Nadia Sablin’s elderly aunts pick pails full of blueberries and bowls of tiny strawberries in her series “Aunties: The Seven Summers of Alevtina and Ludmila,” but the images hold few other clues about when they were made—the life her subjects lead looks timeless. The photos were made in the house Sablin’s grandfather built in a village north of St. Petersburg, where Sablin spent her own summers as a child, before her family moved to the U.S., and where her aunts have continued to live part-time. In Sabin’s photos, which won Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography and are on view at Duke until February 28, her aunts’ simple routine appears enchanted and doubled—in matching pink raincoat or floral print dresses, they pull a two-handled saw across logs, share a crossword puzzle, or trim gooseberries. The line between fairytale and childhood memory blurs.
Other images hint at the solitude that comes with the preservation of an older way of life. “The two women, who spent their youth working in big cities and never married, have relied on each other for support and companionship all their lives,” writes Sablin in a statement. Pictured alone, each woman looks small and even girlish, curled on a bed or standing still in an orchard—the distance between the world of Sablin and her aunts’ youth and the present collapses. Over the course of the project, each year Sablin spent a few weeks at a time with her aunts, who live in the village from April to September. The cycle of seasons is invisible in the series, but the passage of time is still palpable. “Leaving and returning again divides our time into chapters, as the story moves toward its inevitable end,” she writes.