19 August 2020
19 August 2020 - Written by Colin Pantall
Who says work and photography don’t mix? Spend a few years studying The Ukrainian State Academy of Railway Transport, mix it up with studies at the Kharkiv School of Photography (in the hometown of Boris Mikhailov) and Ukrzaliznytsia is what you get, a glorious examination of the Ukrainian Railway System as seen through the eyes of former railway conductress, Julie Poly.
Ukrzaliznytsia begins with the plastic bag it comes wrapped in. It’s made of opaque plastic, has the logo of the Ukrainian Railway Transport logo stamped on it, and is a reproduction of the bed linen bag that will greet you as you take your seat on the longer Ukrainian train journeys.
Look through the bag and you see the cover picture; a woman in thigh-high boots and pole-dancing bra and knickers spread across the train compartment, one leg in the air, her torso arched between two rows of fresh-faced young soldiers who in turn smile at the camera, look bored, ignore the camera, or gaze distractedly at the woman.
It’s a striking image, a wonderful example of the staged/documentary/fashion crossover that make up the images in the book. But that generic description would be to distract from what the book is really about, which is definitely something or other to do with Ukrainian identity, stereotypes, and the political realities of Ukraine. But then that’s not what it is really about either, because this is a book filled with visual pleasure; the pleasure of photography made with energy and vitality, made in a spirit of enjoyment and glee, by somebody who understands the dynamism of both her native land and the intimate strangeness of a Ukrainian train interior.
It’s a party of a book in other words, but a party that takes place on a train network by somebody who understands both how people work, and very specifically how they work within the confines of a train compartment on a long journey with the pressures of sex, romance, and heartbreak sitting elbow to elbow and thigh by thigh as that train roars through the dark tunnels of the Ukrainian interior. Sex and trains have a rich history in literature and film, and Ukrzaliznytsia fits right into that tradition.
The book comes in 13 chapters, each preceded by a short text and an image of Julie Poly dressed in her old conductor’s uniform. She worked on the railways one summer during her transport school studies. She familiarised herself with the network, the layout of the carriages, and the way the mostly female train staff would create worlds within their compartmentalised domains.
Each direction of travel would have a different vibe, each train length would create a different rhythm. Head south to the Black Sea and a holiday mood would take hold, with people dressed in beach gear getting ready to party, head west and you’re in agricultural territory and the chicken and livestock mood would dominate (there’s not too much of that in the book, though there may well be references to the wealthy migrant to the city returning home for the holidays).
The conductor’s job was to create a mood in their compartment, to add personality and atmosphere to their territory through decorative touches using flowers, religious icons, or other decorations. And that is what Poly does (with the help of the small army of models, art directors, designers, and assistant she worked with along the way) in this book.
We get to see these curated compartments through 13 chapters that read like a satirical cross-section of Ukrainian society. There are soldiers and their acrobatic visitor; a reference to the cheats, scammers, and drink-spikers who are said to haunt Ukraine’s longer trans-Siberian train journeys.
A barbie lookalike wears a combination of French football blue and candyfloss pink as she comports herself on her petal strewn berth, a pair of lovers say goodbye through a compartment window, and two girls with outrageously long hair use the full height of their compartment to let that hair hang loose. It’s very much a book about the compartment and its possibilities.
There are women dressed in leopard skin eating rotisserie chicken with tomato and cucumber in compartments laid out with leopard skin throws, there are Rockstar fuckboys spreading their leather-clad legs on a compartment table covered in a golden tablecloth, there’s a barbie doll woman, and a girl with a fur coat and pink knickers who poses in the train corridor.
There are knickers and boots, gender fluidity, and hints of sexual adventure on the upper berths, there are mascara-streaked eyes, eye shadow of the brightest blue, and breasts, cleavage, and the groins of lean Ukrainian boys clad in leather.
Alcohol is drunk, eyes wander, and clothes are removed in the disinhibiting confines of Julie Poly’s train compartment. It probably makes more sense to somebody from the region who can understand the sartorial, facial, gender and cultural clues, but it makes enough sense to me and the pleasure in the making (and more particularly the planning according to Poly) shines through.
The book ends with a (fictional) marriage between Svetlana of Ukraine and Natsagdorj of Mongolia. She sits in her compartment in her over-ruffed wedding dress, her finely chisselled face a picture of affective withdrawal, as her husband sits in his shiny suit (with the label still on the cuff) surrounded by his brylcreemed buddies. It’s the overseas wedding Ukrainian women stereotypically dream of Poly tells us, but there will be no happy ending.
Ukrzaliznytsia by Julie Poly
Published in 2020 by Ditto Press
224 pages // Case bound with foil emboss // Bespoke packaging
Gloss and uncoated paper // 23.5 x 31 com // £42
Julie Poly (real name Yulia Polyashchenko) was born in Stakhanov and is now based in Kyiv. Her art practice merges her previous experience in documentary and staged photography. She interprets cultural and visual codes of typical Ukrainian everyday life, predominantly in the fields of eroticism, fashion, and novel notions of beauty. Poly states that she finds herself constantly inspired by “trivial things, everyday events, stories from lives of friends, and own experience”. Follow her on Instagram.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.