Vitaly Severov – Summer Shore

Severov grew up on the top floor of a building that overlooked the White Sea coastal area in Letniy Bereg — in English, the “Summer Shore”. As the sun moved from east to west, he writes, it would illuminate and then extinguish the shore that he could see from his window. Through this cycle, he witnessed the last days of his father; on a small folded sheet of A4 he describes the final absence of breath on a mirror held to his mouth. In Summer Shore, Severov returns to that shoreline, moving between night and day twice between the book’s covers, beginning with the day, and ending with it once more.

Looking through Summer Shore is a very physical experience, due to how Severov has chosen to lay out his images in this accordion format. Many of the large, landscape images cover a page spread and a half, often parenthesised by smaller pairs that work like “hinges” between them. I find myself looking at a single spread, turning to the next, and then moving my hands apart to open both into a four-page “stretch” of this landscape. In the day, Severov’s photographs are often more literal, showing things in the place. The night is more evocative, Severov seeming to – through small flares of flashlight or the light of the horizon – focus on the experience of moving through these black empty expanses.

Severov’s subject matter seems to hint at his own personal story, while his night pictures feel more like a search, a journey in which one moves forwards without a sure ending. One picture in particular held my attention in this regard — a shot of a flashlight striking four trees, the distance between them breaking up the circle of light. Being not so simple as to just signify “journey” or “distance” and nothing more, pictures such as these maintain the book’s atmosphere without being reduced to mere visual stand-ins for concepts. This mix of psychology and place – of what the photographer pays attention to, and where they are – isn’t new ground, but crucially the point doesn’t feel belaboured. Summer Shore is that perfect kind of text that has no fixed reading, but which still has a strong orientation: as a document of a place, it intrigues; as a psychological reflection, one empathises.

There’s an intimacy to “unwrapping” a little hand-made object, admiring the precision with which it is built, the slight flaws and quirks for which such a custom-designed object allows.

In a brief conversation, Severov told me that he listened to ambient music when making this work, and though you can’t see what he heard, that relationship between music and photography is worth touching on here too. Just as the cassette case in which the book is enclosed, and the accordion-layout lend themselves to parallels with music and rhythm, the place that these images show also has the characteristics of a quiet, sparse location typically represented in soundtracks and videogames with similar music. As superficial as it is, as an outsider, I’m liable to think of the video game The Long Dark when I see these kinds of northern regions, and that intersection of places, pictures, and sounds evokes these feelings in me when I handle a book like this, just as a copy of Mt. Eerie’s Clear Moon gives me all manner of natural forest imagery.

Though the use of a cassette tape case likely encouraged it, Severov’s book design reminded me of the way the musician behind Mt. Eerie, Phil Elverum designs his album covers and paraphernalia. Summer Shore’s construction is essentially two pieces of board, a hand-glued and folded leporello text block, and the front cover’s title and little graphic glued onto the front cover. Even if Summer Shore is an edition, hand-binding can elevate a book beyond its contents; this is because the binding itself is really a part of that content. It’s not necessarily more “personal” by virtue of being hand-bound (anyone could have put these together), but rather, it tells me that what Severov envisioned for this work – how he wanted to express these experiences – really was something he considered. And, like these places, the experience he wants to give a viewer was built from simple elements brought together. There’s an intimacy to “unwrapping” a little hand-made object, admiring the precision with which it is built, the slight flaws and quirks for which such a custom-designed object allows. This is not something a mass-produced book imparts so readily, especially for leporello books, which are notoriously time-consuming to construct, and worse for how prone they are to becoming misaligned and looking shabby. To really succeed with such a format requires both technical precision, and a consideration for multiple ways of viewing the same sequence of images. I see many books, and while I love many of them, there are few I really find myself returning to frequently. This is often because it’s not just about the pictures alone, but also about how they are presented. Few and far between, truly successful efforts such as Severov’s are deserving of praise.

Vitaly Severov
Fotografika publishing, Saint petersburg, 2020

All Rights Reserved: text © Callum Beaneny; images © Vitaly Severov