The Russian film-maker Andrey Tarkovsky never took photographs – until he discovered the magic of Polaroids. Then, says Mark Le Fanu, he became addicted – and produced images that are luminous and revealing

The films of the great Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky (1932-1986) are nothing if not pictorial. One thinks of epic scenes of battle and siege in Andrei Rublev (1966) or, on a more intimate scale, the portrayal of the idyllic country dacha that lights up the opening scenes of his memoir-film Mirror (1975), one of the most beautiful color movies ever made.

So it is odd to discover that for whole decades of the director's life, he never made use of a stills camera. Hard to believe, perhaps, in the age of Facebook and the smartphone, when all of us take photography for granted. Hard to believe – but nonetheless true. Or, at least, almost true.

The exception, over a short period, was his passion for Polaroids. The addiction (I think we can call it that) began in 1979 when he was traveling in Italy in preparation for making what turned out to be his penultimate movie, Nostalgia (1983). There was something about the way that the camera gave an instant image of the view being photographed that he found propitious, and useful, for his task of location-hunting. That, and the fact that he liked their saturated but at the same time diffused (and ever so slightly 'retro') color reproduction, which gave each of the stills an air of mystery.

Back in Russia, during breaks in the film's lengthy preparation, Tarkovsky continued using the camera each day to record domestic scenes of family life – his wife Larissa, his son Andrey Jr, along with their beloved German shepherd dog Dakus – as they relaxed in their country cottage in the village of Myasnoe, near Moscow.

Some of these photographs have been displayed before, as blown-up prints, in exhibitions in London as well as elsewhere in Europe. (I remember seeing a beautifully lit display of them in Tallinn.) In addition, there have been two notably well-produced art books: Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, published in 2004, and Bright, bright day, released by the White Space Gallery in conjunction with the Tarkovsky Foundation in 2007.

Now the opportunity has arisen to acquire the originals. Tarkovsky's son, Andrey Jr, has decided to auction a selection of them at Bonhams London on 6 October in order to raise funds for the foundation he runs in Florence. In addition to the Polaroid collection we are talking about (entirely owned by Andrey), the foundation contains a vast archive of papers, letters and diaries, along with pristine prints of the eight movies that his father managed to make in a career stretching from 1960 to his tragically premature death from cancer in 1986.

When I visited Andrey Jr recently in Florence, he showed me the camera that took these photos. In appearance, it was a squat, lightweight plastic box, its no-nonsense 'functionalist' contours speaking eloquently of the epoch in which it was manufactured. Still working, I am happy to report: we even took a few snaps with it.

Polaroid cameras, of course, have no focusing device – they are rudimentary objects in that sense. It is rather difficult to avoid parallax while using them. So, more than usually, everything is thrown back on the native skill and sensibility of the photographer. Doubtless thousands of Polaroids exist in different albums all over the world; and yet, somehow, there are no Polaroids quite like these ones. "His great gifts were his eye", Andrey told me, "and his perfectionism. He threw away any stills that weren't up to his extremely high artistic standards." Thus it is a 'collection' we are faced with here: we could even say it was 'curated' by its creator.

Without seeming to on the surface, the photographs tell a story. It is hard to say whether it is a happy or an unhappy one. Nostalgia, the film that Tarkovsky was planning while most of these photos were being taken, recounts the odyssey of a Russian musicologist who has come to Italy to research the life of a composer named Sosnovsky – based, in fact, on Maksym Berezovsky (1745-77).

Nothing at all is going well for him. The beautiful translator he has been provided with is getting on his nerves. The weather is bad (in Italy!). He misses his wife. He wonders whether his project is a sensible one, and whether it will lead to anything concrete.

Exactly the same feelings, one might say, as Tarkovsky himself was experiencing while negotiating the endless complications of filming abroad, with too little money, and faced by the suspicions of his Soviet backers. (Nostalgia had been planned as a co-production between the Italian state television channel RAI and the official Moscow production company, Sovin Film.)

In a roundabout way, those suspicions were probably justified. Ever since the difficulties he had experienced with the release of Andrei Rublev (the film had been 'shelved' for three years before finally being put out, reluctantly, in a limited print run), Tarkovsky had been in conflict with the authorities. In Soviet Russia, the state was the monopoly funder of all film-making. Mirror had turned out to be as controversial as Andrei Rublev: the regime looked askance at a celebration of private family history that made no concessions at all to the demands of communist ideology.

Thus, by the late 1970s, it seems clear that Tarkovsky was thinking of defecting to the West – if he could only take his family with him. Stalker (1979), in its dream-like way, rehearses the flight.

And now, by a piece of luck, Tarkovsky really was in the West: he was in Italy. However, this arrangement (as outlined in his agreement with his backers) was only 'temporary' – for as long as the shooting of Nostalgia was to last.

These, then, is the context in which Tarkovsky took up the practice of Polaroid photography. They account for a noticeable peculiarity in the resulting pictures, which is that the photographs that were taken in Italy look, at times, as if they might have been taken in Russia, while those taken in Russia have something of the sunniness and happiness and dolce far niente of Italy about them.

It is as if, by some utopian magic, he wanted to make one into the other. While traveling in Italy, he longed for his homeland, with a passion (that is why the film references 'nostalgia'); at the same time, stuck back in Russia for long periods of delay, it is Italy that summons him to freedom.

Freedom came, but it came – as it always does – at a cost. Tarkovsky's wife Larissa was able to accompany the director when in 1984 he made public his decision to stay on in Italy; but the authorities refused his son a travel permit, holding onto him as a hostage, and only releasing him, in the face of mounting international pressure, at the beginning of 1986 when his father was already ill and dying. "You have to remember", Andrey Jr told me, "that the early 1980s – especially after 1982, when Brezhnev died – were some of the very worst years of repression. Of course, with the coming of Gorbachev, everything changed rather rapidly." Too late, alas, for Andrey to benefit in the way that he might have hoped.

And yet we have these beautiful photographs: a souvenir of one of the 20th century's greatest artists. Yes, we can call film directors 'artists', as we might call their end-product a 'canvas'. Sometimes I feel that film-makers (and no one else) really are the painters of our time: they have taken on, to a remarkable extent, the mantle of the Old Masters. Tarkovsky made only eight films in total, but through them he left a rich and various inheritance: how urgently his spiritual concerns still speak to us! These photographs represent merely a 'sideline' to his life's work – a distillation of a mood, a document, a testimony – but in a way they are infinitely precious.

Mark Le Fanu wrote The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky for the British Film Institute.

Man with the movie camera

Andrey Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was one of the great Russian film directors. He came from a distinguished intellectual family – his father, Arseny, was a friend of Boris Pasternak and one of the finest poets of his generation, while his mother, Maria, came from a family of doctors and civil servants. (Tarkovsky revered his mother: her life, lightly fictionalized, is at the center of one of his best-known films, Mirror.) Tarkovsky's parents were progressive, but not friends of the Revolution: during the years of Stalinism, they kept their heads down and managed to survive.

Tarkovsky entered the state film-school, VGIK, in Moscow in 1954, a year after Stalin's death, and benefited from the liberal atmosphere that reigned there in the early years of the 'Thaw'. He shot to fame soon after graduating, when his first full-length feature film, the war drama, Ivan's Childhood, shared the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In the following few years, Tarkovsky and his writing partner Andrey Konchalovsky worked on the script of what turned out to be his most famous movie, Andrei Rublev (1966), a mighty epic about medieval Russia that ran into trouble with the authorities on account of its unambiguous admiration for Christian values. (Its hero, the early 15th-century icon painter Andrei Rublev, was a pious monk.) Though the film was held back from domestic release for several years, Tarkovsky was given the go-ahead to make an ambitious science-fiction picture, Solaris (1972), that has subsequently become something of a cult classic. Mirror followed this in 1975 (once again, it was highly controversial), and after that Tarkovsky made another science-fiction movie, Stalker (1979), shot in Estonia.

By now Tarkovsky was setting his eyes on the West, though unlike, for example, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, he was never an explicit dissident: if he could have stayed in Russia and worked there, he would have liked to have done so.

Nostalgia (1983) was the watershed. Its contemptuous reception by the Soviet authorities – who actually campaigned against it on the occasion of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival – made up the director's mind: he would seek asylum abroad. His health, however, was failing. He made just one more film, The Sacrifice (1986), a mystical drama set in Sweden as a kind of 'homage' to Ingmar Bergman, before dying of lung cancer in Paris on December 29, 1986. M.LeF.

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