Arts, Culture & Media

This photographer has found the beauty in Soviet bus stops

If I were to make a list of the top 10 least visually interesting things on Earth, I might put bus stops right up there with dental floss and dryer lint. Unless I lived in the former Soviet Union.

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Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig recently launched a kickstarter to fund his photo book on Soviet bus stops, and he shot past his $10,000 goal by more than $40,000.

These bus stops remind me of people, stragglers at some party that time forgot— the guy who laughs too loud, the sad girl clutching a plastic cup of wine. Looking at these pictures, you kind of want to give these bus stops a hug.

Herwig spent 12 years crisscrossing the former Soviet Union, covering more than 18,000 miles. To him, these weren’t just places to catch a bus — but a free-standing gallery of public art that happens to span twelve countries. 

I had to know what fueled his near-pathological obsession all these years. So here’s Chris Herwig, in his words, on the making of Soviet Bus Stops:

“The idea came up when I was riding my bike across Europe to St. Petersburg 12 years ago, and I had made a game for myself where I had to photograph something interesting every hour along the way.

I found I was photographing people’s laundry lines and just different things along the way. And when I got to the former Soviet Union, I started spotting these bus stops, and that really made me happy because it was just like, ‘Wow, hey, this really feels like I’m actually discovering something. I totally didn’t expect that this was going to be here.’ This is exactly what I was looking for, you know, something that’s kind of common, but beautiful.

There was often a really local flavor to the designs of the bus stops. In Estonia, a lot were made out of wood, sort of a cabin in the woods. In the ones along the Black Sea, a lot had much bigger production values, and really psychedelic shapes and colors. In Kyrgyzstan, there was one that was made like a traditional Kyrgyz hat, the Kalpak.

Not everyone that I was traveling with would always get it. I’d just be like, ‘Stop the car! Stop the car! Look over there! Look over there!’ And they’d just be like, ‘Oh yeah. That’s kind of weird…’ And so the collection kept growing and growing.

You see a lot of them out there, some good and some bad, and some ugly. So you also become a little bit of a critic, because when you’re in a bit of a rush, you can’t stop at all of them. And usually by the end of the day, our tolerance level, or our level of what was maybe acceptable to stop at at the beginning of the day, was much higher by the end of the day. And then it would just be like 'No no no, we’ve seen so many of those already. Just keep driving!'

I can kind of understand that if you look closely at a lot of the bus stops, they are run down. And if you don’t really look at the bigger picture of the beauty of the art and you just look at the fact that, okay, maybe the seats are broken and someone has gone to the bathroom in this bus stop and there’s empty bottles of vodka or beer lying around in there. There are sad things, or negative things, in it but that’s not what I was going for, and I don’t think that’s what the bus stops really represent.”

Herwig’s favorite bus stops were designed by Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor who went on to become famous, even infamous, in Russia. I called Tsereteli in Moscow to ask about the inspiration behind his super-trippy creations and he told me that most of the bus stops he designed were near tourist resorts; the government thought of them almost like advertisements.

No one ever told him 'no,' Tsereteli told me. He had full creative freedom and an unlimited budget.

Okay, but what about function? I mean, a lot of his bus stops have no roof.  That wasn't his problem, Tsereteli told me.

“If you ask an artist to create something, he has to decorate everything artistically," he said. "It could be a toilet, or a bus stop. St. Petersburg? Why is it so beautiful? Paris? Why is it so beautiful?  Because the hand of the artist was everywhere."

There you have it: St. Petersburg, Paris, and the bus stops of the former Soviet Union.

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