The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film @Jewish Museum

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 110 black and white photographs by 13 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against light yellow walls in a series of 3 divided rooms. The prints were made between 1923 and 1939, and are supplemented by books and magazines shown in vitrines. The exhibit was organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffman. A catalog of the the exhibit has been published by the museum and Yale University Press (here) and is available in the bookshop (here) for $45.

The following artists/photographers have been included in the exhibit, with number of images on view, their processes, and dates as background. The section titles of Constructing Socialism, Soviets, Metropolis, Military, Physical Culture, Staging Happiness, and New Perspectives are used to group the works thematically:

  • Boris lgnatovich: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1928, 1929-1931, 1930, 1931, 1935, 1938, 1930s
  • Elizaveta lgnatovich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930s
  • Olga lgnatovich: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1930, 1935, 1930s
  • Yakov Khalip: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1930s
  • Eleazar Langman: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1930s
  • El Lissitzky: 9 gelatin silver prints (photogram/photomontage), 1923-1929, 1924, 1924-1925, 1929, 1930, 5 books, 1929, 1934, 1935 (w/Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers), 1 magazine, 1933, 1 catalog, 1928
  • Moisei Nappelbaum: 6 gelatin silver prints, early 1920s, 1924, 1926, 1930, 1932, 1934
  • Max Penson: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1929-1930, 1933, late 1930s
  • Georgy Petrusov: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1930, early 1930s, 1933-1934, 1934, 1934-1935, 1935, 1935-1936, mid 1930s, 1937, 1939, 1930s
  • Alexander Rodchenko: 29 gelatin silver prints (a few with applied color), 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1929-1930, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1932-1934, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 6 magazines, 1927, 1930, 1931, 1935, 1938, 9 books (some with Varvara Stepanova), 1923, 1926, 1928, 1938, 1939
  • Arkady Shaikhet: 16 gelatin silver prints, 1925, 1927, 1927-1928, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934, 1937, late 1930s, 1939, 1 magazine, 1928
  • Georgy Zelma: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1925, 1929, 1931, 1933
  • Georgy Zimin: 5 gelatin silver prints (some photograms), 1928/1930

The exhibition also includes a film program with films by Boris Barnet, Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Kalatozov, Grigory Kozintsev, Lev Kuleshov, Yakov Pratazanov, Vsevold Pudovkin, Esfir Shub, Victor Turin, and Dziga Vertov, and a broad selection of film posters by Anatoly Belsky, Anton Lavinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Semyon Semyonov-Menes, Georgy/Vladimir Stenberg, and others, on view in an additional gallery room and a darkened film viewing area.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The two decades following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia were an intensely tumultuous period of evolution in Soviet visual culture. Coming out of the revolution and the civil war that followed on its heels, photographers and filmmakers alike sought to capture the optimistic spirit of change that pulsed through the streets, pushing to invent a new visual language that combined radical avant-garde experimentation with clear-eyed celebratory photojournalism – a new social order had been created, and artists of all kinds embraced the opportunity to communicate its promise to the public at large. But by the 1930s, that inclusive positivism had been incrementally strangled by the encroaching menace of the ever strengthening political machine, and any deviation from the mannered ideological scenes and tightly state-controlled propaganda favored by the government was clamped down with a ferocity few were willing to test.

This smartly-edited exhibit succinctly traverses this up-and down roller coaster of stylistic change, using vintage photographs and films (the popular “new media” of the time) to carefully chart the chronology of incremental aesthetic progression. Given the innovative sophistication on view in the early part of the exhibit, the later retreat and consolidation back into ideologically pure Socialist Realism feels like a tragic smothering of original talent. But this historically-rich analysis centers less on any one conclusion about relative artistic merits, opting instead for a more self-explanatory journey highlighting the movement from underground risk taking to top-down risk management, and the broader concept of politics influencing art.

The story begins with the flush of excitement felt by artists as the new social reality of the USSR was being formed – it was the chance to break free from the old paradigms and push toward bold new approaches to form and expression. In photography, that meant aggressively experimenting with the graphical effects of photogram and photomontage/collage techniques, and using smaller hand held cameras like the Leica to explore dramatic changes in perspective, particularly sharp angles from above, below, and on a steep diagonal slant. Georgy Zimin introduced industrially manufactured items (like a lightbulb, eyeglasses, and a comb/scissors) into his formally complex photogram exercises, while El Lissitzky added a layer of technical graphic design montage (graph paper, a compass, and typography stencils) to his self portrait. And Alexander Rodchenko pushed point of view to its limits, getting far underneath a trumpeter, looking skyward at tall trees, turning stairs into slashing high contrast diagonals, and laying patterned shadows across a confident young woman. In each case, there was a brash infusion of energy taking place, a collectively self-imposed challenge to go further with the medium.

Even the photojournalists (who generally rejected the over-aestheticism of some of these artistic experiments) absorbed many of these new compositional approaches as they worked to document the power and romance of the industrial sites, bustling cities, and technological marvels of the new regime. Boris Ignatovich took to the air, looking down on geometric city streets and smokestacked factories. Arkady Shaikhet got closer, capturing the clouded glory of a streamlined train engine, the spiraled lines of a modern staircase, the amazing fact of electric light, and the strength of workers managing vast machines and intricate construction projects. And many others chronicled the success of airplanes, dams, tractor factories, steel mills, and triumphant architectural facades covered in windows, peering in from energetic angles to heighten the drama of the Socialist achievements.

But with Stalin’s ascendancy to power, the controls on the distribution of imagery become increasingly unforgiving, with departures from acceptable subjects and aesthetics (even in the name of the state) leading to censure, jail time, and other punishments. As a result, much of the photography from the mid and late 1930s has a staged, almost mannered look, the pressure of ideology weighing down the pictures. Bird’s eye views and steep angles were now applied to masses of heroic young soldiers and tanks on military maneuvers, the imposing end of a navy gun or anchor (in images by Yakov Khalip) enlarged to appropriately impressive proportions. Other propaganda-style images celebrated smiling happy people engaged in healthy physical activity – running races, doing calisthenics, enjoying the beach, and making perfect dives off invisible platforms. And portraits of leaders, intellectuals, workers, and peasants alike (even those with features from the far reaches of the East) were captured with reverent poise, as if citizens from across the land were universally hard working and content. While there are aesthetic traces of the earlier explosion of pictorial innovation in many of these photographs, they have been noticeably muted by a need to cautiously conform to the overbearing power of unwritten rules and unspoken fears. The contagious forward looking excitement of the early experiments has been replaced by a defensive requirement for improbable perfection.

What makes this exhibition so compelling is its thoughtfully outlined historical context – it allows us to see the very real artistic contributions of Rodchenko, or Petrusov, or Zelma inside the freedoms (and later constraints) that were allowed (and then imposed) by the state. The post-revolution radical experimentation takes place for a reason, as do the energized trumpeting of industrial progress surrounding the definition of Socialism and the overly staged sanctification of military power and common good once Stalin took a tighter grip.

While few look back on the whitewashing effects of propaganda with much respect, there is an inherent logic to how these photographers adapted to the changing circumstances, working to make the best pictures possible even when their aesthetic options were so severely constrained. There is certainly something disheartening about the inevitable what-might-have-been thoughts that surround these talented photographers and where their work might have gone in a different world, and that creeping gloom fills the last rooms of this show. But seen together, this insightful exhibition is one that puts it all in context, allowing us to follow along as great expectations become hollow and genuine visionary dreams become charades.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. With so many artists/photographers included, our usual discussion of gallery relationships and secondary market histories becomes unmanageable, so we have omitted this portion of the analysis for this specific review. That said, aside from Rodchenko, Lissitzky, and to a lesser extent Shaikhet, these work of these photographers is not often found in mainstream American and European auctions.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Arkady Shaikhet, Boris lgnatovich, El Lissitzky, Georgy Petrusov, Georgy Zelma, Georgy Zimin, Jewish Museum, Yale University Press

2 comments

  1. Pete /

    This is an interesting counterpoint to the renmant archive in the show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, “Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence”; an extensive series of late 1930’s USSR portraits of ‘dissenters’ taken after forced confession, summary trial and hours before execution. The clothes were often shabby but the faces of the men and women burn with disbelief, resignation, or bitterness. As right across the Soviet Union a technical conformity was strictly applied to the making the series looks eerily coherent, as if one photographer had taken them all – impossible considering there were 50,000 murders per day at the height of the purge any individual shutter would have glowed with a white heat.

  2. Pete /

    Correction: 50,000 executions a month

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