JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and a portion of the side viewing room. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1926 and 1937. The prints are sized between roughly 2×3 and 30×42 inches, and no edition information was provided. 3 of the largest prints were made for a 1969 exhibition at the Moscow Central House of Journalists. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: While the crisp aesthetics and optimistic industrial subjects of between-the-wars Modernism have become standard historical fare for American and European photography audiences, the parallel efforts of the post-revolution Constructivist photographers in the then-new Soviet Union are quite a bit less well known, at least in the West. For many, the sum total of accumulated knowledge of these innovative photographers comes down to a single towering name – Alexander Rodchenko. But this impressive solo show of the work of Boris Ignatovich should help remedy that situation, broadening our understanding of both the broader stylistic movement and of Ignatovich’s important contributions to its durable influence.
Even nearly a century later, the spatial dynamism found at the heart of Constuctivism continues to feel radically impressive. Its active point of view gave vitality to various art forms, bringing boldness to graphic design and architecture and whipsaw energy to the fast-cut montage filmmaking of Eisenstein and Vertov.
In photography, experimental steep angles and brash contrasts were the movement’s particular hallmarks, and these approaches were often applied to subjects that actively supported the new political reality. Images of working people and patriotic youth were consistently mixed with examples of industrial prowess and forward thinking social momentum, the line between risk-taking art and national propaganda becoming muddier over time.
Ignatovich’s particular story begins in the realm of photojournalism, with various high profile newspaper jobs and photo editor assignments in the mid 1920s. Near the end of the decade, he joined the October group, becoming the head of its photographic section when Rodchenko was expelled in 1930. So throughout the period in question, Ignatovich was positioned at or near the center of the action, interacting with the important artists, film directors, designers, and photographers who were driving the development of the Constructivist aesthetic.
This smart show gathers a well-edited cross section of his most notable images, ticking off most of the typical subject matter tropes. The theme of industrial prowess is captured in views of lines of newly manufactured reaping machine wheels and automobiles, the repetitive curves and angles of the compositions making dull product shots into bold patterns. The diligence and romance of industrial work is seen in steel workers crowded around a vast metallurgical forge and a weathered hand turning a wrench, with the Russian word for “forward” (showing which way to turn the crank) providing a symbolic jolt of optimism. And the steep underneath angle of a construction worker carrying a plank along a narrow beam becomes a high contrast geometric composition of dark lines against light sky, the image combining the value of honest labor and an aggressive avant-garde vision.
Many of Ignatovich’s photographs document the exuberant spirit of the people, with moments of authentic optimism intermingled with more stage-set happiness. A fresh faced couple exudes the easy-going confidence of youth, while a group of nude young men in a shower has the glow of sleek muscular health. Images of parading children, brass bands, and uniformed supporters continue this upbeat mood, with underneath angles enhancing the uplifting good cheer. Even a happy boy on a tractor gets in on the action, celebrating the wonders of the new world taking hold.
When Ignatovich pointed his camera at the architectural symbols of the old Russia, he inevitably inserted a sense of modern, new world context. He made perilously low aerial images of landmarks like St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with the shadow of the plane cast on the sidewalk below. He framed ornate Romanov-era architecture with boldly graphic socialist banners, technology-celebrating parade decorations, and socialist sculptures. And he used distorted differences in scale to put tiny people beneath the imposing stone feet at the entrance to the Hermitage.
The consistency of Ignatovich’s innovative visual language is what stands out here. He repeatedly turned the ordinary into something infused with the momentum of a fresh perspective, and while the long arm of history has dismantled the tenets of the societal framework he was working within, his images remain rich in their embodiment of that enthusiastic vantage point. This understated show is a solid art historical gap filler, putting the underknown Ignatovich in his rightful place in the Constructivist pantheon.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $5000 and $10000, except for the large exhibition prints which are not for sale. Ignatovich’s work has had very limited secondary market activity in recent years, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.