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The Secret Photographer Who Captured Four Decades of Life in St Petersburg

Unlike most long-lost family photos, Ivashintsova’s 30,000 images show a unique aesthetic, one that she hid from her loved ones, inviting comparisons to Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier.

A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1979 (all photos courtesy Masha Galleries)

Late last year, 17 years after Masha Ivashintsova’s death, her relatives found a treasure trove of negatives and undeveloped film while cleaning out the family attic in St. Petersburg, Russia. But unlike most long-lost family photos, the 30,000 images show a unique aesthetic, one that Ivashintsova hid from her loved ones, inviting comparisons to Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier.

A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova of her daughter, Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan, Leningrad, USSR, 1980

Like Maier, Ivashintsova often used a Rolleiflex camera, according to a website her daughter, Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan, created to showcase the photographs. When her mother died in 2000, Ivashintsova-Melkumyan was too grief-stricken to look through the boxes of negatives, she told My Modern Met’s Jessica Stewart. “Of course, I knew my mother was taking pictures, and that they were probably somewhere inside those boxes. But I never really wanted to open them up,” she said. “I even tried to give them away to someone who would be interested to have them. But nobody expressed any interest.” When Ivashintsova-Melkumyan and her husband finally opened the boxes and scanned some of the photos, they showed them to friends, who encouraged them to share the works with the wider world.

Born in 1942, Ivashintsova grew up in what was then Leningrad, taking pictures from her teenage years up until a year before she died. During the height of the Cold War, she was a part of the cultural underground, sustaining romantic relationships with photographer Boris Smelov, poet Viktor Krivulin, and linguist Melvar Melkumyan (Ivashintsova-Melkumyan’s father). Ivashintsova spent years in various Soviet mental institutions, an attempt by authorities to “standardize people and force everybody to live by the communist rules,” Ivashintsova-Melkumyan explained on her website. Ivashintsova died of cancer at the age of 58.

A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1975

“Photography had always had a central place in our home, it never seemed significant — taking photographs, for my mother, was like breathing,” Ivashintsova-Melkumyan told Stewart. “I also just always assumed that the photography was helping my mother to get through life, I never thought that it was something special.”

As Ivashintsova-Melkumyan, her husband, and two family friends continue to scan all of Ivashintsova’s negatives, they’re also starting to sell prints (in limited editions of 10 each) and look forward to organizing exhibitions of her photography. According to Ivashintsova’s posthumous website, there’s already a show in the works to take place in Vienna, Austria this summer.

“During her lifetime, whatever [my mother] did was never taken very seriously, neither by her family nor by the men she loved,” Ivashintsova-Melkumyan told Stewart. “That’s why I think that it is my job as her daughter now to show her works to the world, to make sure she gets the credit she truly deserves.”

A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1976
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1976
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova of Melvar Melkumyan and their daughter, Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan, Moscow, USSR, 1976
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Moscow, USSR, 1978
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1978
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1978
A photograph by Masha Ivashintsova, Leningrad, USSR, 1979
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