by Paula Osa
Birgit Püve (1978) is a photographer based in Tallinn, Estonia. In November 2014 Birgit won the 3rd Prize at The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 and was selected as an exhibitor at The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015. Her works have been exhibited in solo exhibitions in Germany, Poland, Russia and Estonia and in group exhibitions in Canada, France, USA, Austria, UK, Latvia etc.
With the exhibition Estonian Documents she effectively conveys the concept of the human face as a document of time. You can go and visit the small 12 Star Gallery in Europe House, London until the 2nd of December. And I suggest you do so, Estonia is a nation worth knowing. True, we are an exceptionally small country, but we have a history more eventful, tragic, and passionate than you can imagine. Estonia was brutalised by two empires during World War II, and was abandoned by the world. But we escaped this destiny that was forced on us. Some revolutions are about hate, or revenge, but Estonia’s was about hope and music. Those saved our nation. We restored our independence through the singing revolution…indeed it does mean what you think it does – these people sang themselves free. And we have been free since 1992.
The exhibition consists of portraits of known and unknown individuals from Estonia. It begins with the serious, yet aristocratic faces on Arnold and Ingrid Rüütel, the third president of Estonian Republic and his lady, who have been aged in grace. Every person photographed appears against a grey backdrop and only natural lighting has been used. The latter are as important as the people on the photographs – it’s a metaphor of the past – as Püve herself suggests. There is no external factors to romanticise the person, which allows the message to be passed on solely through the subject himself/herself. With this Püve constructs a mental space where the personal feelings can be silently made public. There for those who are willing to listen, to see, to pay attention. Birgit Püve aims to treasure the psychological state of the post-Soviet country in the 21st century through individuals of every type – male, female, old, young, traditional, and modern.
Estonian Documents is not necessarily an exhibition you would see often, it is focused more on the psychological rather than the aesthetic. The more profound understanding of the exhibition stems from the audience’s familiarity with Estonian nation, culture, and history. The Estonians in London will definitely be pulled in by nostalgia, I know I was. It is extraordinary how recognisable a nation is through the eyes of its people, and the solemn glow on their faces. Presenting such work outside of Estonia has a defamiliarising effect, it places the subject slightly out of the context and thus creates something new. It is a way of introducing Estonia to the world, our people are our business cards. The exhibition was magnificent – small, like Estonia, but carrying a meaning incomprehensible for many. It seems appropriate to end this with an Estonian proverb – “Lihtsuses peitub võlu” – which translates to “The magic lies within simplicity.” I believe this to be utterly applicable to Püve’s photographs.