Picture This

The Power of Pictures:
Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film

The Jewish Museum, New York
September 25, 2015–February 7, 2016

National Tour: Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN; and Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Review by Roslyn Bernstein

As critics of contemporary fiction, drama, and the arts know full well, finding the narrative in a work can often be an elusive search. Characters appear and disappear, images surface and dissolve, and the story lurches forwards and backwards, pushing and pulling the reader, the viewer, and the audience in disparate directions. What does it all mean? we ask. Where are we going? And, most important, why?

This is definitely not the case with the narrative arc of The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film, an exhibit co-curated by Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffmann, which opened at the Jewish Museum on September 25. Leaning upon chronology, Goodman and Hoffmann trace the evolution of Soviet photography and film from its early, post–Communist Revolution identity as avant-garde and often abstract to its role, from the mid-1930s onward, in the service of the Soviet state, where there was a profound fusion between aesthetics and politics.

A Revolution in Art

In the early days of the Soviet state, artists were released from the constraints of life under the czar. They began experimenting with abstract forms of expression, until Stalinism began to cramp their style in the mid-to-late 1930s. Artists were encouraged and then required to create work in the social realistic style, depicting the entirely positive values of Communist society. Although used for propaganda purposes, these works of art did reflect the general improvement in the lifestyle and living conditions of the ordinary citizen over their past life in czarist Russia. Of course, those who suffered directly when Stalinism was at its height would disagree.

Alexander Rodchenko, Soviet Photo, no. 10, 1927, Mikhail Koltsov and V. Mikulin, editors. New York Public Library, New York. Artwork © Estate of Alexander Rodchenko (A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova Archive) / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York. Image provided by New York Public Library, Astor, Tilden and Lenox Foundations, Rare Books Division.

Goodman and Hoffmann spent two years researching and organizing the exhibit, gathering photos and printed matter from many countries, including Canada and Germany. Their idea was to show layers: not only to let the viewer see the images, some iconic and some unfamiliar, but to reveal how these images were used in publications, posters, and films.

“We were interested in looking at the relationship of art and politics,” said Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Jewish Museum, as he gave me a tour of the show. Hoffmann stopped by Alexander Rodchenko’s Pioneer Playing a Trumpet (1930) to point out radical elements. In this abstract image, clearly shot from below, as was often Rodchenko’s preference, we see the pioneer’s chin, the mouthpiece of the trumpet on his lips. The face is in soft focus and the trumpet, or the part of it that we see, in sharp focus. This image contrasts markedly to Georgy Zelma’s Sovfoto press photo, The Erevan Tire Factory (ca. 1935). Although dated only five years later, the Zelma image shows a smiling young woman holding up a tire as if it were a halo around her head. There is an expression of joy and fulfillment on her face, and the sharply focused image, with high contrast, projects the idea of an uplifted Soviet worker. On one hand, it can be understood as depicting her true feelings; on the other, it can be read as pure propaganda, just what the government wanted.

A New Focus

The shift in imagery from avant-garde abstraction to Soviet realism, reflecting a profound shift in political policy and Soviet leadership, is apparent everywhere in this show. In an essay in the catalog accompanying the show (The Power of Pictures, Yale University Press, 2015), Goodman describes how the Soviet leadership turned their back on traditional art like Alexander Grinberg’s nudes, deeming the images too sentimental and too bourgeois. Photographers were to direct viewers—the often illiterate public—to the life around them. The medium was to be highly goal-oriented.

Joseph Stalin

Moisei Nappelbaum, Stalin, ca. 1934, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann.

Assisting this transformation was the invention of the Leica camera in Germany in 1925. The Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR) subsequently produced their own variation, named the FED (named for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky), which used 35-millimeter film. Freed from the necessity of using a tripod, photographers could now experiment with perspectives and angles.

Although they still held minority status, Jews were attracted to the field, moving into Moscow from villages in Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic States. An early photographer was Moisei Nappelbaum, from Minsk, who shot expressive portraits, sometimes brushing watercolor paint on the glass negatives to create dramatic effects. In the Soviets section of the show there are four Nappelbaum portraits: one from 1919 shows Felix Dzerzhinsky (founder of the Soviet secret police), looking off sideways into the distance; another is of Joseph Stalin (ca. 1934), his right hand tucked carefully inside his buttoned military jacket as in the famous portrait of Napoleon, light bouncing off of his face and his polished leather boots. Two additional portraits included in the section are a profile of the poet Anna Akhmatova (1924) in a flapper-style cloche and dress, her fingers curled around a strand of long black beads; and a close-up of poet, novelist, and translator Boris Pasternak (1926), his expressive eyes staring directly into the camera. As suppression of the avant-garde intensified following the rise of Joseph Stalin, photographers shifted their focus to portraits of regular citizens instead of artists and intellectuals.

The exhibit traces the trajectory of photojournalism. During the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution, many printing houses, newspapers, and magazines were closed. Afterwards, Soviet photojournalism blossomed. By the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), it was leading the way in transforming the young nation. Mikhail Efimovich Koltsov revived Ogonyok (Little Flame), an illustrated news and culture magazine. Sovetskoe foto, a photographic magazine, was born in 1926. Izvestiya (News) and Pravda (Truth) were founded soon after, and they included photojournalism inserts. The poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky founded the journal LEF (Left Front of the Arts) in 1923; the journal, whose chief focus was cinematography and photography, was renamed Novyi LEF (New LEF) in 1927.

The natural alliance of photographers and graphic designers did much to advance the state’s mobilization of art and the avant-garde. Carefully selected subjects such as subways, construction, and new building projects such as the canal between the Baltic and the White Sea were chosen by editors to promote the image of the progressive Soviet state. Through collage, photomontage, and experimentation with new angles and perspectives, artists manipulated their images to heighten the sense of the modern and the scientific. The images are bold and beautiful, and however propagandistic their intent, it is clear that Soviet citizens were the direct beneficiaries of the government’s push for technological progress.

Alexander Rodchenko, Stairs, 1929–30, gelatin silver print. Sepherot Foundation, Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Artwork © Estate of Alexander Rodchenko (A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova Archive) / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York. Image provided by the Sepherot Foundation.

By including actual publications in the exhibit, the curators succeed in giving viewers a sense of the way Soviet authorities used art and design to disseminate the powerful image of their new, progressive state. An interior spread from the twelfth issue of USSR in Construction, published in Moscow in 1935, illustrates the remarkable creative collaboration between the husband-and-wife team of Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Published by the State Publishing House from 1930–1941 as a lavishly illustrated propaganda tool, each volume of USSR was thematic, focusing on diverse military and industrial accomplishments. Issue 12 included a vertical foldout of a man parachuting to earth, the parachute opening beyond the rectangular borders of the large-format magazine.

A Happy, Healthy New World

Arkady Shaikhet, The Parachutist Katya Melnikova, 1934, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Artwork © Estate of Arkady Shaikhet, courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Beyond the glorification of their “mechanized utopia,” Soviet photographers in the 1930s focused on “the perfection of Soviet life.” There were portraits of contented citizens—such as Arkady Shaikhet’s Parachutist Katya Melnikova (1934) and Georgi Petrusov’s Asiatic Sailor (1935-6), where we see calm, peaceful faces with just the hint of a smile, looking off into the distance, their future. There were photographs of Moscow, emphasizing its importance as a capital. In Boris Ignatovich’s Diplomatic Limousines in Red Square (1930), the light bounces off a line of shiny limos; in the background are the historic buildings of the capital. Arkady Shaikhet’s From Downstairs, New Apartment at the Usachevka Housing Complex (Moscow, 1928), shot from below, gives us an abstract and idealized view of the staircase balconies. The photo delivers the message: what an extraordinary place to live.

Georgy Zelma, Three Generations in Yakutsk, 1929, gelatin silver print. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Image provided by Rosphoto, State Russian Centre for Museums and Exhibitions of Photography, St. Petersburg.

A grouping of photographs with the heading Expansion Eastward shows the work of a number of Jewish photographers, including Max Penson, Georgy Zelma, and Arkady Shaikhet, who photographed both the traditional and the modern. Shaikhet’s Pamir Line, 1937, shows a camel train on a route that travels through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Zelma’s Three Generations in Yakutsk, 1929, shot diagonally from below, focuses on the faces of three peasants in a heroic pose, all wearing caps, one contentedly smoking a pipe.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, we see photos that focus on achievements in physical culture—sporting events in gymnasiums and swimming pools and sports parades in Moscow’s Red Square. There is no doubt about it. The photos convey a single message: the healthy Soviet citizen is to be someone who is physically fit.

Beyond the physical, photographers and filmmakers worked hard to show Soviet citizens who were always happy. In the section of the exhibit labeled Staging Happiness, we see Boris Ignatovich’s Youth (1937), in which two perfect lovers are smiling for the camera, and Shaikhet’s Bathing a Homeless Boy in an Orphanage (1927), in which an attendant is shampooing a dirty child’s hair. It is a brave new world where cleanliness matters and where modern plumbing, the government insists, will make a difference. Still, the image is puzzling, because the water in the bathtub is filthy.

In 1934, with the launching of the Great Terror, socialist realism became the dominant style and Jewish artists, for the most part, conformed to this trend. By the late 1930s, however, many Jewish artists and writers lost their work; some even lost their lives under Stalin’s heightened reign of terror. To survive, Jews, like everyone else in the USSR, were forced to believe in and to conform to all aspects of the Revolution.

Innovations of Soviet Film

The Power of Pictures exhibit is particularly strong in its display of printed matter—magazines, books, and film posters. Innovative in their use of typography and photomontage, graphic designers such as the brothers Vladimir and Georgy Stenberg created iconic posters for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), with its bold red type and crossed gun barrels, and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, (1929), featuring a camera on a tripod, an eye in its lens. After 1930, however, poster designers, like other Soviet artists, faced greater pressure to conform.

Still from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929. Image provided by Deutsche Kinemathek.

During the run of the exhibit, twelve films will be screened in rotation in a small theater constructed for the show. Among them will be Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), directed by Yakov Protazanov; Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October, or Ten Days That Shook the World, (1927); By the Law, or Dura Lex, (1926), directed by Lev Kuleshov; Mother (1926), directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin; The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), directed by Esfir Shub; and The House on Trubnaya (1928), directed by Boris Barnet.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929), directed by Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman), was playing at the media preview the day before the opening. Filmed over several years, this brilliant documentary, shot by Vertov’s brother and edited by his wife, was set in a movie theater.

Much like Shakespeare’s plays within a play, Vertov’s film is a film about the shooting and editing of a film. It opens dramatically in an empty theater, the seats going down by themselves. The silent film has no title cards, story, or actors, with the notable exception of a man with a movie camera whom we follow through Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa; and the film’s editor. The audience enters and we (the audience and the viewers of the film) then experience Vertov’s technical cinematic wizardry through a series of jump cuts, freeze frames, double exposures, hidden cameras, and fast forwards. We see trolleys carrying well-dressed commuters, switchboard operators busily answering telephone lines, the smiling faces of workers at factories, people playing tennis at a tennis club, newborn babies in basinets, and people getting married.

Spliced in throughout the film are machines: telephones, elevators, automobiles, switchboards, sewing machines, and motorcycles. The man with the camera is everywhere, capturing scenes from a hole beneath the train tracks and from above on the smokestack of a factory. It’s a fast-paced and unnerving journey, nonsequential although at times serial. Despite the pressure to propagate Soviet ideals—life in the Soviet Union looks good—Vertov’s documentary opus remains radical and avant-garde.

The Power of Pictures has enormous relevance to us in 2015. We live in a world where the congressional committee on the Benghazi tragedy has focused their attention on thousands of emails, messages that can vanish at the click of the delete button. Just last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was interrogated for over eight hours on what she had received, when she had received it, and why she had used her personal email for State Department business. There was, of course, no such thing as email in the Soviet state, but citizens then, like now, had to be extremely careful about their private lives, sensitive to the blurred line between private and public.

We live in a moment when new apps are constantly being developed to manipulate pictures, when social media—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and readers’ commentaries—have redefined journalism and public opinion, and when, according to The New York Times, social television is now on the horizon. We live in a democracy but, like the citizens in the Soviet state, at the current moment we seem to be facing the same dilemma: Who and what are we to believe?


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