Although Nailya Alexander left Russia in 1991, her roots in Communist Russia have come back to her with a greater clarity and sense of purpose, now that she is a dealer in Soviet and contemporary Russian photography on the bustling thoroughfare of 57th Street in Manhattan. “It just kind of happened, this journey I took, this career that I started,” says the 42-year-old Alexander, for whom preserving the legacy of talented underground Soviet photographers has been something of a calling. “It was not as if this was planned. Still, as enough time has passed, I have a better understanding of where I am now.”
Alexander had what she calls a “normal childhood”—considering that it took place in the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era. She attended secondary school in the Ukraine and later high school and university in Khabarovsk (bordering China). Upon graduating, Alexander served her compulsory year of state service beginning in 1988 at a small museum in Birobidzhan—a fortuitous fact, considering that she had many friends in the art scene. She learned how to take an exhibition from concept to installation; did public relations; and put in many hours of administrative duties. Alexander, a petite, almost elfin woman with large expressive eyes and a gentle voice, modestly describes this part of her life as largely unaffected by Soviet rule, even as she recalls how keenly it altered the lives of the artists around her, many of whom were her friends. “There was a separation between politics and real life,” she says. “One was official, one was unofficial. Real life, your life at home with family and friends, had nothing to do with the propaganda promoted on an official level.” Finally, for reasons both personal and professional, Alexander decided to make the big jump across the Atlantic in 1991, landing in New York.
She thought she’d never look back, but as it happened, she was on a path that led irrevocably back to things Russian. She took a job in 1993–94 for New York dealer Phyllis Kind (who represented non-conformist artists from the Soviet era); then she moved to Washington, D.C., and became a private dealer in Russian art. In 1996, Alexander became interested in researching what sort of photographic histories might have been left uncovered during the years of Soviet rule in the late 1960s and 1970s. A career in photography was born, entailing numerous trips back and forth across the Atlantic.
Alexander, now something of an expert in the field, offers one of the few venues for Soviet photography from the 1930s to the 1950s, working out of a gallery space she shares with the dealer Candace Dwan. Along the way, she’s also worked as a consultant to collectors, helping Norton Dodge, for example, build a collection of Russian photography (which he since donated to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University). She has also curated such rigorous shows as Artificial Reality: Soviet Photography 1930–1987 at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, in 2000. But many of her own exhibitions look forward, including shows of photographic work by any number of contemporary Russians, such as the black-and-white prolonged exposures of Alexey Titarenko, and the lush nudes-in-cityscapes by Evgeny Mokhorev. Whether the work is historical or contemporary, her mandate to show Russian photographers that might otherwise go unseen has remained intact. “Every exhibition becomes a message to the world,” says Alexander. “That’s one of the reasons why I have a gallery. It’s a gratifying experience.”