November 4th, 2014
Vicki Goldberg: Russian Photography Looks at the Past
In 2013, writer Vicki Goldberg traveled to Russia and Ukraine, where she examined postwar and contemporary visual imagery that illuminates life under and after communism. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we publish Goldberg’s three-part diary, which looks to photography from the Soviet era and today. In part one, Goldberg considers USSR propaganda photography of the 1970s.
Part 1: Russian Photography Looks at the Past
The past is irretrievable but may be revisited in bits and pieces through memory, literature, histories, and other means– prominent among them photography. The summer of 2013, when I was in Moscow, several of the photographs and exhibitions I saw were engaged in a lively dialogue with the history, art, and photography of the Russian past. Sometimes this amounted to an homage to the notion that ‘we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’ and can only move forward if we admit our debt, sometimes it was a program to retrieve visual shards of the nation’s past. In either case, the camera performed one of its cleverest and most common tricks: helping people remember a time they never knew.
Soviet photography had a demanding leader, and his name was officialdom. For a very long time, photography belonged to the state; the aim, often clearly stated and always understood, was propaganda; and the authorities, from generation to generation, demanded that all negatives revert to the state. Olga Sviblova, who founded and directs the Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow (formerly the Moscow House of Photography), told the New York Times in 2010 that in France in 1991 she saw, for the first time, Soviet photographs that had been censored in her own country.
“At the time a new Russia was starting and we were a country without any kind of visual history,” Sviblova said. “I realized without history you cannot look into the future.” (May 28, 2010) The experience spurred her to collect historical photographs, which resulted in such exhibitions as “Time Formula,” a June 2013 show of Vsevolod Tarasevich’s photographs curated by Olga Annanurova as part of several exhibitions of “The History of Russia in Photographs”.
From the late 1950s to the mid 1970s Tarasevich was a well-known photojournalist whose pictures of Moscow University and of scientists all over the Soviet Union were widely published in a magazine called Soviet Life. The images on view generally looked like blow-ups of 35mm, some of them grainy, some candid, some dramatically lit, even back lit, a few softly romantic, the scientists’ portraits nicely done and nicely varied, everything well enough seen and composed to stand beside most of Life and Look at the time. The few examples of the magazine on view revealed a splendidly executed journal, the contrasts sharper and more telling than in American magazines. The photographs often occupied a whole page or three quarters of a double page, while the text was merely a fillip.
Every issue and picture served a propaganda purpose. Soviet Life, like that most beautiful of all magazines, USSR in Construction (1930s), was published for the eyes of foreigners interested in “everyday life in the USSR” as the Soviets selectively presented it. (Never underestimate the selective capacity of a viewfinder, an editor, or a repressive government.) The Russian embassy in Washington distributed 30,000 copies of Soviet Life every month. Tarasovich’s photographs of Soviet scientists and science centers were propaganda that this area of Soviet achievement well deserved, since the USSR had one scientific triumph after another during this period: Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin (the first man in orbit), others who went into space, and Nobel prizes for seven Soviet physicists. According to the wall text, scientists, physicists first of all, were the heroes of “an epoch in which knowledge and achievement were more important than material rewards.”
Another aspect of these years was richly on display at the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, which previously exhibited photographs of Moscow from the first half of the twentieth century and in 2013 concluded their program of “Moscow Stories” with images of the city by the forgotten photojournalists of the 1950s to the 1980s. (The curators Irina Chmyreva and Evgeny Berezner introduced me to the gallery, its director, and other photographers.) Photojournalists who had been famous for decades were subsequently erased from memory by the years, and Edward Litvinsky and his wife, Natasha Grigorieva, who together founded Lumiere, spent seven years resurrecting upwards of one hundred photographers. They went to the photographers’ homes, asked to see their work, and found, despite the state’s lock on negatives, large bags of jumbled negatives and prints. Evgeny Berezner told me flatly that the Soviet Union was a double-faced country, every person in it being necessarily double-faced and every photographer making a double of each photograph – one negative for the authorities, one, secretly, for the photographer. The carelessly bagged photographs the couple found had been unopened for years because no one was interested– until Litvinsky and Grigorieva were.
Their large exhibition displayed Moscow soon after Stalin, when there was a slight easing up, and in the later years when cracks in the system began to open up but had not yet grown quite wide enough to step through. Moscow was depicted in a good light to be sure – it was not until late in this period that it was possible to take unofficial photography– but a Moscow younger people neither knew nor remembered and that they flocked to the gallery to see. There were pictures of Khrushchev and Gagarin, of missiles muscling through Red Square on Victory Day, and street photography of children playing in older sections of the city with nary an ad on buildings that today are plastered with them. Most of this was in black and white, all of it on film, all of it highly competent in a rather classical, photojournalistic vein. There were no forays into Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand or Gene Smith territory (probably unknown then), but reporting that would have been welcome in most American and European magazines. Authoritarian governments, of course, do not lack for talented citizens.
It is odd today to see how few cars there were in the city in the 1950s. Later there were more cars, all of them the Russian manufactured Volgas; today the cars fill the streets like a plague of locusts named Mercedes Benz. Change is inevitable, seeing it is not.