Spokane photographer Don Hamilton met Bergoltsev in China during a 1987 visit, and the two self-described "gearheads" struck up an unlikely friendship over Georgian brandy and Russian sausages -- a kind of photographic glasnost. Hamilton visited Bergoltsev in Moscow; the Russian photographer came to visit Hamilton in Spokane in 1989, accompanied by his wife and daughter.
"We were here, with Don's invitation, and because of Don, my daughter came [to be] in love with an American boy," explains Bergoltsev. "A couple of years after that, she was in Moscow and told us, "Why don't you move to me, to America? I didn't want to. But I had terrific pressure from her and from my wife."
In July 1996, Bergoltsev and his wife Nina moved to Spokane. Gone was the upper-middle-class cosmopolitan life in Moscow, filled with prestigious assignments and opportunities for travel. Life in Spokane has been much more quiet. And invisible.
Hamilton calls Bergoltsev "the Soviet Union's version of Henri Cartier-Bresson," referring to the French photographer who mastered "the definitive moment" -- that speck of time when the photographic subject is at its most dynamic and unselfconscious. Bergoltsev too is a master of those moments, whether the subject is an old woman walking the streets of Cannes or an unsuspecting Nikita Khrushchev in his final public appearance just hours before he would be removed from power.
Bergoltsev closely observed not just the official actions that were his assignments, but also the visual ironies that appeared in front of his eye. One of those moments, taken during an assignment in 1965, resulted in his most famous photograph, "The Origin of Truth." [See facing page] This photo was never printed by the magazine that had commissioned it -- but five years later, it was published in this country by Life magazine.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & " & lt;/span & I belong to so-called 'life' photography," he says. "When I see the subject looking at me -- seeing me, seeing my camera -- it's not interesting to me to get a picture. Because, human psychology -- wham, you see the lens directed on you, you want to be much better than you are. But I'm interested in the people who are what they are."
Up until now, Bergoltsev has had no interest in contemporary American photojournalism. "American newspapers are, for me as a photographer, a little bit strange," he says. "Life photography was born in this country -- I'm talking about 1936, Life magazine. And the same life photography has died in this country. Because 75 percent of pictures in American newspapers are like pictures for a passport, or for memory, for family. Everybody sees the photographer. Everybody shows 55 teeth. Everybody is smiling and waving.
Who's interested in this picture but the subject, his wife, his friends, his old parents? It's absolutely not interesting for me as a reader, because it's not natural. All of them are posing. It is an imitation of life.
"I think the only reason to make pictures is to leave them after you," he continues, "for the people who live, if they will live, in 100 years, to see our time, our people, our situation, who lives now, how he lives now, where he lives now, and so on."
The observer's stance that served Bergoltsev so well during his long career has not abandoned him -- he applies the same critical eye to American culture. Like many immigrants, he wrestles with language quirks and cultural mores in his new home while recognizing that there is no road back to his former life.
"My situation here is quite specific," he says. "I'm already not Russian. But I'm not an American yet. And will not be ever. I'm in the space."
Starting next week, we will be featuring new photographs by Leonid Bergoltsev as he lives in that space between Russian and American. With his camera in hand, he need not worry about language differences -- he speaks the language of life photography better than almost anyone.
"I think it's the kind of fine art that doesn't need any translation," he says of his work. "Everybody can understand a picture."
Watch for Leonid Bergoltsev's photos, starting next week in the News section of The Inlander.