Monday, June 20th, 2011
Maria Gruzdeva's assignment was daunting: to photograph the heavily guarded community of Star City, a cosmonaut research and training center and the launch facility at Baikonur, both developed in the 1960s during the Space Race with the United States.
During its heyday, Star City was a top-secret training facility and residential area for Russian cosmonauts, their families and other personnel. The center, which is still active, remains cloaked in mystery to this day. “My grandfather was sent to Baikonur to help run and operate the new launch facility,” says Gruzdeva. “Since I was a child, my grandparents told me stories about living there and it soon turned into [a] magical place in my imagination, almost like a fairy tale land, where extraordinary things happened.”
The compound, located outside of Moscow, appears to have been frozen in time, nearly unchanged since the ’60s. Once a signal of the future and the brave new frontier ahead, Star City now seems to be lost in time. “Generations of cosmonauts have trained in these surroundings,” she says. “Because of the isolation, the physical space and its spirit have been preserved, I looked for traces of history, power and a ghost-like presence.”
Despite being born in Moscow, Gruzdeva was initially very foreign to the inhabitants of Star City. However, she managed to connect with them through a common tool. “My camera unexpectedly helped me earn the trust of the residents,” she says. “I was not familiar to them, but my camera was—cosmonauts used to shoot with Hasselblads in space before the digital era.” Gruzdeva’s Hasselblad 503CW captured 2,500 photographs during the year and a half she spent in the space community. She says she relied upon her physical surroundings to direct her while shooting. “Physical space is a very important part of the intellectual dialogue created in an image,” she explains. “I [questioned the] nature by exploring the reality of the space community, investigating the physical and psychological space, the routine of its residents, and their habitat.”
Gruzdeva’s images provide a glimpse into a little-known place and an era when space seemed to be an unreachable, unknowable entity. Her photographs manage to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer. “A visceral response is very important—a combination of practical and emotional,” she says. “I never chose images that would express a feeling or visual effect that did not correspond to the feel of the location.”
Text by Lauren Del Campo