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MORE THAN MEETS THE EYES - Moscow, Russia

An outfit consisting of a cowboy hat, creamy-white suit, and crossover tie would stand out pretty much anywhere in the world except Texas. In Moscow however, this is a fashion statement roughly comparable to walking down Main Street, Smalltown, USA wearing a knight's shining armor.

So when I saw this distinguished-looking cowboy standing across the street, apparently waiting for an appointment (a correct guess, as it turns out, although the guy never did show up), I figured anyone wearing those clothes in Russia would have an interesting character that might come through in a photo, so I decided to ask him for one.

Having just sat down with a friend at a restaurant, I pulled my camera and a flash out of my bag just as he started wandering off, chased after him, and then realized that my flash had no batteries. Nice. I quickly sped back to my bag for more, and went off again in search of him, hopeful that he would be fairly easy to spot in a crowd (another correct guess). I asked him, in Russian, if I could take a photo of him, fully expecting him to respond in an American southern drawl, but this time I was wrong, as he turned out to be Russian. I was, however, right in suspecting that he'd have an interesting story.

Serzh is an "extreme artist," whose various skills include performing illusions and magic, hypnosis, as well as dangerous and sometimes death-defying stunts, such as pounding nails into wood with his bare hands, being voluntarily choked with ropes, and driving really fast while blindfolded.

I invited him to join me and my friend for a drink, and in no time at all he was doing card tricks, untying scarves that my friend had tied himself, and guessing what objects patrons of the restaurant were holding while blindfolded (and yes, we tried the blindfold ourselves).

While he didn't want to perform anything dangerous in the restaurant, he promised to do so later. Since he's been doing this for over thirty years, I assume he's good at it, although he admitted to making a very bloody mistake once with the nail trick.

Serzh is easily one of the most unique and fascinating characters I've ever had the good fortune to meet, dripping with charm and charisma, with twinkling eyes that invite or perhaps hypnotize you into wanting to believe him when he assures you that while some parts of his act are mere illusions, others are only possible by using powers that few eyes can see. Even if it's all misdirection and skilled sleight-of-hand, there's undeniably something magical about Serzh.

Photography may not be quite as, well, flashy as driving while blindfolded, but for me, the creative process of taking a heavy chunk of metal, plastic and glass and trying to make a flat rectangle of little dots that can somehow please the eyes, fire up the mind, and move the heart of a viewer requires another kind of wizardry, and is something well worth looking into. And you might just transform a stranger into a friend in the process. That's definitely magic.

I shot this with one bare speedlite handheld camera-left and up, pointed to focus attention on his remarkable face. There is some photoshop work as well, but I hope that it isn't obvious unless you look closely.

From TALKING TO STRANGERS