WRITTEN BY OLYMPUS VISIONARY PETER DENCH
An interest in Tsarist Russia eventually led Roger George Clark to visit Kronstadt, the island fortress and base of the Russian Baltic Fleet back in September 1990.
Kronstadt is a fortress on Kotlin Island, west of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia, founded by Peter the Great in 1704 to guard his new capital city which he also founded a year earlier. The modern Russian Navy began in Kronstadt and was the home base of the Baltic Fleet. The Neo-Byzantine style St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral dominates Anchor Square in the southeast of the island, the Wild West Wildlife Refuge occupies the northwestern tip. There are monuments to Arctic explorer Piotr Pakhtusov, Antarctica explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov. The parks are spacious, gardens opulent and highways tree lined.
As you’d expect from a military municipality, it also harbours a secretive, turbulent and at times, horrific past. There were several mutinies around 1905, an uprising in 1917 and a rebellion in March 1921 by sailors, soldiers and civilians against the Bolshevik government of the Russian Soviet Republic. The 1921 uprising was a 16-day hell of bombardments, assaults, slaughter, defeat, executions and mass burials. It’s perhaps surprising to learn, the first Englishman assumed to have been welcomed at the formidable naval base since Admiral Beatty traversed the Gulf of Finland with a squadron of battle cruisers on a good-will visit in 1914, was grammar-school educated, pro-tsarist, BBC radio producer, broadcaster and passionate self-taught photographer, Roger George Clark.
Clark first visited St. Petersburg in 1986, subsequently taking thousands of photographs in and around the city. He first glimpsed Kronstadt through the windows of a hydrofoil, a tantalising grey spot on the horizon – his hopes of visiting seemed as far away. The authorities had never before authorised Clark to visit a factory or army college, let alone a naval fortress. With Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reforms) accelerating across the Soviet Union, Clark’s fortunes changed. “When the Novosti photojournalist, Mikhail Makarenko, who was helping arrange my visits to places I wanted to get into, phoned me in London and said the navy had agreed, I was startled and quickly flew to Leningrad,” recalls Clark.
On Tuesday 18th September 1990, with no idea what the island was like except for a brief account published in 1914 in Baedeker’s Russia and a description by the naval writer, Fred T. Jane from his 1904 book, The Imperial Russian Navy, Clark and Makarenko’s Russian Lada car, trundled towards Kronstadt. No longer an island, they had made it across a newly-built causeway – a barrier that linked the island to the mainland to protect St, Petersburg from flooding – to the fortress gates and cradle of the Russian Navy. “It was guarded by Soviet sailors who looked as if they had stepped out of the 1917 Revolution. Away to my right I could see one perched about 20 feet up on a green metal tower like a lookout on a tsarist warship. Down below, tugging on a rope to open a barrier to traffic, stood another sailor in a sentry box. Three more sailors wearing berets and boots sported guns across their shoulders and bayonets on their belts. Communist slogans decorated a couple of signboards: ‘Soldiers, be alert’, said one. ‘The defence of the Socialist motherland is the duty of every citizen,’ said another. And there were 1920s-style paintings to accompany them,” explains Clark.
Clark had been granted three afternoons access to Kronstadt. His broadcast feature for the BBC World Service had priority, photographs were grabbed between recordings. Despite Kronstadt’s past of conflict and war, evidence of pre-revolution Russia remained. “Much of the city centre was preserved. Here you could still see the imperial swagger of the tsars, but this was a miniature version of St. Petersburg. I instantly realised I had stumbled on an architectural gem and told BBC World Service listeners about it in my broadcast. Say what you like about the tsars but they built on a grand scale. They had elegance and style. That was evident looking at the 18th and 19th century buildings that had survived in Kronstadt – and the colours! Wonderful muted tints – red, brown, yellow, blue, green – the colours of autumn.”
Clark photographed the architecture and photographed in black and white. He captured the carved wooden staircase in the former Officers Club and the beautifully decorated theatre that remained. He photographed the forts and submarines, bridges and warships and a traditional horse and cart as it loped along the street. He produced captivating portraits of the sailors. “The Russian sailors, who had an awesome reputation during the Bolshevik revolution, were friendly when I visited. I was often greeted with smiles and cheerful waves when I photographed them,” he remembers.
‘Olympus cameras changed my photography. I used them to take pictures for four photo books. It was the easiest camera I have ever used, light, fast and affordable. I produced much more lively pictures and found them perfect for candid shots.’
In the 1970s and 80s, Clark interviewed and photographed some of the world’s most important and influential photographers including David Baily, Patrick Lichfield, André Kertész, Jane Bown and Jacques-Henri Lartigue. “All told me in private as well as in public that they were using Olympus cameras and strongly recommended them. So I went and bought one and found it lived up to expectations. It was the easiest camera I have ever used – light and fast and unlike the German cameras I had used up until then, affordable. I produced much more lively pictures and found it perfect for candid shots,” reveals Clark. He applied some of what he learnt from the interviews to his portraits of Kronstadt sailors. He also applied his own techniques developed photographing Ivy League and Oxbridge boat crews at that bastion of the English summer season and playground of the Upper Class, the Henley Royal Regatta. “I found simple settings with soft lighting − overcast days were ideal − and selected photogenic people. Then I insisted they gave me their full attention. Other members of the crew would mess about and try and distract them, but I told my subjects to ignore what was happening and concentrate for a few moments on having their picture taken. Then, to ensure a cool and dignified look, I conjured up natural expressions. I want to avoid two extremes, I told my subjects – avoid manic laughter and the opposite − an ultra serious zombie-like stare. Pitch your facial expression in between and relax.” In one photograph, a group of Soviet sailors stand proudly outside Mine School as a jubilant crew at Henley might pose by the River Thames. Despite all wearing the same uniform, each sailor has a subtle adjustment to how they wear their cap, giving each of them a unique look. “Russian naval and military cadets behaved like public school boys in Britain. They were part of an elite and knew it,” adds Clark.
As a teenager, Clark experimented with a box-camera, then a folding Kodak camera with f4.5 lens bought in a sale at Boots the chemist. His Kronstadt pictures were taken with an Olympus OM1n SLR camera and an Olympus OM4 using a range of lenses, mainly the 28mm, 35mm, and occasionally a 135mm. His favourite 85mm lens, which he found particularly suitable for portraits, was previously stolen when working in St Petersburg. All the pictures were taken by available light, seeking overcast skies and shade where the shadowless light was easier to handle and more flattering for portraits. Kodak Tri-X and T-Max 400 films was loaded to hold detail in the shadows and highlights. Although Kodak rated these films at ISO 400, Clark rated them at ISO 320 to compensate for using a fine grain developer that slowed down the film. The results are softer images and smooth-toned pictures avoiding the high contrast and grainy images that Clark found ‘ugly and aggressive.’
As Clark’s time in Kronstadt was short, when it came to food and drink he devoured Cadbury’s chocolate biscuits and Coca-Cola sat in the Lada with Makarenko. Working in broadcasting helped him extend his field of vision and what he captured in camera but it also complicated matters. “Switching from one activity to another caused problems. Describing a scene in words and interviewing people for radio differs from taking photos. The quality of my photographs suffered when I had to keep thinking about constructing radio features, or programs. One activity interfered with the other if I was trying to do both at the same time as I was at Kronstadt. I did the best I could.”
What Clark photographed was unknown to most people in the West and no one from the modern Western world had ever photographed what he witnessed. The three afternoons he spent in Kronstadt compiling his naval photographs are part of a wider archive. When considered along with other photographs he took on the cruiser Aurora, when 80 naval officers and men still ran the ship, at the elite Nakhimov Naval School − plus the numerous candids of sailors in St. Petersburg, they add up to one of the most interesting and important sets of pictures taken by a foreigner since the 1917 Russian Revolution. Clark’s images capture the individual, putting a human face on the Comrades emerging from the catastrophe of Communism.
A version of this article first appeared in the 20th February 2021 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine.