Diane Neumaier: To Russia with love

We all have that place we call home – not necessarily the place we were born, but the place that makes us feel found and known.

For Diane Neumaier, that place is Russia. She first visited the country, then the Soviet Union, in 1991. Neumaier, a photographer and the current chair of the Visual Arts Department at Mason Gross School of the Arts, spent most of the 1990s traveling back and forth between Russia and the United States.

“It took,” she says. “I really liked it there. It really worked…It took like a virus. It was contagious, the excitement there.”

Neumaier produced several photographic series, including 1994’s Moscow Street, gritty black-and-white photomurals highlighting people moving through--and coming up against--the city.

Working and living in Russia in the ‘90s “meant escaping an American art world that was increasingly market-driven,” Neumaier says. “…I entered at a very intoxicating moment…It was very easy to enter the arts scene.”

In Neumaier’s 40-plus years as a photographer, she has experimented with a variety of approaches and subject matter: In the ‘80s she explored representations of women; beginning in 2001, she mounted a traveling exhibition in tribute to her grandmother, a noted German opera singer who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The show, which is still traveling, includes photographs taken by her father, opera portraits, and other historical material, as well as Neumaier’s own artwork.

At the moment, Neumaier is producing photograms, utilizing a technology that existed at the dawn of photography, in the mid-19th century. Images are produced without a camera by placing objects on photo-sensitive material and then exposing them to light. Several of Neumaier’s abstracted photograms resemble origami objects; others seem to play with light and shadow.  

Still, her “Russian period” lingers: In 2004, Neumaier curated an exhibit called Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Artatthe university’s Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and wrote and edited the accompanying anthology. And the habits Neumaier absorbed as a stranger in a foreign land appear to inform her work today.

“I was in a new place, not relying on language. I was profoundly affected by it,” she says now. “I felt freed…because my Russian language was so pathetic. So I was always working on my eyes. The newness of it, the stimulation of it was really transformative, and the lack of language deprived me but enabled me to use my visual resources.” 

Photo: Diane Neumaier, 1994, from the series Moscow Street, 28 x 40 inches.

View Diane Neumaier’s work online at www.dianeneumaier.com.