A few years ago, when I wrote “The Banality of Color”, remarked that “the past is strangely alive” in the rare color photos that survive from the early 20th century. I was referring to the jolt I would get when seeing a supposedly historical event come alive, when it became more real simply for being rendered in color. I wrote “The color in these pictures shows how real it all was, how much closer to our present time — and how stupefyingly normal.”
These days, anxiously watching Putin’s assault of Ukraine, I was noticing a similar effect in the photos from the Kyiv metro. As the invasion moved ever closer to the capital, countless people took refuge in the metro stations to shield themselves from the attack. Photos of these bomb shelters visualized the surreal reality of the event and the terror these people were facing as the unthinkable happened and their country was invaded.
But what really drove the “this-can’t-be-happening” nature of the moment home was that many people were pictured holding smartphones. Seeing this dominant everyday technology used among the Soviet decor of the metro, this thing from the very present right in the relic of the past; it was jarring. There was no mistaking that this moment of terror, something we’ve seen so many times in pictures of the past, was in fact happening in the very present.