interesting essay by Vera Kavalkova-Halvarsson ‘who grew up in a family of architects in Belarus’ that brings together the tales of subversion and experimentation that the designers of the bus pavilions brought to their work. We might expect that, like the socialist housing projects, Soviet bus stop shelters would be functional, uniform and dull. But these architects and department managers tell of how the design of the structures might have been passed to the young apprentice, eager to make an impression, or how local craftsmen were given the chance to decorate their creations. The results are weird and consistently wonderful.
A book of photographs of Russian bus stops sounds like the sort of thing that might have a ‘special’ audience, but such is the quality of the photography and the strength of the underlying social commentary, that the book works on many levels. The photography is extremely well observed with a consistent style and look, even though the project was shot across 13 years. Composition is always spot on; with the two shelters aligned on facing pages, that appear to be next to each other on the street. Or the sweeping concrete arc leading the eye across the gutter to the facing page and the old lady who appears to have been waiting for the bus for her whole life.
The inclusion of people in the pictures adds further interest and reminds us that these structures still serve a purpose – many still as bus stops, but some as shelters for farm animals after the bus route (and occasionally the road itself) has been re-routed.
I hope that the work finds a wider audience and given its success in selling out the first run so quickly, there’s hope that a publisher will pick it up and it’ll find its way into a bookshop near you soon. For me, it will remain a reminder of how a photobook should look, both aesthetically and in terms of the rigour, quality control and adherence to the artist’s vision for his project. I also I hope that I can learn more about the background to the project, how the images were made, and why none of those fantastic bus stops made it west into Poland.
Since writing this back in September 2014, the book was published more widely in 2015 and volume two released by FUEL books in 2017. While the production values of the second book are not as high as that first self-published edition, the content very much is. These are not the pictures that didn’t make the cut – Herwig went back east to shoot more content, having had lots of ‘leads’ generated from the publicity around the first book.
Herwig, C. (2014) Soviet Bus Stops Self-published.