Leonid Bergoltsev is a short, stocky man who says his best days are behind him. From 1958-72, he was a globe-trotting photographer with the magazines Soviet Life and Soviet Union. He had a large apartment in Moscow and received dozens of awards for his work. But it is America, he says, that is the "motherland of real-life photography. Life magazine, 1936-1972" -- he trots out the magazine's dates from memory -- "was my manual during a lot of years." The professional's secret is simple but elusive, says Bergoltsev: "A real magazine photographer must be in right place at right moment and if so, at that moment, God will push with his finger."
He came to America in the late '80s at the invitation of local photographer Don Hamilton. While here, Bergoltsev's daughter Olga met and fell in love with an American man, and so the family came to America. Chance brought this & eacute;migr & eacute; here, not a dream of a better life in America. And Bergoltsev admits he misses Russia: "There can be no new motherland -- only one, like mother."
But the motherland has moved on. Visiting Moscow four months ago, he saw a Russia that was absolutely another country. People were very different, he says, "more materialistic, closer to America." Scores of Mercedes and SUVs are nudging aside the Russian Lada, the gritty, trusty workhorse of Russian winters. In the country where the ideal had been equality among comrades, the gap between rich and poor now yawns. "Most [Russian] people are much poorer than before," he says.
As for America, shrugs Bergoltsev, "In this country, dollar rides first." Renown and prestige are no substitute, apparently. He looked for work in his field, but didn't hear from employers who promised to call. His friend Don Hamilton organized a retrospective of his work at the Chase Gallery in 2004, but the photographer whose work has been compared with Cartier-Bresson was disappointed that more people did not see it, even as he praises Hamilton for his efforts.
He and his wife Nina live in a modest apartment in Hillyard and get by on Social Security and Bergoltsev's part-time office job. Life consists of two parts, he says, the material and the spiritual. In Russia, the material life is harder but the spiritual life is much better. As to this country's celebrated freedom, says Bergoltsev, "It's very good when it brings some result. In America, you can say anything you want, but they won't listen."