Photographs from near and far: Work of Frank Ward, Robert Tobey on display

  • Fellow photographers Robert Tobey and Frank Ward share a laugh at their dual exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fellow photographers Robert Tobey and Frank Ward share a laugh at their dual exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fellow photographers Robert Tobey and Frank Ward share a laugh at their dual exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • One of Robert Tobey’s photographs at the A.P.E. Gallery show. While riding by on a bicycle, Tobey shot images of people watching parades in Greenfield and Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  •  Since 2001, Frank Ward has taken many photographs during multiple trips he’s made to the countries of the former Soviet Union. He calls that area of the world “a paradise of paradox.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • In this image, Tobey captured a young girl sitting next to pieces of candy tossed to the crowd that was watching the Franklin County Fair parade in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ward says this teenage girl in Irkutsk, Siberia was part of a youth honor guard for a World War II memorial.  Image courtesy of Frank Ward

  • The wearing of the green: An ancient Russian Moskvitch, a common car in parts of the former Soviet Union, outside a similarly colored apartment block in Odessa, in Ukraine. Image courtesy of Frank Ward

  • A grandmother on a beach outside Odessa, in the Ukraine, who invited Ward to take her picture. Image courtesy of Frank Ward

  • Winter scene in Irkutsk, Siberia, where an old and common Soviet-era car, a Lada, sits in a playground area. Image courtesy of Frank Ward

  • On a boat on the Black Sea outside Batumi, Georgia, tourists from Jordan snap cell phone pictures of each other as Ward takes photographs of the tourists. Image courtesy of Frank Ward

  • Shadow cyclist: Robert Tobey snaps a sidewalk photo in Holyoke as the sun casts his own shadow into the picture. Image courtesy Robert Tobey/A.P.E. Gallery

Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2019 3:54:55 PM

Frank Ward and Robert Tobey, longtime friends and photographers, had a combined show years ago in Thornes Market — in 1985, to be exact.

Thirty-four years later, the two local artists are back together in a shared exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, showcasing portraits of people in the Valley and people and scenes from the other side of the world: Russia, Ukraine, and different parts of central Asia. 

In “The Last Empire: The new countries of the old Soviet Union,” Ward offers a range of photographs he’s taken over the last 18 years during multiple visits to Russia and many of the neighboring countries that once were part of the U.S.S.R., such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

And in “Blind I,” Tobey showcases portraits of people who came in the last few years to watch Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Parade, as well as the parade in Greenfield that traditionally opens the Franklin County Fair. These are candid portraits, shot under unusual conditions: Tobey made them while riding by on his bicycle, using one camera with a fixed-focal-length lens.

Back in the U.S.S.R.  

From a teenage girl in Siberia who’s part of a quasi-military group, to a grandmother on a Black Sea beach, to tourists in Georgia, Ward’s portraits reveal people and countries in transition, where since the end of over 70 years of dictatorial rule that isolated most Soviet citizens from the world, modernity has come racing in, from the ubiquity of cell phones to the rise of ultra-wealthy business tycoons in Moscow.

When he first went to Russia and Ukraine, in 2001, Ward said, “I felt like I’d gone back in time, like it was the 1950s.” Ancient cars, aging buildings, sporadic electricity and telephone service in some places — Ward says day-to-day life in the former Soviet Union seemed a marked contrast to the comfortable version in much of the U.S.

Now, though, he says, “It’s almost as though they’ve completely bypassed late 20th-century technology and gone right into the digital world.”

The contrast offered a great opportunity for a photographer, though: As Ward writes in exhibit notes, “The former Soviet Empire is a paradise of paradox, where the landscapes are limitless and the people are full of passion and pain.” 

Ward, who lives in Ashfield and recently retired from teaching visual arts at Holyoke Community College, has made many of his trips to the former Soviet Union with his wife, Vivian Leskes, an English as a Second Language professor at HCC who has taught English in Russia and Ukraine. She also won a Fulbright Scholarship about 10 years ago to study how English was taught in Siberia. His wife’s fluent Russian, Ward says, has helped him navigate the region.

Even if faced with a language barrier, he says, he’s usually been able to get people’s permission to photograph them, like the rather stout babushka (grandmother) who was wearing a bikini on a beach outside the Ukrainian city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, in 2005 (Ward says the woman actually invited him to photograph her). 

One of his most interesting images is a 2010 close-up of the face of a teenage girl, in Irkutsk in Siberia, who’s wearing a military-style dress hat and is staring without expression just past the camera. Ward explains that she was a member of a youth honor guard at a WWII memorial, an eternal flame, in the city. “Every town [in Russia]  worth its salt has these kinds of [WWII] memorials,” he said.

The young guard, he noted, reminded him of the guards at Buckingham Palace in London: “Her expression never changed.”

Other photos capture moments frozen in time: a woman racing to catch a bus in a city square; an ancient and dilapidated car, a green Moskvitch, next to a weathered apartment building of a similar color; Jordanian tourists on a boat outside Batumi, in Georgia, photographing each other with cell phones. In another image, a young woman on a street in Minsk, in Belarus, looks at the camera as she hugs a man — a boyfriend? —  who is staring to the side as he talks on a cellphone, his eyes hidden behind large sunglasses.

Then there’s the strange stuff, like a woman in Georgia who affects a Goth-like, Marilyn Manson look— dyed black hair, stark white face — and runs a tiny, pop-up store selling various rock and roll trinkets. Ward says he was also accused by policemen in Uzbekistan of “stealing state secrets” when he took one of his pictures: a WWII Soviet tank that’s on display in a park.

“Some of that Soviet-era authoritarian atmosphere is still around,” he said. Yet compared to the street scenes he first witnessed in the former Soviet Union, he added, “Things seem much more social. The streets used to be empty — now a lot more people seem out and about. It’s a nice change.”

The ‘Blind I’ 

Robert Tobey stuck much closer to home for his recent collection of pictures. But in photographing people at parades in Greenfield and Holyoke, he was also trying to keep a certain distance, metaphorically speaking, from his subjects.

In an interview at Galley A.P.E., Tobey, of Greenfield, talked about trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible when taking his pictures to preserve the spontaneity of the moment and capture candid images.

In his exhibit notes, he even quotes James Joyce, from the famous Irish writer’s first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” to explain his philosophy: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

“I find this is a good way to get honest, open images and keep myself out of the way,” Tobey said in describing his approach of taking pictures while riding his bicycle. It’s a method he’s practiced for many years, to teach himself how to balance on the bike as he snaps photos, while also keeping one eye on the road to avoid collisions. 

“I ride very slowly,” he said with a laugh. Sometimes, he’ll stop briefly and straddle the bike to get a photo.

The locations of his photographs are not given, though heavier clothing worn by people in some images would indicate they’re likely watching the St. Patrick’s parade in Holyoke (in March) rather than the Franklin County Fair parade in Greenfield (in early September). In some cases, people are caught by surprise by Tobey’s camera and look right at him; in others they’re caught up in just about anything else.

One photo depicts an older man, a somewhat younger woman, and a young boy, all standing at the rear of a car on what appears to be Main Street in Greenfield. The man bends his head to the boy, a smile on his face; the boy, wearing a T-shirt that says “Let the Shenanigans Begin,” wears a look that seems half excitement, half uncertainty.

In another image, a young girl lolls on the street, pieces of candy scattered around her. She looks at the camera, her lips a bit puckered in bemusement — or perhaps she had just popped a sour candy into her mouth moments before Tobey snapped the photo.

In his exhibit notes, Tobey says he appreciates the egalitarian nature of the parade crowds: “There is a wonderfully hodge-podge, admirably mongrel, scrambled-together democracy in these crowds ... a good-spirited blending” of races, classes and generations “that occurs rarely in our compartmentalized New England culture.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

The photographs of Frank Ward and Robert Tobey will be on display at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery though Sept. 28. An artists’ reception takes place on Friday from 5-8 p.m. as part of Northampton’s monthly Arts Night Out.


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