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The Extraordinary American Professor Who Photographed the Striking Christian Architecture of Russia’s North

  • October 19, 2020

What Americans know about Russian architecture is mainly thanks to the work of one man, who has photographed the country since 1970


Editors Note: This article is from a series by and about the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography. Most of the buildings he photographs is of remote churches and monasteries.

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

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Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.


It’s not easy to get William Brumfield to talk about himself. For Brumfield, 71, the foremost authority on Russian architecture in the U.S., the focus of any conversation is the work. And the work, first and foremost, is the photography.

“The photography has always been the fulcrum for me to convey this knowledge that I have about Russian culture and architecture,” Brumfield said.

William Craft Brumfield, photographer and historian of Russian architecture.

Although photography has defined Brumfield’s career, he did not train as a photographer. He studied Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley, receiving his PhD in 1973.  Perhaps fittingly, he first picked up a camera on his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1970.

The only time a conversation with Brumfield hints at anything personal is when he talks about the connection between the Russian North and his native American South.

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Like the South, the Russian North is full of structures that tell the story of a culture clinging to its heritage while searching for a way forward.

“For all the losses, the trauma… there is an extraordinary wealth, much of it in a ruined state. But for the historian, the ruin is also important. This is something of extraordinary power. What created it? Because there’s nothing visible sustaining it now.”

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Brumfield did his undergraduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he has also taught since 1980. 

A tireless advocate for the recognition and preservation of Russian architecture, Brumfield has published countless articles in English and Russian as well as several major books, including “A History of Russian Architecture,” (1993) widely used as a textbook in Russian studies courses and “Lost Russia,” (1995) which Brumfield described as a book that tried to put Russian architecture into a familiar Western context, “this trope of the ruin as a point of meditation.”  

His more recent work, including “Architecture at the End of the Earth,” which was published in June, approaches Russian architecture more on its own terms, as an anomaly that doesn’t fit into the traditional narrative of Western art and architectural history.

“It’s interesting because it’s Russia,” he said, adding that in his view, “architecture is as much an expression of Russia as its music or literature. Although it’s rare to find any of the great novelists talking about the architecture of a church, for example, that ambience is there.”

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Article source: https://russia-insider.com/en/extraordinary-american-professor-who-photographed-striking-christian-architecture-russias-north

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