September 22, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


Photography challenges the idea that rapid take-up and commercialisation of new technology is a feature of the modern age. Within just a few years of its introduction in 1839, photography had spread rapidly, not just in France, England and other European countries but to America and Asia.  The Photographers' Gallery's latest exhibition 'Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia', which surveys the uses of colour photography  from the 1860s to the 1980s, demonstrates that photography rapidly gained a foothold in this country too. Just as the colourful primrose flowers early in Russia, so to did her photographers experiment with colour from a very early stage. Interestingly, its trajectory paralelled that of western Europe, at least until it was derailed by the communist interregnum.

The exhibition shows that Russia, often regarded as 'backward' (not least by Lenin and the Bolsheviks), embraced the new technology. As in England, France and America, photographers were not slow in opening commercial studios and making the portrait photographs which affluent families required to bolster their self-image, parade their children in national costumes and celebrate the military exploits (or at least the splendid uniforms) of the sons.  As early as the 1860s, hand-tinted colour portraits were emerging in great numbers from the studios of A. Nechayev, Usnakov & Eriks, Eihenwald, Pavlov and Fedestsky, while V. Yankovsky and P. T. Ivanov made portraits of the officer class in their uniforms. Also similar to other countries was the way in nostalgic themes and pictorialist photography was evident in images of landscapes and panoramas while a  whole series of images of children and adults in Tatar, Caucasian, Ukrainian and other national costumes demonstrates the abiding interest in the traditional nationalities of Russia.  Yelena Meozovskaya's remarkable portrait 'Little Girl in Russian Costume' from the 1900s seamlessly blends photography and overpainting.

Hand-tinted architectural photographs became commonplace, many by photographers associated with religious studios such as the Trinity Sergius monastery.  Alongside idealised family portraits, nostalgic themes and pictorialist escapism, Russian photographers celebrated modern achievements mirroring the twin-concerns of photographers elsewhere. In the early-twentieth century the Royal family sponsored Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, himself an innovator in colour imagery, to document in colour the various regions of their empire much as official commissions in England and France had been tasked with recording the changing urban landscape as modernisation advanvced. Dimitri Yezuchevsky's 'Construction of a Bridge' is an example of industrial photographs which began to appear as interior decoration. Russian photographers quickly adapted technological developments, importing and mass producing the Lumiere brothers autochromes technology. Russian photography continued to evolve: in the idyllic summer of 1914, Russian portrait photography seems to have become less formal, even modern in its muted colours and loose compositions. Only months before the carnage was unleashed, Vedenisov' portraits of children and their families on the swings of sunlit gardens feel fresh, contemporary; the podtrait of 'Sofia Andreyevna Kozakov' is relaxed, intimately-composed and protomodernist. 

To judge from this exhibition, there was little or no interest among Russian photographers in documenting other cultures in the way that Gustav Le Gray in France or John Thompson in England had done. Yet, on the eve of the first world war, trends within Russian photography appear to have been broadly similar to those in France, England and America: photography had rapidly commercialised to meet the apparently insatiable demand for portraits; adopting pictorialism, some photographers sought to glorify natural or traditional subjects while others embraced the modern industrial  achievements; documenting a changing world  and a fascination with architectural subjects prevailed.

All was to change with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lenin and the Bolscheviks embraced photography as a weapon of propaganda and by the mid-1920s were encouraging photomontage as a means of fostering the socialist myth. With official endorsement, colour Photomontage was turned into a 'visual weapon' by avant-garde artists like Rodchenko, Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitsky and Varvara Stepanova. These artists produced posters lauding the promise of a new society. Rodchenko revived hand-colouring and embraced positive-negative techniques for both propaganda posters and intimate portraits. His 'Portrait of Regina Lemberg' (1935), with its unusual angles and sculptural lighting, presents a sharp contrasts with traditional portraiture made just a few years earlier.

By this point, Russia was leading artistic photographic innovation, its avant-garde experiments reverberrating across Europe and America and influencing photographers as diverse as Alfred Steiglitz and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Yet this was to be the last flowering of photographic modernism in Russian before the dead hand of socialist realism squashed innovation. In 1932 socialist realism was made offical policy and all photography studios were soon outlawed; photography became a monopoly tool of the state. Modernist, constructivist and pictorialist modes were proscribed and a bland form of idealised documentary photograhy glorified the achievements of the socialist state. Many photographers were imprisoned and those who were freed, like the former pictoriaist Vasily Ulitin, tried with some difficulty to adapt to approved revolutionary subject matter.As the socialist dream faded, Rodchenko returned in the 1930s to classical themes like ballet and opera adopting the aesthetic of his erstwhile pictorialist enemies and miroring their retreat into inner space as a defence against the realities of life.

Without domestic colour film production, these photograhers relied on German or American stock. Colour film production started in Russian in 1946 but was only made available to officially approved photographers - such as Ivan Shagin's colour photo reportage of the USSR - producing the staged reportage and other ideologically sound images (see his 'Student' from the 1950 s opposite). In the 1960s and '70s, after the Khrushchev 'thaw', Vladislav Mikosha, Georgy Petrusov, Dimitry Baltermants (well represented in the exhibition) and Vsevolod Tarasevich photographed Russian life in the approved style. These photographs remain stilted although the exhibition notes suggest that the Khruschev years tolerated a degree of humanism and genuine reportage.  Generally though Baltermant's portrayals of Soviet life in the 1950s fail to escape the blandness required for official approval, but several examples manage to break through the restrictions. An image of a show-window from the early-1970s shows luxury goods unavailable to the general population set against the reflections of modern high-rise buildings;  this could be an image from the modern city. The high vantage point he adopted for a striking composition called 'Rain' is a strong graphic achievement.

By the 1950s and '60s hand-coloured portrait photographs had begun to reappear as underground photographers tried to subvert official policy. In the 1960s and '70s, as colour diapositive film became available, photography began to form an important patt of this unofficial art challening the official communist othodoxy.  Boris Mikhailov is presented by the Photographers'Gallery exhibition as the leading exponent of the trend twoards subverting images from the communist past. He rephotographed and and enlarged the kitsch output of official photographic policy in a secret laboratory, tinting the originals in garish colours in order to undermine the false presentation of the socialist ideal; the deconstruction in images of the official Soviet myth was an approach which would become the basis of a new aesthetic in the 1980s. By hand-colouring the stultified output of  the past, Mikhailov's series 'Suzy Et Cetra' uses diapositive film to record the squalid reality of soviet life in the '70s. As the notes to the Photographers' Gallery exhibition put it:" Using colour, [Mikhailov] showed the cheerless sameness and squalor of everyday life and...helped to unify people whose consciousness and life had begun to escape from the dogmatic net of Soviet ideology whoch only allowed for one colour - red"

An exhibition at Tate Modern in 2011 showed how Mikhailov built on these ideas with his project 'Red', in which he sets up in order to undermine the pervading atmospshere of the communist ethos. The exhibition comprised around 70 images hung as a huge rectangle; the pervading colour in these images is red.  Throughout these images of all aspects of everyday life under an oppressive regime, we see bright red swimsuits, lipstick, sheets, blood, signs, typography and signs,  These images give us the clear impressison that virtually all important aspects of life were dominated by this colour symbol of the pervading regime and how the regime seeped into life and the way it was lived.

For photographers, this is a distinctive approach: the use of colour as the the most important among a number of organising elements in making a political statement.Of course, colour is often considered as superficial and this is Mikhailov's point.  The regime atatempted to control all aspects of life and the most visible symbol of this was the colour red.  Yet we see how this was surface while the essence of life continued much as it does elsewhere.



Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia
The Photographers' Gallery, Ramilles Place, London, until October 9, 2014

Boris Mikhailov, 'Red'
Tate Modern, March 2011


All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs from the Photographers' Gallery website.


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