Alexei Rebrov Art

(by Joe Castaldo & Kristina Rostorotsky)

Each photograph starts with a hunt. Alexei Rebrov takes his camera into the city at night in search of light and movement. The people don't interest him so much. A rush of night-time revellers can stream past him on the sidewalk, and his camera will be pointed elsewhere: following a streetcar as it turns a corner, or tailing a cyclist's blinking headlight through the dark. 

His camera, set to long exposure, captures the trails, arcs, and auras that light leaves behind. Rebrov uses this technique for his latest body of work, entitled Light, which reinterprets the streets of Toronto and New York. "You can tell a hundred different stories with the same street," he says. His completed images are entirely disconnected from the objects — streetcars, traffic lights, neon signs — that he originally photographed. The physical city is obliterated. What remains is a document of the invisible energy that pulses through and gives life to urban settings. Ribbons of light unfurl, crash, and meld into one another against empty black space. Hazy washes of colour add depth, at times evoking a kind of nostalgia. The current coursing through his work reflects not only the pace of urban life, but Rebrov himself. He's a preternaturally youthful 42-year old who talks fast and seems to be constantly wired. (He required multiple shots of anesthetic before a recent minor surgery on his left hand, much to the surprise of his doctor.) Two facets of Rebrov's personality appear at odds with one another — a desire for chaos, and the need to establish meaning. The abstract nature of his photographs is a form of rebellion against his professional work as an information architect, which requires him to organize complex volumes of data and design user experiences online.

This tension has followed Rebrov through much of his life. When he was a child growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, his mother kept a trove of spare buttons to sew onto clothing. Rebrov would spread the buttons before him and spend hours sorting them into groups, growing perturbed when he couldn't neatly fit some of them into categories. Later, he took up drawing. His preferred method was to create single line illustrations, moving his hand almost randomly around the page. At some point during the process, he would stop and try to find patterns and objects in the lines he had produced. He would then rotate the paper and continue drawing, watching the lines evolve into something else entirely. In his 20s, Rebrov founded a private gallery in Kiev and specialized in showcasing the work of local abstract painters. He delighted in constructing stories around the paintings and interpreting their meanings to clients, changing his explanations depending on whom he was regaling.

Rebrov refuses to assert himself in that way with his current work. He doesn't even title his photographs, allowing viewers to name the pieces. Considering the openness and spontaneity of his approach, it's fitting that Rebrov discovered the photographic technique used for this series by accident. Walking in Toronto one night with his camera around his neck, he was unaware it had been activated until he heard the shutter snap. The blurry image that resulted could easily have been tossed aside, but Rebrov found the streaks of light intriguing. He tried unsuccessfully to replicate the picture. Each shot came out differently no matter what he did.

Chance still plays an important role in this series. Rebrov doesn't know how his shots will turn out when photographing. He zooms, pans, and rotates the camera while the shutter is open, but he's never entirely sure what effects these movements will produce. It's the equivalent of trying to paint in the dark.

But with Rebrov, the tension between the boy trying to organize buttons and the one sketching abstract forms still exists. He cannot help but try to impose some order on the creative process. His photographs undergo hours of digital manipulation as he looks for patterns to highlight and hidden details to bring to the surface. The finished works very much reflect his vision. Rebrov recognizes, however, that viewers will seek out their own meanings in his photographs, a process he encourages. "You make your own story," he says. "I just provide you with the pieces to put it together."