There are books that resist. You must tame them, make them understand that not everything can be understood, that it takes time to find one’s way through a world of darkness. Alisa Resnik’s latest work, On The Night That We Leave, is one such book. It evokes the night, the night that flees who knows where, fading into the day. Luckily, as a woman, Alisa Resnik spares us the nocturnal binges common among some misogynistic photographers drowning in their aesthetic impotence.
So, here we are, in the heart of the night, following Alisa Resnik, born on April 21, 1976 in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), where she spent her childhood. From her Russian childhood she retains two colors, “dark blue and dark green: stairwells, trucks, toilets, classrooms, hospital wards, prison cells… were all painted with these two colors. They embodied the unknown and sadness.” She remembers her school in winter, early in the morning, “the dirty, sloshy snow, the rare streetlamps, the crowded trolleybus, the fogged windows, the coats, rough and wet.” During summer vacations, she would join her grandparents in Odessa: they lived in a huge “kommunalka,” or multi-family apartment, with “a long unlit corridor leading to a large kitchen with its six stoves for eight families and a single sink, the only source of cold water.”
Her craving for the night dates back to that childhood, to what began “as a child’s whim and has perhaps remained so.” Why the night? “Everything seems flatter during the day,” explains Alisa Resnik, quoting the poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), another Leningrad native: “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.”
Light is essential in On The Night That We Leave, even if it is not exactly the protagonist. Light must not dramatize the shadows; nor should it flood the scene like over-the-top Christmas lights. Rather, oscillating between “reminiscence and repulsion,” the light should be “auspicious and promising.” Such light creates a very pictorial atmosphere; it’s also dreamlike, infusing every shot with a sense of intimacy, melancholy, as if the photographer had wrapped it with a yellow silk ribbon, or maybe with a melody… Light, like music, is a messenger, and every image seems somehow to be lined with music.
There are no captions; the twilit places are not identified. Alisa Resnik does not want to describe the place, but rather to show “a certain feeling.” She wants to “create a new place, imaginary and familiar,” the sum of all the places that have meant something to her: St. Petersburg, so beautiful, despite “the cold that creeps into your bones”; Odessa, with its waterfront and the sailors from the battleship Potemkin; and Berlin, where she arrived in 1990, aged 14. “Germany opened its doors to Russian Jews, and my parents decided to look for a better life in the West. They did not find it and returned; I stayed because I had already made so much effort to assimilate.”
And those who appear in the photos, who are they? Her mother. Her friends. Acquaintances. Casual encounters. “Most of the time,” she says, “I talk to people without photographing them.” Because she stops at the threshold of people and places, as if waiting to be invited, there is no sense of intrusion in her book. There are no forced doors, no faces crushed under neon lights, no bodies passed out on drugs. For all that, Alisa Resnik is not a prude. The fragile and mysterious nights she portrays are like her, they avoid simplification. She had not planned to become a photographer, she “slipped into photography” as if by accident. “I realized that it was more than just keeping memories. Having a camera with me influenced the course of my own collisions with the world. I could also communicate through photographs, much better than through words.”
One final word on the title of his book. “It could be about a night of packing your bags, saying goodbye to someone; or maybe there is no one there, and you just close the door of an empty apartment. … But I think the emphasis is more on the ‘departure’ than on the night; the departure, the absence, maybe resignation or surrender, maybe passage on to something else.”
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she contributed to the fame of the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Alisa Resnik, On The Night That We Leave lamaindonne, 152 pp., €35.
Alisa Resnik’s website.
The publisher’s website.
To read more about Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, and his library-museum at Liteiny Prospect in Saint Petersburg, where he lived between 1955 and 1972, visit: https://brodsky.online (use Google translation)