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Life in the Fast Lane

November 1, 1997

Suzanne Johnson

For the last year, it seems, William Brumfield has been just about everywhere. The professor of Russian and Slavic studies has been in the bookstores, where his book of architectural photography, Lost Russia, has been popular, as well as his History of Russian Architecture, recently released in a third, paperback, edition.

He has been in galleries from Duke University to the New Orleans Museum of Art, which have exhibited his striking, often moody photography of historic Russian buildings. He has been in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in whose photographic gallery his black-and-white photography collection now rests. He has been in the Tulane classroom, teaching "Russian Poetry" and "Art and Architecture of Russia."

He has been in Russia, logging thousands of frequent-flier miles between Moisant and Moscow, including a course trip sponsored by University College. And to top off a busy year, he ended last spring semester in a meeting of the liberal arts and sciences [LAS] faculty, where acting LAS Dean Teresa Soufas presented him with the 1997 Faculty Research Award. While the award came as a surprise and an honor, Brumfield says he did have an inkling before the meeting.

"I'm not known for my avid attendance at faculty meetings, but I was told I really needed to be at this one," he says. "The whole presentation was wonderful."

Not one to rest on his laurels, Brumfield left shortly thereafter for one of several summertime research trips to Russia just as a new book, Landmarks of Russian Architecture: A Photographic Survey (Gordon and Breach, 1997) was being released.

The new book, part of the publisher's series entitled "Documenting the Image," features more of Brumfield's Russian architectural photography but differs from his History of Russian Architecture in that it focuses more on the image than the text, and is in a smaller format that will be easier for a traveler to Russia to use as a guidebook. The ongoing research trips will eventually result in yet another book, as Brumfield moves from his work on central Russian architecture to that of the region he calls the "Russian North."

"'North' is a very broad concept in Russia, but I'm talking about a historical corridor that led from Moscow to the White Sea," Brumfield explains. "It was a strategic corridor for trade, which created wealth. The wealth, in turn, is reflected in its art and architecture."

The region is very poor now, the loss of wealth exacerbated by its severe winter climate and the drain on its population by the cities that offer more promise.

"As a result, these great monuments are in some ways stranded in areas that seem to be incapable of supporting them," Brumfield says. "Indeed, one wonders how they were ever capable of supporting them. But we don't realize the wealth that was once generated by this trade route."

Brumfield's fieldwork fans out from his base within the city of Vologda, where the regional cultural office has been instrumental in helping him gain access to the region access hampered both by an often-inadequate infrastructure and by the natural suspicion aroused by a Westerner with a camera traveling among a people who have seen few of either.

Into this landscape of forests, rolling hills and salt springs Brumfield and his lens encounter an architecture that tells the story of the rise and fall of a once-important trade route.

"Once the trade network was created, the institutions and culture followed, first of all with the churches," he says. "Most of the buildings before the 20th century were built with logs, including most of the churches, but in certain major areas they also were building with brick, and those have become the landmarks. Monasteries, city churches, cathedralsand the furnishings inside themare the artistic legacy from the late-15th century through the 18th century, the period of greatest activity in architecture, arts and applied arts in this region."

Brumfield hopes to continue his fieldwork in the Russian North next summer. In the meantime, appreciation for his photographic work continues to grow. Along with the National Gallery of Art, he has set as a priority preserving and recording on CD-ROM his collection of color slides and transparencies on Russian architecture. An exhibition of his black-and-white photography is opening at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tenn., this fall.

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