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Making Soviets Say 'Cheese' : Album Is a Journalistic Coup for Photographer

December 06, 1987|MONA GABLE | Mona Gable is a Los Angeles writer

Rick Smolan couldn't believe it.

He'd just been on the "Michael Jackson Show" promoting "A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union" (Collins Publishers)--a lavish coffee-table book that's being touted as "the publishing event of the year," "the most ambitious photographic project ever mounted in the Soviet Union," "the most comprehensive visual record of life in the Soviet Union ever published in the West"; a project that sent 100 internationally known photographers into military academies, train stations, airports, and a nuclear power plant--sites in the Soviet Union off limits to journalists for decades.

And what did callers on the popular radio talk show want to know?

Could they bring their dogs into the Soviet Union if they visited?

Striding through the lobby of the swank Le Mondrian Hotel with George Steinmetz, a "Day in the Life" photographer, Smolan shook his head and laughed. After three years of negotiating with the Soviets for permission to do the book, and six weeks in the Soviet Union haggling with press officials over what the photographers would be allowed to shoot, he's not about to lose his sense of humor now.

Dressed in black jeans, black jacket, black tennis shoes and a white shirt, the 38-year-old photographer hardly looks the part of a seasoned diplomat or a publishing executive. His long brown hair, wire-rim glasses and mustache don't fit the image, either. But Smolan is obviously talented at both. "A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union" is the sixth in a series of "Day in the Life" publications he's organized with David Cohen, president of the United States branch of the British publisher. And it follows the astonishing success of last year's "A Day in the Life of America," which sold nearly 1 million copies, and for more than 40 weeks dominated the New York Times best-seller list.

But Smolan, who's trotted around the globe for Time, Newsweek, Geo and other publications as a photojournalist, and sees the "Day in the Life" projects--the others were done in Japan, Australia, Hawaii and Canada--as something of a "weeklong party" for his solitary colleagues, is surprisingly glib about the "America" book's success.

"A lot of people bought 'America' without knowing what was in it," he said over a hurried lunch of cold salmon and asparagus in the hotel restaurant. "I think a lot of companies, the chairman got a copy from United Airlines (a sponsor of the project) as a gift, and said, 'Hey, go out and buy 100 copies of these things and we'll just give them out.' "

Ironically, though the America project presented few of the logistical hassles involved in producing the Russia book, Smolan wasn't happy with it. "A lot of the European photographers were looking for freaks--for the exceptions to the norm," he said. "They were into this sort of line-up-against-the-wall-and-stare-at-the-camera, which I hate. Seventy people got nothing in that book. I didn't like the 'America' book probably because I'd seen so many bad pictures."

The Soviet Union shoot took place last May 15. Even though photographers had to contend with enormous language and cultural barriers, edgy Soviet guides and endless restrictions, Smolan thinks that "A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union" turned out much better than the book about America. "The photographers were a lot more psyched for it. A lot of them kept poking at their guides and having fights. 'There's a line of people waiting at that liquor store. Let's stop the car.' It seemed like about 75% of them got away with whatever they tried to do, and about 25% ran into problems."

That's putting it mildly. Los Angeles photographer Douglas Kirkland was detained in an isolation chamber in Siberia for nearly an hour after an airline passenger reported that he'd been taking pictures out the window of a plane.

But the biggest problem for Western photographers was getting around their Soviet translators and guides. "In the Soviet Union, I found it hard to be spontaneous," said Steinmetz, who was assigned to photograph the oil fields of Baku. Or as the 30-year-old photographer quipped: "the Houston of the Soviet Union."

"There was an oil field from the turn of the century," he recalled, "It was a classic case of overexploitation. They didn't want me to photograph it because it was from the Czarist era and considered kind of an eyesore. When I started to take pictures, they shouted at me to get back in the car." Steinmetz was so determined that he sneaked out of his hotel at 5:30 the next morning, took a cab to the field and got the shot, even though his 24 hours, the time allotted for shooting, were up.

Although photographers had specific assignments, Smolan admits that several bent the rules. Gary Eisenberg, for one, shot a black and white photo of Vladimir Slepak and his wife, Mariya--two refuseniks.

"We had a number of photographers who were like free agents," Smolan said. "We just purposely told the Soviets they were going to be doing one thing that day, and they did something else.

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