City creatives: Val Proudkii

City creatives: Val Proudkii
Val Proudkii has been taking photos ever since he got his first camera at 7 years old. His work spans continents and cultures to capture the latent spectacle of everyday life. (Photo/Val Proudkii)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

A saxophone player stands under an awning to escape a torrential downpour, squeezing notes out of his instrument despite the storm.

A man sits outside his dockside shack, smoking a cigarette, staring at sailboats and wondering where the day has gone.

A man and a woman kiss passionately in a crowded subway car, as if they exist in their own world, the strangers around them fading into the background of their own personal love story.

If a picture speaks 1,000 words, Val Proudkii is a man with a voluminous vocabulary. The Ukrainian-born photographer and Torpedo Factory artist is obsessed with capturing the everyday miracles that make life worth living yet rarely last more than a moment.

Born in Kiev in 1963, Proud- kii took to visual art, specifically photography, early in life. For his seventh birthday, Proudkii’s father, an amateur photographer himself, gave him a Soviet rangefinder camera. Soon, Proudkii was out on the street, snapping the kinds of mundane-turned-spectacular images he would later build his career on.

“I kind of started from there, just taking pictures as a hobby, just kind of trying to capture, in usual settings, something unusual – something that you could walk by, not pay any attention to it but if you look closer or you look in the right way, you could see something that might be interesting to capture,” Proudkii said.

Proudkii graduated from university with a degree in economics and in 1989, at the age of 26, left Ukraine and travelled around Europe and America before settling in Washington D.C.

For the early part of his professional life, Proudkii worked as a telecommunications engineer. It paid well and provided Proudkii with stability, but photography remained his passion, Proudkii said.

Photo/Val Proudkii

Proudkii continued photography as a hobby. He took his work to local art markets on weekends and entered into photography competitions where the audience responded strongly to his work.

“Essentially, from the hobby or weekends, it kind of mainstreamed into more of, ‘OK, I think I want to do this full-time,’” Proudkii said. “So, I left my regular work and became a member of Torpedo Factory Arts Center and started showing my work here.”

Proudkii joined the Torpedo Factory in 2013 and has had a studio there ever since.

Whether he’s snapping shots in Greece, Cuba, India or D.C., Proudkii’s work is defined by the humanity at the center of the frame. He considers himself a street photographer, and the images he captures are as candid and lived-in as that would imply.

“Essentially, what’s interesting to me is daily life, people interacting. I would always like to have humans in my pictures,” Proudkii said.

One photo that hangs in Proudkii’s Torpedo Factory studio depicts a man sitting portside on the island of Corfu in Greece. While wandering around town, Proudkii stumbled on the man, taking a smoke break outside his seaside shack, and asked him if he could take a few pictures. The man didn’t seem to mind, so Proudkii got to work.

“He kept doing what he was doing, and I just walked around and just captured the feeling of what the guy experienced,” Proudkii said.

Wherever he is, Proudkii walks the streets, observing and documenting life and human stories through his imagery.

“The expression is … important because that’s how [people] react to what’s going on around them,” Proudkii said. “I like to have that be a part of my picture because it essentially helps me to tell a story to the viewers.”

Photo/Val Proudkii

What’s going on around his subjects is equally important, and Proudkii often uses rain or snow in his work to create “a moody picture,” Proudkii said. He is interested in the way weather bears down on people, how mist shrouds a figure, how rain forces people to run for cover.

“The weather elements create a different feel, introduces different feelings into the window,” Proudkii said. “People look different. Some people, it brings emotion to their faces too when they look into a rainy window.”

Whatever draws Proudkii’s gaze, he knows he only has one shot to capture it. Every photo represents a moment, one that has never existed before or since that photo was taken. The moment-to-moment rush to capture the perfect image was a driving force in Proudkii’s process early on, but he has since developed a more patient, selective approach, he said.

Proudkii has also embraced the reflective nature of his work, something that most people are not used to in professions that require them to think in terms of the next task. For Proudkii, the past is part of the profession.

“You look back and you relive those moments and you’re lucky to be able to capture that slice of that time and revisit it in your memories,” Proudkii said. “It brings you those emotions again.”

Every photo is an opportunity for Proudkii to share those memories, and the human stories behind them, with his viewers and create an image that is worth much more than just 1,000 words.

“[Photography] is just my life. It’s part of who I am, how I see things,” Proudkii said. “It’s the meaning of why I’m here, just that I’m able to tell the story to other people and share those emotions through this medium.”

(Read more: City creatives: Sermin Ciddi)