She Lost Her Family. Now She’s Finding Them by Creating Collages from Old Family Photos.

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Grandmother, mother and imaginable grandmother.

Stories are the lifeblood of family history. They keep us connected to those who represent our past, and they bond us to those who fill our present-day lives. But what happens when family stories are missing key chapters? What if some family stories are tragically broken? For one documentary photographer, family photos are keys to reconciling her fractured past with her artistically-fulfilled present. She lost her family. Now she’s finding them by creating collages from old family photos.

In her native Russia, Gulnara was a photography teacher specializing in documentary and conceptual photography. During her time in Russia, she was the only female fine art photographer in the Autonomous Republic of Bashkortostan. On a visit to Moscow in the late 1980s, she saw an exhibition of works by British artists Gilbert & George. Best known for their brilliantly-colored, wall-sized pictures, Gilbert & George create photo-based works in a graphic style. One of their hallmarks is an unwillingness to separate life and art. Thus, the artists can often be seen in their own paintings and collages. Gulnara was deeply impacted by their colorful, autobiographic art and began hand-painting her own photographs shortly after seeing Gilbert & George’s exhibit. Their distinctive methods gave her permission to express what was hidden in her pictures about life in the Soviet Union.

Then she embarked on a journey that would take her far from home. She moved from her birthplace – Ufa, Russia – to New York City in 1992. Shortly after her departure from Russia, tragedy struck Gulnara’s family. Her mother was murdered during the 1995 housing privatization crisis. Then, her grandmother died suddenly. Grieving such significant losses and questioning how she could stay connected to her family’s matriarchs, Gulnara recovered their family photo albums. But she didn’t open them for many years.

Then, a fateful encounter changed the course of her career. She met famed documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark in New York City. Mark pushed Gulnara to “pursue a serious personal body of work.” So, she began working intensely on a new series exploring her childhood and found photographs of family members she never knew.

During her research, Gulnara discovered photos of family members whom she never knew: her grandfather wearing a WWII pilot uniform, an uncle who sent a photo from Siberia to his sister – Gulnara’s mother.

And that’s when Gulnara’s ongoing series– “Lost Family” – was born.

Lost Family Series

Me and my mother.

Describing her approach to combining vintage family photographs with memories of her childhood in the Soviet Union, Gulnara says:

I leave parts of the black and white photographs untouched to represent the “present” life. Using color, and without any attempt at photo realism, I use oil paints to show a “fantasy” life. By creating a collage using my found family and childhood photographs, I connect the present and the past to covey an imagined story.

The resulting images are vibrant, visual feasts for viewers. They are simultaneously sad and exuberant, combining bittersweet imagery with the artist’s pride for her family heritage. Tapping into vintage family photos, oil paints and collage techniques, Gulnara masterfully connects her past to her present. As viewers, we are all lucky to get an intimate glimpse into life – both real and imagined – in the Soviet Union.

Lost Family Series

“So, old woman, we survived one day, we will survive another.” (left) Mother and imaginable siblings (right).

About the Artist: Gulnara is a Tatar-born fine art and street photographer based in New York City. She holds a certificate in fine art from the International Center for Photography, and is one of 89 live/work artists at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109. Gulnara’s work is part of collections at the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, and in the private collections of Elton John, Steven Kasher, Timothy Baum, and Henry Buhl. You can follow her photographic explorations on Instagram and Facebook.

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