Focus On: Diana Markosian
Once upon a time, the United States billed itself as a beacon of hope, a land of opportunity and prosperity. Debatable, even prior to the last four years, that idea has nevertheless drawn people from around the world in search of a better life. Diana Markosian’s mother was one of those people, bringing her two children from Moscow to California when Diana was seven years old, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. That decision, and its consequences, is the subject of Markosian’s remarkable book, Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020).
The photographs in the series (scheduled to go on view at SFMOMA in June and at ICP in the fall) comprise a staged re-enactment of her childhood, with actors playing her mother, her father, her step-father, her brother, and Markosian herself. The images in the book are interspersed with the pages of a script, modeled after the soap opera Santa Barbara, which was enormously popular in the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In this case, though, the script outlines Markosian’s dramatic exodus from Russia with her mother and brother and sets the stage for her atmospheric images. The idea of the United States conjured in Santa Barbara – a land of sun and sand and beautiful, wealthy people – was what brought her mother to Southern California. “The show was what we understood America to be,” says Marakosian, who builds her photographic narrative around the instability of the stories we tell ourselves and the fickle nature of memory.
The fall of the Soviet Union left Markosian’s parents unemployed and strained their marriage. Her father, an engineer, wound up sewing and selling black market Barbie clothes. Her struggling mother, Svetlana, an economist, made the desperate choice to search for a new life in an international matchmaking catalogue, leaving Moscow for Santa Barbara and for Eli, who turned out to be a much older man than she was expecting. But they married, and for a time, made a life in this land of plenty, alluded to in a close-up shot of a shopping cart filled to the brim with Wonder bread, mayonnaise, potato chips, Lucky Charms, a dozen kinds of peanut butter on the shelf; and in images of an IHop meal, blue skies, motel pools, and theme parks. But the book also includes photographs of Eli’s aging body, fog-shrouded streets, and shots of her young mother, isolated and lonely. “There was this feeling that only in America will we be happy,” says Markosian. “And then you come to America and it has its own problems and drama and its doesn’t quite match up to what is in our minds.”
Markosian studied journalism at Columbia University, but was drawn to pictures more than words. As a photojournalist, she has spent nearly a decade photographing in places like Chechnya, Armenia, Havana, and Russia, often working on stories that focus on women and girls, for the New York Times, National Geographic, and the New Yorker, among other publications. In 2016, she was invited to join the esteemed photographers’ cooperative Magnum, but resigned when she was asked to submit a project other than Santa Barbara to advance her membership. “Santa Barbara has been the most special, and the most truthful, project I’ve worked on,” she says.
“Truthful” may seem a counterintuitive way to describe a project constructed with such obvious artifice. But Markosian’s project not only dramatizes her own already dramatic childhood, but also suggests the ways in which all families are, to some degree, a fiction built on faulty memories, domestic dramas in which roles are performed. A grid of head shots of the actors who auditioned for the role of Eli echoes a reprinted page from Cherry Blossoms Magazine (“bringing couples together from around the world since 1974”) showing head shots of women seeking husbands. Staged photographic reconstructions (full-page color photographs as well as staged Polaroids) alternate with blurry shots of a television set showing Santa Barbara, a yellowed TV Guide page about the cancellation of the show, and old family photographs. It’s a multivalent project that begins with what Bookforum called “the oceanic proportions of a single decision” and zooms out to consider the storytelling power of images and the many ways of visualizing the truth.