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A bus stop is a typically humble structure that adds almost nothing to the roadside. This was far from the case in the Soviet Union, however, where bus stops served as an artistic escape for individuals architects who felt creatively stifled. In the Soviet era, far from being generic and uninspiring, these uniquely styled bus stops were very personal to the artists behind them; according to Jonathan Meades, the norm was ‘wild going on savage.’ In 2002, Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig began a 30,000 kilometer journey to find the most eccentric and remarkable of these architectural marvels. Here, he tells The Culture Trip more about the inspiration behind his project and some of his experiences along the way.
What inspired you to travel through the former Soviet Union and photograph bus stops?
Initially, I never expected that this project would turn into what it has. It started with a bike trip from London to St Petersburg. I’d made a little game with myself along the way; I had to force myself to stop and take a photograph of something every hour, just to get my eyes looking for new things, rather than the same clichés that I see everyone else photographing. It was when I came into Lithuania, and then up into Latvia and Estonia — all former parts of the Soviet Union — that I started to notice these bus stops, which fit perfectly with my little self-made project.
That was 13 years ago, and the whole thing slowly evolved from there. By the following year, in an exhibition in Stockholm, there was a whole wall completely dedicated to my bus stop photographs. The year after that we moved on to Kazakhstan and spent three years in Central Asia, where I traveled a lot around the ‘-stan’ countries. Every time I saw a bus stop I would try and stop the car, so I could get out and add to the series.
At first it was mostly for myself, but then it started to grow into a project that I shared with magazines and online — and people seemed to really like it. This positive reaction stuck in my head, and led to me getting serious about visiting all the countries I could and hunting down these bus stops as much as possible.
Many of the bus stops you photographed are situated in remote places. How did you locate them?
Many of the bus stops are remote — and these tend to be the ones with the most fascinating designs! This combination of the design and remote location really added to the experience and the photograph. When you find these structures sitting in the middle of nowhere on a flat and empty landscape, it creates a beautiful relationship and a real harmony between the architecture and the land, which really attracted me to those particular bus stops.
In terms of locating them, in many cases — especially in Central Asia — it was a matter of stumbling upon them by chance. Others I discovered through searching various blogs, looking for clues on where they might be. I rarely managed to find exactly where they were, but I often found an approximate region, and then spent days driving the roads around that area to find them. Usually, if I was successful in finding a few in that general area, there would often be more nearby. So it was a combination of doing some ‘homework’ and also patiently driving around for a while, trying to find more.
In countries with more detailed maps, I was able to incorporate Google Earth into my search. Thanks to the higher level of detail, I could zoom right into Google Street View and see what the bus stops and their surrounding landscapes looked like. It took several days of virtually driving the roads on Google Earth, but it saved a lot of time in terms of physically driving around every road.
There were some frustrating incidents when we thought we had located a bus stop, only to be disappointed when we got there. On our last trip, to Belarus, we talked to the architect Armen Sardarov, who pointed out to us on the map many of his own bus stop designs. Sadly, by the time we got there, many of those were already gone, either through being destroyed, or simply replaced a few years earlier. Eventually, we decided to follow only the most remote roads, even gravel roads, to see what we could discover — which turned out to be quite fruitful in finding very unique locations.
What makes the bus stops in the old Soviet Union so distinctive and interesting to photograph?
For me, what makes them so great to photograph is that they are so unique in their styles and designs, and provide a glimpse into the individual artists behind them. Most other surviving Soviet architecture seems to be more a representation of the state, whereas these bus stops are a different and exceptional way of looking at the Soviet Union. I can’t provide a complete answer as to why the building of these bus stops went on, but from talking to some of the architects it seems that they wanted to make them so distinctive in order to bring art and pleasure to the people, especially in the most remote areas. Because not everyone could have cars, the buses and the metro were an important part of society, adding a sense of pride for the artists because their works were so widely seen every day.
What do you think the bus stops symbolized to the people of the Soviet Union” Do they still symbolize something today?
For some people it certainly was a symbol of local pride, providing the chance to show off some cultural and regional styles, as opposed to things that represented the Soviet Union as a whole. Judging by some of the emails I get, the bus stops do still bring back some fun memories. However, what the bus stops mean to those who live around them is a bit hit and miss. Some people go back and repaint them, and it is obvious that these ones are well maintained. On the other hand, many are very run-down; there is a lot of garbage around them, and some people even use them as a toilet. So I think many are ashamed of them, rather than proud — especially if they live in a region where most of the bus stops are very run-down and don’t get the chance to experience the diversity of art that the bus stops intended to showcase.
There have even been a few people who have stopped me and questioned why I’m photographing the bus stops, mistakenly thinking that I was doing it to mock them. In these situations, I do my best to explain that I see the bus stops as very beautiful, and something to be treasured. My intention is not to show something that is decaying or sad, but instead to capture beautiful pieces of art on the side of the road.
Have you had the chance to photograph any particularly flamboyant bus stops?
I have come across some flamboyant bus stop designs, particularly in the disputed region of Abkhazia — which were also some of the earliest of the bus stops I have photographed. They were designed by a Georgian artist called Zurab Tsereteli, who is now quite famous in Moscow for building very large monuments. His pieces today are the absolute epitome of the same extreme freedom and lack of constraints that was displayed in the bus stops. For instance, when we asked him why some of his bus stop designs don’t have a roof, he replied with; ‘It’s not my problem. I’m an artist — my job is to make things beautiful.’ And, certainly, some of his bus stops are particularly beautiful.
Did you find any bus stops particularly beautiful” Why?
Apart from Zurab Tsereteli, one other particularly beautiful bus stop I have come across features on the back cover of my book, and was photographed near the town of Saratak in Armenia. The style of architecture on this bus stop has a more brutal feel to it, but its pointy wings, and the way it has been incorporated with the landscape, provides a wonderful sense of symmetry, making it a really beautiful piece.
Were there any bus stops that you found particularly memorable?
Many of the bus stops have stood out to me as being unique and different. The one on the book cover, taken in Taraz in Kazakhstan, is made of simple concrete slabs, but they have been put together in a very geometrical way. The result is that it still holds the traditional shape of a bus stop, while at the same time slightly resembling some sort of robotic dog or other creature that is about to bite you.
How has journeying across the countries of the former Soviet Union changed your perspective on them”
I don’t think my journey has changed my perspective, so much as simply helping me to see things from a different perspective. It is one thing to be aware of the Soviet Union as a country, but there were also a great many individuals within that country, which is sometimes easy to forget. I think my journey has provided me with a different way of looking at history and appreciating that there were still interesting things going on among the stereotypical perceptions of the Soviet Union.
Your book puts the spotlight on a relatively unknown aspect of the Soviet Union. Do you think these bus stops are deserving of more attention?
What I hope for is that my book can open people’s eyes when they travel and encourage them to find things that are different from the classic tourist attractions they are told they have to go and see. I hope it helps them realize that there is joy in discovering some of these smaller-scale, off-the-track attractions.
Do you think these bus stops are in danger of being destroyed or removed’
Sadly, many of these bus stops are now being taken down and replaced. It seems to be much easier for transportation departments to create bus stops that are made out of more basic material, like metal, and do not need as frequent maintenance as the Soviet-era bus stops. Another reason for the removal of these bus stops is that many people still associate them with the Soviet era, rather than simply seeing them as an independent, unique artistic phenomenon.
It is important, however, for these bus stops to receive more attention and to be preserved so that people can continue to appreciate them in the future. I hope my book helps people to appreciate them more, or at least to realize that they’re there. They really do provide a fascinating glimpse into the creative minds of their time, in a very honest and unfiltered way; for good or for bad, these artists didn’t hold back.
Do you think the project has changed your photography” What have you learned as a photographer?
The biggest thing I have learned from this project is that there is a great deal of value in following through with something as a photographer. Having one, or a few, of these photographs as a casual thing when I first started was interesting, but the real strength came with patience and diligence, and doing the homework to find the quantity and range of bus stops across the countries. That really added to my appreciation of the art form.
It is also very rewarding, as a photographer, to be able to take very ordinary things and find clean and simple ways of photographing them so as to elevate their status and make them feel, to me, a little bit like royalty on a throne. This is a skill I have developed throughout this project, and I feel very happy with how it has turned out.
You have described your photography of bus stops as an obsession. Will you continue to photograph bus stops?
I’m certainly very happy with the book, and with the collection that I have gathered so far. I’m in a place now where I feel like the project has probably come to an end — although I have said that four times over the last 13 years! There are definitely more bus stops out to be photographed, so I would probably be lying if I said it was over for good. I’ll have to see how things go, but if I did continue I would have to get there quite soon, before they get taken down or replaced.
Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig is published by FUEL, and is available to order from the website.