Majestic Minsk: a Tilt-shift Tour

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The more grandiose a city, the more befitting it is for tilt-shift photography. Of all of the photographic effects, I’m most fascinated by tilt-shift. There’s something delightfully mischievous in shrinking down the lofty. In June 2014, I visited the enigmatic metropolis that is Minsk, Belarus. As soon as I began to explore the expansive boulevards, I knew that I had found the perfect subject. Most of the city had been bombed to dust by the Nazis, and then rebuilt in the Stalinist style of architecture. The buildings have been meticulously maintained over the years. It is like walking through a museum. The forbidding structures loom above. Watchful. Of all the buildings on Independence Square, the Parliament Building is the most imposing. The only ornamentation is the stern Lenin statue. I felt like I had stepped into a 3D comic book. I kept expecting some superhero to appear. Flying overhead, cape unfurled and fist forward. Ready to battle evil.

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This mint green and brown construction also held my attention. It reminds me of perfectly pressed shirts, spotless floors, hi honey I’m home, dinner on the table at five.

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It is already difficult to get the massive buildings at Railway Station Square into one photo, let alone have the extra space for tilt-shifting. Anyway, the Socialist god is in the details.

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I call this photo Karl’s Angels. When they saw my camera, they lowered their faces. You’re not supposed to photograph the police, I later found out. The police officers that I saw were all very young. At the Island of Tears monument, the officer on duty approached me. His smile was shy as he asked where I was from.

“France,” I replied. I use my French passport to travel these days.

His face lit up. “I really like France,” he said.

“You’ve been there?”

“Yes, two times. I go to Roland Garros.” His brow furrowed in the way of those searching for words. English is rarely spoken in Belarus. Then he smiled again and walked away.

Contrary to popular belief, Belarusians are free to travel. And they do, when they can. The young people that I spoke to in the cafes and at my hotel had all traveled. The difficulty comes not from their government, but in getting enough money to pay for the visa fees required by other countries. When I learned this, the sixty euro fee that I had paid for my Belarus visa seemed cheap in comparison.

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The Palace of the Republic is a masterpiece of austerity. It’s funny how stripping something down to bare bones can make it so intimidating. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Even though the symbols remain and most of the economy is controlled by the state, Belarus is not considered a Communist country. President Lukashenko has referred to his ruling style as authoritarian. He is known as “Papa” to the citizens. I saw no posters or billboards with his face when I was there, however. His presence is all but invisible to the casual visitor.

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Something about this building intrigued me. Such a perfect pastel cube. I took a photo, and then I noticed the man in the drab military uniform. He strode towards me with a steely expression. I was far enough away that I could evade him without looking suspicious. I found out later that the building is one of Lukashenko’s residences.

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While it’s permitted to take photos of most structures, even the outside of the KGB building, photos of the Metro are forbidden. It’s considered a military installation, because it’s the nuclear fallout shelter. I reluctantly obeyed. The Oktyabrskaya station is one of my biggest photographic regrets. The escalators descend into a palace of the proletariat. Pillars of severe beige marble. Ornamentation in the form of chunky golden lights. Amber gems set in bone. Hammer and sickle carved into the back wall along with the name: Lenin. I caught my breath and swallowed hard. I felt so very small.

I consoled myself with photos of the Memorial in the underpass beneath Victory Square. The rich colors somehow diluted the disquiet that I associate with the symbols.

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One evening, I sat in the park in front of the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater, waiting for darkness so that I could take some night shots. I waited. And waited. Night falls very late in June. The white walls faded to cream and then blazed into buttery yellow as the sun sank into the horizon. Couples and families strolled the paths. A drunk young man frolicked in the water. He was most likely a Russian visitor. The ones I saw tended to ignore warnings. The group sitting at a table across from me in a lovely cafe began a drunken cake fight. Three Russians who were staying at my guesthouse had to spend a couple of nights in jail for insulting a police officer.

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People often ask me if I’m afraid to go to countries that are considered dictatorships. If you behave yourself, most are absolutely the safest places to visit. There is an indescribable thrill in traveling to a place where so few venture and doing so totally without worry. In discovering a mysterious land. Folding it up, tucking it into a pocket, and taking it home.

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*The tilt-shift effect was done in post-processing using Snapseed.

52 thoughts on “Majestic Minsk: a Tilt-shift Tour

  1. What a wonderful feeling to have this fascinating city to yourself, with locals appearing here and there in and out of the shadows. Such a fabulous collection of photos and, as brutal as the mural is, it has such warmth and passion.

  2. A rich architectural melange, so exquisitely tilt-shifted, and, where required, diffused, to sharpen the focus on the preferred structure. I particularly liked the second last pic, where Lenin is shown as leading a group of workers or peasants, ranged against some social inequity. As you nicely put it, Julie, it is indeed tremendously gratifying to be discovering lands and people, capturing into photo memory folds, and tucking them into your coat pocket. Bravo…

  3. You seem to have a special relationship with the (secret) police. This is a great read with photography to match. The hidden dragon would like to test his skills there but might never be heard from again.

  4. Tilt shift lends itself well to the photos of architecture. These turn the sterile majesty of Socialist attitudes toward form into Lego-like childish creations. Institutionalized Socialism benefits from someone having a bit of fun with its otherwise serious demeanor.

    Always enjoy your intrepid travels …

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m still learning how to do it. It’s more difficult than it appears. A lot depends on the part that gets blurred…more than I had thought.

  5. Thank you for the beautiful images and the introduction to a city I’ve never seen. I love that one of the dictator’s residences looks like a foreclosed Embassy Suites site from the outside. It’s a little foreboding as well. The air seems filled with decrees, both new and old, pamphlets from a bygone era still blowing through our minds. We don’t think often enough about the fact that our human endeavors create whole atmospheres of thought, feeling and potential, and that we live inside of them…

    Michael

    • Hi Michael – the Embassy Suites comment made me laugh. The president can’t be accused of opulence, at least on the outside. I’m sure the interiors of his various hangouts are a different story, however. The taste in home decor is rather ornate in Eastern Europe. An atmosphere of absolute calm permeates Minsk. An eerie somnolence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Wow. These images are wonderfully reminiscent of old hand-tinted postcards. I don’t know anything about tilt-shift photography, but having seen these photos, will do some research. Your words, as always, sparkle with intelligence and insight. It is lovely to learn while also being given the gift of beauty.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely compliments, Cate. Tilt-shift can either be done with a special lens or with post-processing software, which is how most people do it nowadays, including me.

  7. So interesting … being in a non-Communist country surrounded by Communist architecture. Emerging after all those years must be more difficult than most of us can imagine. I remember going into the subway in St. Petersburg … immaculate, but a monument to the era in which it was built. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    • There is still a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet years over in this part of Europe, but especially Belarus. I’ve heard that the metro stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg are amazing works of art. Apparently you are allowed to photograph them now.

  8. I’m an off-the-beaten-track traveler myself, and this post on Minsk is very intriguing! I spent quite some time studying the photos; I was not aware of this effect and have now tried it out on some of my photos, starting with some other hulking Communist-era buildings which, I agree, are so perfect for this treatment. I will have to check out some more sophisticated programs, but thanks for showing me two new things today!

    • You can’t get more off the beaten path in Europe than Belarus. So glad I could introduce you to Minsk and to tilt-shift. I currently use Snapseed, but the desktop version is now discontinued. Tiltshiftmaker.com is a free online app, but you don’t have as much control over the image. There are other programs available, I’m sure.

  9. Such a city of contrasts you’ve captured here, Julie, antiquity vs. bright, shiny, new. Amazing photos.You are a great travel adviser for places most of us will never see. As always. πŸ’• Van

  10. Having experienced Stalinist architecture in Russia, it is wonderful how you have turned the style on its head with your use of tilt-shift. Looking at the photos, I too feel like a giant super-hero hovering over the tiny buildings and tinier people. Politically speaking, have you had any regrets about exploring countries such as Belarus?

    • Nope, no regrets at all. I don’t go to these places with the intention of judging them or spreading our variety of “freedom”. It’s not like the government of the country of my birth (USA) is a shining example to be emulated. It was at one time, but not anymore. If the people want to change, they will change of their own will and without “help” from the West. And this type of change is more profound and enduring. The more I see of these kinds of places, the more I realize that none of us are really free. The techniques of control are just different.

  11. Reminds me a little of the architecture in Yerevan, which I visited in 1997. The scale of official buildings seemed at odds with the scale of humans, dwarfing them to the extent of lending a surrealistic atmosphere. This was most apparent in the massive Republic Square near my hotel. There were times I almost felt as though I had entered a parallel dimension. It appears to be the same with Minsk.

    • It is exactly the feeling of being in a parallel dimension. I haven’t been to Yerevan, so I know nothing about its cleanliness and atmosphere, but Minsk is absolutely spotless and is pervaded by a post-apocalyptic calm, which deeply intensifies the surreal feeling. When my mother saw my photos, she said that Minsk reminded her of the Stepford Wives (the original film). I’d say it’s not too far off.

  12. Excellent work all for the reasons commented on above. Thank you also for the Snapseed tip. Going to have to give this a try! Interesting as always to read about the nostalgia for the Soviet years and the thought that Belarus could unify with Russia.

    • Thank you, Alex. Snapseed is only for mobile now, sadly. I’ve got the last desktop version they produced. But there are other programs that have tilt-shift. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

  13. I really wonder how the people of this- it seems to me- lifeless city are. Are they capable of any emotions? Thank you for having dared to take these exceptional pictures. Have a nice day!

    • The people I came across were just as normal as you and I. People of Eastern Europe are less emotional on the surface, but the feelings run deep. I’m not an expert on Communism, but it seems to me that the idea was to eliminate everything “unnecessary”, including decoration. Maybe they thought it would make people focus less on desires and more on work.

      • I like what you say about the people and to eliminate “something” from our overfull world wouldn’t be a bad idea, but comunism just went over the top, at least according to me. I wish you a pleasant Sunday, dear Julie.

  14. Dear my deer friend …Julie , I admire your delightful and open hearted way in which you breath in ” places where so few venture ” …and I sit up straight in amazement with you in that ” lovely cafe ” watching a cake fight ! You are so beautiful and so is your writing …love and hugs , megxxx

  15. Hi Julie, wow what a great tilt-shift effect…I’m not so skilled like you in this…and what a great trip!When i read your blog, i always discover a place that I didn’t considered before. Thanks!Cris

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