“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Lev “Lever” Rukhin was born into a family of artists and scientists in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Evgenii Rukhin was one of the leading figures in the Russian Nonconformists movement, significant for its struggle for the freedom of self-expressionism. After his mysterious death in a fire widely believed to have been started by the KGB, his family (mother and 3 siblings) fled the country and moved around the world under a ‘stateless’ status until finally settling in Texas. After UCLA, he circled the world on a motorcycle to compile a manuscript about the sign of the times of the changing millennia and a portrait of his parents as artists struggling through oppression. Lever now lives with his 8-year-old daughter, Zhenya “Zsa-Zsa” Rukhina, in Los Angeles working as a photographer and artist, documenting what he considers the wonders of not having to leave the Los Angeles to see the world.
Q: How did you get started in photography?
A: I decided to take a motorcycle trip around the world back in 1998 to observe and fully experience the changing of the millennia across the US, Europe and Russia. I purchased a used 35mm Nikon to document my journey. I was moved by many of the people I met and photographed, and found myself falling in love with their stories, and my ability to capture their essence – as I saw it — through the medium of photography. It was fascinating how one can tell a story with a camera, and no one can retell it quite the same way, as nobody sees the world the same way. I fantasized about being Rai Merchant in Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Isn’t it moving how the art of photography as a medium only becomes better the more vulnerable you become?
Q: What genre would you say best describes your work and why?
A: It would make sense to characterize this series of work as documentary photography. That is the aim! I am inspired to document the stories being told by the people struggling to survive. The constant contrast and overlap between beauty and the grim human condition is ever changing. If one is not paying attention, the city changes, and with it the characters and murals and styles and all that is hip or underworld. I hope this documentary of folklore – scenes we may miss as we blink or look the other way — continues for as long as I am able.
Q: What inspired you to create the Drive-By series?
A: I was definitely high on Bruce Davidson’s NYC subway series, Edward S. Curtis’ images of the Native Americans, and among the numerous Russians, Valery Shchekoldin’s work on Soviet Russia. But the truth is, I was inspired by keeping my daughter stimulated as I drove her to kindergarten. I pointed out the incongruous assemblies gathered at bus stops and we began to construe stories as to what was going on with everyone. My close friends would say that I like to bring levity and creativity to what some might characterize as bleak or sad situations. This series is consistent with that aspect of my personality.
Q: How do you make your images?
A: The series began by setting the camera (Canon 5D Mark II) on a tripod in the backseat with a 14mm lens facing out the passenger side. It was wired up with a cheap remote control system, with the trigger taped to the steering wheel. I kicked the ISO up way high (~1000) to allow for deep depth of field (ƒ/11), thereby barely having to slow down to rattle-off a series of shots of a ‘story’ as I passed a visual story/poem/picture. But the southern California sun casts deep shadows, so I had to shine a flashlight to see deeper. I got a flash—a huge 3’ Mola beauty dish—that I heavily diffused and affixed to the roof of the car, along with a Profoto bitube powered by two 1200 watt/second battery power packs. This forced me to change some things. First, I switched to a 24mm lens, having to truly familiarize myself with the focal length and what I was getting at the angle the side of my car was passing. Second, I now had to bring my car to a complete stop so as to not blur the image. The flash only allows for around 1/200 of a second shutter speed, forcing me to spend ‘time’ with my subject, though most were utterly fixated as to what a huge satellite dish was doing on the roof of my car. Many inquired if it was a mind-altering device.
Q: Why the title Drive-by? (It’s a pretty loaded title in this town; can you speak to that?)
A: The title came about due to the area where the project began: South Central. The series began in an area troubled by the violent drive-by shootings during the Los Angeles gang wars of the 1980’s. Had I started this in a posh neighborhood, it would have been named differently. But here in the Badlands is where the struggle for human existence really manifests itself on the sidewalk—the way people dress, walk, the graffiti and murals. This is where the folklore is! Try to find something of interest on a sidewalk in Bel Air or Brentwood. It’s all bleached and dry-cleaned, or hidden behind walls. Additionally, the fact that I never touch the camera, interact or spend any time with the subjects, and merely drive by and shoot a photo, plays into the car culture of L.A. I initially called them “Postcards from South Central,” and “Ready-Mades,” but drive-by shooting is truly eponymous.
Q: Can you share with us a few funny stories you have encountered driving around all over Los Angeles taking pictures? What have been some of the reactions?
A: Several people are dismayed at having their photos taken, but as I drive away, I see their attention quickly dissipate to something else. Once I rolled up to a middle-aged man sipping on a 40oz bottle of malt liquor under the heavy sun. He must have been watching me driving up the street photographing. When I got to him, I couldn’t find a ‘story’ in the composition, and passing on the photo began to drive off. To my surprise, he screamed, “Hey! What, am I not good enough for you?” Another time a lady who saw me roll up, pulled down her pants, squatted in the gutter and proceeded to urinate for the picture.
Q: What have you learned about Angelinos and the city of Los Angeles from this project?
A: This is a desert dressed up with cheap lipstick inside of a movie set. It is ever changing, with different characters coming on and taking the baton. The vast space of Los Angeles, as Robert Irwin once put, is still the Wild West, begging to be discovered. People pouring in from all over the world to find their dreams, creating a diverse tapestry and random pockets of ethnicity. In many ways Los Angeles is still part of Mexico, it’s rich heritage and prevalent culture thriving everywhere.
Q: Do you have any other essay’s in the works?
A: I shot a series of work using unedited strips of film called contact sheets. Using ingredients of the city, I photograph in a sequence where I place multiple contact sheets next to each other. There is a composition that creates a study of urbanism, consumerism, social zeitgeists and abstracts of humanity. It is contextual, as in every photo has a relationship with the one taken immediately before and after, somewhat cinematic.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: These drive-by shootings are made possible by my daughter’s fascination with the city, the encouragement of my good friend Sam Johnson, and the equipment generously provided by Edge Grip.
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