ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
In a shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is an unusual little book of photographs called "Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith." Jason Eskanazi spent years photographing the fall of the Soviet Union. The black and white photos are both stark and romantic. And like many fairy tales, they tell the story of the end of childhood. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER: Jason Eskanazi has worked on and off as a photographer for 20 years. He's not Russian. His grandparents came from Salonika in Istanbul. But growing up in Queens, New York during the Reagan era, he kept on hearing about this mysterious thing, the Evil Empire. Once the Berlin Wall fell, he decided to get on an airplane and go.
Mr. JASON ESKANAZI (Photographer, "Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith"): I wanted to see history. I think I was not trusting what I was reading or seeing. I wanted to see it for myself, to go to the very source of it.
ADLER: Eskanazi had studied the great photographers of the '30s, the '40s, and '50s. And there, in the former Soviet Union, he found himself transported into a world where many things were like the past.
Mr. ESKANAZI: No advertisements, less cars on the road, summer dresses. You know, all these things from 50 years ago, all the photography that I was brought up on.
ADLER: He found few restrictions in those early days. He entered factories in Siberia. He entered prisons. Eskanazi traveled thousands of miles through seven time zones. Not knowing Russian at first, he quickly learned the words for where is the wedding, where is the funeral so he could enter into a ritual and community life.
We're sitting on a park bench in Central Park, where Eskanazi has just finished his day job as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He tells me the title of his book comes from "Alice in Wonderland."
You know, in most fairy tales, he says, a child experiences the death of a parent and is then forced to journey into the world. There's something similar, he says, when you think about the end of the Soviet Union, with the Communist Party no longer providing clothing, food, and security.
Ms. ESKANAZI: And when the Berlin Wall fell down, it's almost like they were set out onto the path, a journey to find themselves, who they were, you know, after 70 years of sort of a childhood.
ADLER: Often a picture in the book will connect with the next picture. A milk maid in Kazakhstan looks out dreamily as she milks a cow, mud-stains on her shoes. The next picture is of a young woman of similar features and age but cultured and well dressed, dancing with a young man at a waltz competition, almost as if the first picture is dreaming the second.
A woman jumps up in a park almost in flight, like the dreams of space flight that many of us associate with the Soviet Union. But the next picture is a woman dusting off a stuffed dog in a museum, one of the dogs that went into space. Eskanazi says symmetry is important in all of his photographs, as well as humor, satire, and yearning.
Mr. ESKANAZI: There has to be some edge of funniness, irony to it, but yet, it has to also have some romance and longing.
ADLER: Documentary photographer Gene Richards says Eskanazi may use irony and metaphor, but none of it is pre-orchestrated. Most photographers today, he says, either do art photography or create blunt, in-your-face messages. Eskanazi's work is much more subtle and surprising.
Mr. GENE RICHARDS (Documentary Photographer): This place that he went to, it could have been seen in a million ways. And he always seems to capture these little non-moments. And that's his ability as a photographer, those little lonely souls.
ADLER: There's obviously a historical reality to the photographs, since all were taken between 1990 and 2001, after the Soviet Union broke up. But the book is also a subjective journey. It was during a terrible and beautiful thunderstorm in Moscow, Eskanazi says, that he realized that, for him, the former Soviet Union was about the difficulty of losing what you always thought would be there.
Mr. ESKANAZI: We often confuse the memory of our childhood, I think, like even if it was terrible, even if you were in a horrendous situation, it was your childhood. So for me, the key thing was that they had a nostalgia for tragedy. That was the great lesson. That was my maturation.
ADLER: Jason Eskanazi works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he sometimes stares at a statue for hours contemplating life, art, and his next project. Some of his photographs will be shown at the Lyka Gallery in New York between November 13th and January 10th. His book is "Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith." Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
SEABROOK: Some of Eskanazi's photos can be seen at npr.org.