At the Hermitage with a camera

Yuri Molodkovets, who has been the Hermitage Museum photographer for more than 20 years, spoke with RBTH about the Hermitage cats, the experience of wandering the halls of the museum at night and what he thinks of museum selfies.

Yury Molodkovets. Source: Personal archive

RBTH: How long have you been working as the Hermitage photographer? How did you get this job?

Yury Molodkovets: I’ve been working here for 20 years, which by museum standards is not that long. I got the job with the Hermitage almost by chance. In 1993-1994, in those turbulent times, I was close to underground culture. I was friends with and published a newspaper and books together with the St. Petersburg art group Mitki. And then suddenly I was invited to the Hermitage.

At the time, of course, I had no understanding of what a museum is, I just said yes. Now I not so much know as I feel with every cell in my body that the Hermitage is not just a museum, but a whole universe. And I am very grateful for the chance that I took back then.

RBTH: You recently had an exhibition called “Hermitage cats.” How did you come up with the idea?

Y.M.: The idea of the project – cats in the museum’s main halls – belongs to Maria Khaltunen, [Hermitage director] Mikhail Piotrovsky’s assistant, who is also in charge of the Hermitage cats. We wanted to show the museum’s grand halls from the point of view of a cat and at the same time create portraits of those loyal and honest defenders of the museum against mice and rats.

Before shooting, we had to talk to each of the cats, to discuss their behavior on camera, facial expressions, etc. When we were just starting, we were not sure that we would cope with the task. The shooting was done on Mondays, when the museum is closed to visitors. We had a whole filming crew, assisted by the Hermitage security service.

The shooting was done in May 2014. We managed to do it all over a course of five days, although one of the museum employees, who feeds the cats and looks after them, warned us before shooting: “They will tear you to pieces!”

Well, we are all alive, and next year we shall run this project again, expanding the range of “models” featuring in it and we shall once again release a calendar and organize an exhibition in Kazan, where the Hermitage cats are originally from.

There are now some 70 cats living at the Hermitage. There is a unique place in St. Petersburg called Cats’ Republic. They provide our cats with veterinary help, organize various events, find new homes for some of the cats, furnishing them and their new masters with the certificate identifying the pet as a “palace cat.”

It is a wonderful multicultural center, with real cats, with exhibitions with a café serving a great “cattuccino” with a most delicious “catcake.” It is open by appointment. [Ed: Molodkovets’ photo exhibition Hermitage Cats is currently showing at Cats’ Republic.]

A museum photographer’s main task is to make pictures for academic publications and exhibition catalogues as well as for restoration work and the museum’s everyday life. At the Hermitage, Yury Molodkovets has the privilege of being able to also pursue artistic photography.

When I joined the museum in the 1990s, Hermitage cats were not yet a globally recognized brand. I think it was in 1997 when I first met the cat called Mus’ka: she had a particular fondness for the Jordan Staircase.

One early morning, armed with a camera and some sausage, I paid a visit to Mus’ka. The cat was quite indifferent to the sausage, but she turned out to be a very keen model. A tiny piece featuring Mus’ka portrait was later published in a magazine and I think it was it that launched Hermitage cats’ spectacular media career.

Then there were several internal exhibitions in the museum basement and library, an auction of drawings by children studying at the “We draw at the Hermitage” studio for the benefit of our cats. Later it all evolved into a big annual event, Hermitage Cat Day, which takes place every spring.

Also, there has been and remains still the tradition of having special collection boxes at all of the museum’s departments where any member of staff can donate money [for the cats’ upkeep] on their payday.

RBTH: What other exhibitions devoted to the Hermitage have you done?

Y.M.: There was a project called “New Hermitage.” I took pictures of the Italian sculptures at the Main Staircase of the New Hermitage, which at the time were covered in plastic as the ceiling was being repainted. It was very unusual, and unexpectedly acquired a profound meaning: eternal marble covered in transient plastic, like a representation of our life and civilization.

Another project was called “Seclusion: The Hermitage at Night.” I did it in 2005. Often, leaving work late at night, I used to walk through the empty halls of the museum, with the lights already out. I realized that it was a very unique state for the museum, for its masterpieces, when they are left in their own company, in the moonlight.

Source: Yury Molodkovets

Later, when I had been working at the museum for many years already, I decided to capture this story on film. The shooting took me nine months. I was using film with very long exposure. When he was looking at the resulting pictures, Mikhail Borisovich [Piotrovsky], who had supported the original idea, suggested organizing an exhibition at the Hermitage, while my publisher friends in London released an album. I think those photographs are the main ones in my life.

A third project which I think important is called “Marble.” I did it in 2009. It depicts reflections of antique sculptures in the polished marble walls of the New Hermitage.

The latest project is called “The Hermitage. The Age of Photography.” It is a series of the museum’s “global landscapes:” state rooms, staircases, Palace Square, and a huge number of people everywhere. If you take a closer look, you will see that all of these people are taking pictures: all of them have cameras, mobile phones, tablets. This project is on display at the museum office and also exists in multimedia format: Mikhail Piotrovsky showed those reels at a presentation in New York and they will by all means be made available online.

RBTH: How do you feel about visitors to the museum who are making selfies or are fooling around with their gadgets, with the paintings and sculptures in the background?

Y.M.: I am sympathetic towards practically any person who makes pictures at the museum. I think selfies and other pictures is a unique process of keeping a record of one’s life and the time we live in. It is difficult for us, contemporaries, to assess what is going on. This is the first time this is happening, when every person is a photographer.

Photography is a universal lingua franca of today. You make a selfie featuring Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” or Matisse’s “The Dance,” post it online, and with it you are telling a lot to your friends.

Photographs remain in people’s personal archives and, with time, they will become even more valuable. In a minute of leisure, a person will look into those folders and will realize that they have lived an amazing and full life that had everything in it: joy, grief, love, and art that they encountered at the Hermitage.

RBTH: In five words, what is the Hermitage for you?

The most important place on Earth!

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