Shortages, Shops and Sovetskoe foto

At the moment, many individuals are faced, for the first time, with the uncertainty of living through a pandemic and all the many the insecurities that Covid-19 has rendered visible: fearing for the health and safety of family members and friends (especially those who may be more susceptible or vulnerable), job/income security, economic instability, and the inability to access staple foodstuffs and goods. I have only encountered the most minor of inconveniences and consider myself very fortunate: My job lends itself to working from home anyway, my friends and family are safe and healthy, and the most bothersome thing I’ve experienced in mandatory self-isolation is that I’m quickly exhausting my Netflix watch list.

I am not the most diligent follower of Corona virus information, though news (and fake news) about Covid-19 is hardly avoidable. Governments and politicians (here I mainly refer to the US and the UK because I am most familiar with their responses or lack of response) have attempted to toe the line between allaying panic, emphasizing the severity of the situation and frantically trying to prevent economic collapse. Most shops have closed, most grocery stores are enforcing rationing, and essential commodities, such as personal protective equipment, have spiked in value due to shortages.

Consumer responses to goods shortages during the pandemic bear some resemblance to individual economic practices in the Soviet Union. I am not the first to make this observation, in March Zoya Sheftalovich published a light-hearted, though relevant, guide to surviving coronavirus shortages based on her and her family’s experiences of late-era Soviet socialism. Earlier in February, the Guardian published a piece on queueing for goods in Hong Kong, stating the situation was “reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.”

This is a rough transition, and not meant to make light of how exacting the last few weeks have been and how challenging the coming months will be. But from my perspective as a historian of Soviet photography, shortages (generally) and inefficient distribution of goods reminds me of how photographers reacted to inconsistent access to materials and how those involved in the production and dissemination of photographic equipment in the Soviet Union responded to criticism. This is a topic I’ve written about in the past both in Sovetskoe foto blog and professionally.

Distribution was a major concern for amateur photographers whose “hobby,” creativity and technical ability were dictated by the goods available to them. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, obtainable equipment was not always desirable, but it could play a role in stylistic and creative choices: Lithuanian photographer Aleksandras Macijauskas’ signature diagonal perspective and grotesque subjects were the result of using an extra wide-angle lens which was initially all he had access to.

Amateur correspondence with Sovetskoe foto ranged from exhibition accolade notices, questions about aesthetics and technical equipment, and, of course, complaint letters. There have been multiple scholarly works published about the phenomenon of letter-writing campaigns in the Soviet Union and served as a direct and significant means of communication between society (particularly individuals, anonymous or otherwise) and State institutions.[1] Letter writing complicates outmoded ideas about an omnipotent Soviet State and its monolithic, top-down blanket imposition of policies on a supplicant population. Many letters to State institutions were critical of particular aspects of Soviet life and evidence that there was some faith, even if it was amongst the most ardent supporters of the regime, that problems could be easily rectified if the appropriate authority were informed. This of course is an oversimplification, but that complaint letters were written at all is telling and was a sort of “civi duty” for some individuals.

Having failed to resolve the issue of access to materials and distribution inefficiencies, and as a result of a large number of letters from readers “reporting the deficiencies in the organization and sale of photographic products and the low quality of retailers,” in 1974 Sovetskoe foto published an interview with Pyotr Mikhailovich Krimerman. Krimerman was the deputy director of the Moscow-based trade company Vesna (Spring), was a member of the Union of Journalists and the author of a number of books and articles about photographic equipment.[2]  The interview questions and responses focused on what Krimerman and Vesna were doing to improve the expertise and product knowledge of retail employees.

In the interview, Krimerman unsurprisingly acknowledged that members of the amateur photography movement were the primary customer base for Vesna supplied shops. These stores dealt largely in specialty items and rarely encountered “casual customers,” which required employees to be not only retail workers but also specialists in camera models, laboratory processing and act as consultants on image composition (i.e. selecting the correct camera and lenses for particular photographic subjects).[3] Ideally, these employees would have a universal understanding of all processes, technical and aesthetic, related to image production.

Krimerman believed that most Moscow shops dealing in photographic equipment had made incredible strides in the last two decades when it came to fulfilling the expectations of consumers. In the 1950s, according the Kimerman, the staff at the only store specializing in photography (located on Petrovka Ulitsa not far from the Boishoi theatre) were general retail workers and woefully undereducated when it came to all matters of photography. As a solution, Kimerman instituted mandatory after-hours workshops for employees which were led by photojournalists, forepersons of manufacturing plants etc. By the 1970s, the Moscow Vocational and Trade College teamed up with photographic retailers to ensure the suitability of retail employees in photo shops.[4] Some also became involved in the organization of photography competitions and exhibitions.

This specialized knowledge about which camera models and equipment functioned best in, for example, polar weather conditions, could then be used to aid amateur photographers in their purchases, though what was lacking in this discussion was the issue of distribution: In Moscow it is unlikely that amateurs struggled to find many of the camera models and materials they desired, but the likelihood that such variety existed in other cities (particularly the polar north) is quite small, and thus Krimerman’s optimism is likely the result of his proximity to the capital city.

The content of complaint letters about retailer expertise was not published with the interview, but Krimerman’s responses are calculated and diplomatic, focusing on the developments of the last twenty years without providing a clear plan for future improvements. He applauded amateurs and a handful of retail workers who had exceeded expectations and had been promoted to managerial positions (Raisa Kolganova, Valentina Kachalkina, Valentina Golodnitskaia – interestingly all women, especially considering the majority of amateur photographers and photojournalists were men and no indication was given if these women were photographers themselves).[5] He commended the career choice of photographic retail employees, whose work was “not only in the material sphere but also cultural and spiritual.” The propagandistic tone of the interview, however, was probably influenced Krimerman’s inability to solve the complications of distribution, the availability of camera equipment and knowledge of staff outside of Moscow: “if some grains of our experience are useful to colleagues from other cities, we will be happy.”[6] This was an impossible task as, at the most basic level, the planned economy prioritized the needs of Moscow first, then other major cities, then smaller cities etc.

What the interview does show, however, is that by the 1970s the editors at Sovetskoe foto (and retailers) were becoming aware of and treating amateur photographers as consumers, and specifically consumers of non-essential specialty goods. The sale of these goods necessitated, at least in the capital, skilled retail workers. As I’ve explained in a previous post, that by the mid-1970s Sovetskoe foto was catering the content of its journal to reader preferences and it would appear that the journal also began to recognize that readers needed further and immediate assistance (of photo-retail experts) to successfully practice their hobby/craft/trade.

[1] See Oleg Khlevniuk, “Letters to Stalin,” Cahiers du monde russe, Vol. 56, nos. 2-3 (2015): 327-344; See also Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s,” Slavic Review, Vol. 55, no. 1 (1996): 78–105.

[2] “Torgovlia fototovarami – oblast’ kul’tury,” interview with Pyotr Mikhailovich Krimerman, Sovetskoe foto no. 10 (October) 1974: 38.

[3] Ibid, 38.

[4] Ibid, 38-9.

[5] Ibid, 38-9.

[6] Ibid, 39.

An Unlikely Success Story? The Norilsk 69th Parallel Photography Club

In 1974, the editors of Sovetskoe foto published a photo-feature on what they considered to be the unlikely success of the Photography Club 69th Parallel, based out of Norilsk. The feature about the club was not dissimilar to others in the journal. The article demonstrates, however, how smaller clubs developed, performed at exhibitions and attracted new members.

The article begins with a rosy narrative and epic description of the humble beginnings of the club: “The year – 1965. The place – The Palace of Culture of the [Norilsk] Metallurgical Plant.” At the time of its foundation, the club had 20 members, many of whom had little if any experience. The hero of this story was E. Moskalev, an amateur photographer cum “teacher, mentor, educator and artist.” Described as though he were assembling a rag-tag group of underdogs for a baseball team, Moskalev immediately expected “the highest demands of club members…this turned out to be the best kind of help and study” for the new photographers. So, “they filmed, debated and searched.”[1] They were to shoot “enthusiastically,” to develop ideas about photographic genres, and to learn how to print their own photographs.

Перед членами клуба выступает фотокорреспондент журнала "Огонек" А. Награльян.png
Club Members Photographed by Ogonek Correspondent A. Nagral’ian, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

They participated in their first exposition, then their second. At the inter-club exhibition “Our Modernity” (Nasha sovremennost’) they received their first third-place diploma. “The club was getting on its feet…”[2]

One of the biggest hurdles faced by the club, apart from inexperience, was geography. Norilsk was described as “a city-island in the ocean of the tundra.” More practically, it was a city only accessible by limited railway connections (used predominately for transporting nickel rather than passengers), or by air in the summer and ice roads in the winter. The city itself was largely built by the forced labor of Gulag prisoners. Yet, for the purposes of our story, it was necessary for our dauntless amateurs to become acquainted with the work of other clubs “from the mainland” so that isolation did not impact their activities and creativity. The author of the piece, Sovetskoe foto special correspondent M. Leont’ev, expressed that it was important to recognize the “commendable” efforts of those “mainland” photographers who assisted the club in their development. Who came to the rescue? The titans of photojournalism Vsevolod Tarasevich (see my post about his work here), Lev Ustinov, and Gennadi Koposov among others. Tarasevich spent hours critiquing the works of club members, and at one point brought his own works for examination, which resulted in a five-hour discussion. As a result, he became an honorary member of the club.[3]

Член превления клуба В. Чин-Мо-Цай проводит занятия.png
Club Member V. Chin-Mo-Tsai, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

Though the club had many successes at various exhibitions, they often received the same request from All-Union magazines: Why not photograph in color? And, so, our “intrepid heroes” did! Their first prize medal at the All-Union exhibition “My Country” (Strana moia) was for color photographs of an otherwise colorless landscape of snow and tundra, which could have been rendered in black and white. Why? According to club member and medal laureate Yuri Ishchenko, there were a number of reasons. The first was an understanding of the subtle color differences between the “polar air, sky, earth and snow.” Secondly, club members understood that one could shoot almost anything in color, but this was unnecessary if the image could “live” in black and white, there was no need to “dress it in colorful clothes.” To club members, the the environment, the city, and its people could not be rendered or captured without color. Third, club members likewise understood that for many of the exhibition attendees, the Arctic Circle was an exotic place, therefore, color photography further enhanced the richness of the landscape. Finally, and most complicated according to the author, was the depiction of the people of Norilsk: while the conditions of the arctic city were a struggle against the elements, their color (as well as black and white) photographs were “surprisingly cheerful” and optimistic. This was because of “the authors’ constant addiction to the life of the region, its people.” Thus, the implication is simply that black and white photography might undermine the cheerful character of the people and the vitality of the city. [4]

According to the author and Ischenko, the conditions of the region required maximum commitment. Not only to work in the harshest weather conditions and in the mines, but also maximum commitment to cheerfulness: The people of Norilsk, according to the article lived without “emotional skepticism and despondency…it is impossible to do without comradely mutual assistance [and] mutual aid.” “In such conditions, the Norilsk photographers wanted to prove to everyone in photos that it is possible to live and work in the tundra.”[5]

Очередное занятие.png
Another Lesson, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

Amidst the struggles against the elements, as well as dangerous and challenging work, what other struggles did the “heroic” club members continue to face? The club admitted that their level of expertise in color photography exceeded that of black and white photography. They also felt they suffered when it came to attracting new members and reached out to Young Pioneers and Komsomol members. The age of future (already registered) members of the club was remarkable: Yuri Ishchenko (presumably the son of the medal laureate above), was a mere 11 years old in 1974. Other future club members were V. Chin-Mo-Tsai who was 21, P. Bunigin was 10 years old, Y. Volkov was also 10, and their eldest future comrade, known only as “Parfentiev,” was just 28 years old.[6]

In his concluding remarks, Leont’ev noted that during his interview, club members enthusiastically “shared their joy” and despite the harsh climate, were impatiently waiting to return to their craft One exclaimed: “‘a rare day, what a sun! We must catch it! We must shoot!'” Yet, “the sun was just a barely noticeable yellow speck.”


[1] M. Leont’ev, “Na 69-i paralleli, Zolotaia medal’ – Noril’skomu fotoklubu,” Sovetskoe foto no. 4 (April) 1974: 14.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 14-15.

[5] Ibid, 15.

[6] Ibid, 15.

“Listen Now Russia!” Contemporary Russian Music and Music Videos

Inevitably, and once in a while, I stray from my focus on Soviet photography to other subjects. This week I’d like to focus on, of all things, “contemporary” Russian pop music (2000-present). This is, of course, a large topic that ranges from pro-Putin mantras to, what I consider, the absolute absurd. Disclaimer, this post is not comprehensive: I don’t often question my Youtube feed, and yet in questioning it, I have been led to these current musings. Nor am I an expert in this regard (and, for reference, there are significant cultural appropriation issues related to the songs/artists in this post, which have not gone unnoticed, but are too big/broad/important to discuss in this particular blog post).

Russian music tends to be much more introspective and self-critical within bounds that are politically acceptable, particularly in the post-Pussy Riot epoch (if you haven’t yet seen it, though you probably have, Punk Rock Prayer is on Youtube). But Pussy Riot is more protest art than music (in my opinion). As such, their music is hardly emblematic of more mainstream trends.

So, this is, for lack of a better phrase, is a thought experiment.

First, you have contemporary music that is following afro-Latinx inspired videos and music, Dr. Costi being a prime example, who is the Romanian version of Pitbull (the two look surprisingly similar and Costi has taken on the moniker of “Mr. Worldwide” as well) who collaborates frequently with Shakhzoda (Zilola Bahodirovna Musaeva), an Uzbek singer and actress whose career began in the late 1990s, but has recorded songs in Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Kazakh, Tajik and English. She is impressive, not only from the standpoint of being a polyglot. He is, well, I’ll let the visuals speak for themselves.Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 1.55.44 PM.png

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 1.55.54 PM.png

Her partnership with Dr. Cositi and Lebanese/Australian artist Faydee is perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time: “Habibi: Smile and Everything is Ok” (Habibi: Ulybnis’ i vse ok), but it also doesn’t sound or feel Russian/Slavic/East European/Central Asian (there is also an English language version that was recorded with Shaggy). It’s pop music designed for the broadest possible audience.

Shakhzoda’s music is not necessarily localist or nationalist. And here is where it gets interesting: You have the pro-Putin stream of pop musicians, including Factory (Fabrika) featuring the artists “primping” for a potential encounter/marriage with Putin, or hoping that their future husband is a bit like “Vova” (the diminutive form of Vladimir). There is also the song from the electro-pop group Singing Together (Poiushie vmeste) that topped the charts in 2002 with “Such as Putin” (Takogo kak Putin). And then there are the artists Timati and Sasha Chest, who’s “best friend” in 2015 was president Putin. To be fair, the video makes Russia look “cool” but is also very Moscow centric.

I’d like to conclude with Little Big, based out of St. Petersburg. I say finally, because I don’t exactly know what to make of them. They are both nationalist and non-nationalist. Their take on Polyushko-polye (which has been translated into English as “Meadowlands,” “Song of The Plains” or “Oh Fields, My Fields”), is half in English. It is a Soviet song composed by Lev Knipper and Viktor Gusev in 1933, and implies devotion to the Narodnaia (Motherland), not necessarily the government, as stated in the introduction to their own video (the original Red Army Choir version can be heard here).

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 1.56.01 PM.png

The artistic collective has expressed that they are invested in satirical representations of Russia, and yet are incredibly popular (not only in Russia – in Boston a few months ago I heard one of their songs blasting out of a Range Rover), catchy, and both political and apolitical. The closest pop musicians I could associate them with is Die Antwoord, (they are also listed as an influence on the bands website) based out of Cape Town South Africa, but even Die Antwoord don’t have the same satirical flare. While Little Big claim to be apolitical, I would argue that they are the most significant contemporary pop group in the Russian Federation: a) they have an international following; b) they are engaged with a politically apathetic audience (Russians aged 18-35); c) they are outwardly and inwardly critical. That is to say they are not afraid to poke fun at Russian stereotypes while also challenging “Western” culture; d) they are as critical of “Western” culture as they are of their own cultural heritage. Their song “Skibidi” is an incredibly satirical look at Soviet/post-Soviet life, whereas their “Romantic version” of “Skibidi” contains almost entirely Western references from the 1980s and early 1990s, from the cars driven to the type of photomontage and graphics used in the video (including a classic Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore “Ghost” reference including a Godzilla like monster); e) “Lollybomb” which is, quite frankly, amazing, and too much to unpack here. And then there is “Hateful Love” which is essentially an absurdist millennial anthem featuring balloon AK-47s and tanks amongst much more bizarre imagery (including “preserving” stuffed animals in formaldehyde) while “I hope you die” blares in the background. There is also “Punk’s Not Dead” which is essentially a two and a half minute-long penis joke.

It is also worth mentioning that their songs are almost exclusively in English. Despite the Russian carpets, riding tanks, and twerking amongst sheep, their songs are actually very catchy while also indulging in satirical stereotypes. It is also worth noting that in his collaboration with Little Big, the Estonian artist Tommy Cash spoke and sang only in English, rather than Russian (or Estonian). But the lead of Little Big (Ilya Ilich Prusikin) is also married to Irina Smelaia, otherwise known as Tatarka, from Tatarstan, and her music videos range from looking incredibly regional and amateur “Altyn” (or “Gold” in Tatar) to the quite sophisticated “U Can Take” and “Pussy Power.” Her work is an odd hybrid of localist nationalism, all the while wearing and advertising Calvin Klein, Prada, Adidas, and Dickies. Her videos contain many more visual brand cues than Shakhzoda, who appeals to, in my opinion, a wider audience. Tommy Cash and Ilya Prusikin are also the stars and masterminds behind the Youtube serial “American Russians” which is a combination of Russian stereotypes and jokes centered around Slavs who resettle in Brighton Beach, New York.

Given the current political situation in Russia where the incredibly popular electro-pop group IC3PEAK has had significant issues with the police and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), including cancelled shows and arrests, it is interesting that Little Big has not experienced similar issues given their absurdist take on contemporary Russian life. IC3PEAK told the BBC that their arrest was “part of a bigger covert cultural war against art that’s popular with the Russian youth.” But that being said, why has Little Big avoided controversy given that the group continues to come out with more and more provocative content? Their latest albums are titled Antipositive (parts one and two). Rather, Little Big has become popular enough that the ill-fated robot “Boris” at the Russian Youth Forum in Yaroslavl in December of last year (who turned out to be not a robot but in fact a man in a robot suit) was dancing to “Skibidi,” while the audience danced along.

Essentially, this is just me sharing songs that I happen to like and find interesting. But in the broader sense, this experiment is as much about the unpredictability of censorship in the Russian Federation. How can Little Big get away with what they are doing? Censorship under any government is almost always arbitrary in a myriad of ways. But Little Big’s success, against all odds, appears to be a complete anomaly, at least to me.

“We are waiting for your letters!” The Editors of Sovetskoe foto Respond to Letter-Writers

In my first post of 2019 I’d like to return to the issue of amateur letters to Sovetskoe foto, a topic that I have written about in previous posts (specifically: “Dear Editorial Collective:” Amateur Letters to Sovetskoe foto). An article featured in the August 1974 issue of Soveskoe foto titled “We are waiting for your letters!,” addressed general trends in journal readership and the types of letters they received from amateurs across the Soviet Union. In 1974, the editors and editorial assistants at Sovetskoe foto read and assessed thousands of letters from amateur photographers, in what they called an effort to take into account reader preferences when drawing up plans for future issues of the journal, “because the main task of the editorial board [was] to make the magazine interesting and useful for readers.”[1] To my knowledge, this is was the journal’s first attempt to cater to reader preferences:

“Letters are different – critical, grateful, demanding. We do not receive “indifferent” correspondence, because for everyone who turns to [our journal], photography has become an important part of their spiritual life… Often, the readers’ points of view are directly opposed to each other, and often each of the authors is right in their own way.”[2]

The editorial staff explained how they planned each issue:

“The purpose of each issue of the magazine is to present a wide panorama of the photographic life of the country today. When selecting images, their ideological, aesthetics, relevance, etc. are taken into account.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 9.39.56 AM.png
N. Chesnikov, member of the Ryazan based photo club Meshera, “Novaia pesnia,” Sovetskoe foto no. 8 1974

So, what types of articles were Sovetsekoe foto readers interested in?

Many of the letter-writers quoted in this article were long term subscribers to the journal, and were interested in the reoccurring sections of the journal that directly appealed to amateurs, including “Amateur Masters,” “How to read a photograph,” “Photographic technique” and “Reader-editor-reader.” V. Ruzanov from Lviv noted that he had been reading the journal since its reestablishment in 1957 and had been an avid hobby photographer for 35 years. P. Ryumin, an electrician and foreman at a metallurgical plant in the Chelyabinsk Region, had been practicing amateur photography for 13 years. He hired his friends as models and his images were published in the local city newspaper. S Petrov from Segezha in the Karelian ASSR noted that his favorite publications were those where professionals provided advice to amateur readers. G. Baranovich from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky noted that it was Sovetskoe foto that led him to develop his interest in photography, which became his “second vocation,” and wanted the journal to “print as much material on theory as possible.”[3]

Editors noticed that amateurs were interested in the aesthetic and creative demands of photography (though this was hardly a new trend in the 1970s). More specifically however, and similar to G. Baranovich’s letter, letter-writers desired to see more “analytical and deep conversations about the actual problems of modern photography art.”[4] Similarly, they wanted more reference literature that they could refer to outside of the journal. Others, however, found this material too challenging. T. Petryashov from the Volgograd region and D. Dovgalo from Balkhash, Karaganda Oblast both sought more lessons for beginners because they found that the articles included in the journal were intended only for amateurs who had moved beyond beginner lessons. V. Piskun from Kiev noted that, simply, amateurs wanted “to see more practical advice on the pages of the magazine.” In response, editors stated that the journal always tried “to provide assistance to novice photo amateurs, to give them necessary recommendations, practical advice. But readers have shown us that this assistance should be more regular and effective.”[5]

Amateurs themselves also took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps on behalf of the journal. A. Kavun (Petropavlovka, Dnepropetrovsk region), a student in a correspondence course in photo and cinematic arts, wrote to the journal saying that his education allowed him to “translate” articles in Sovetsekoe foto for other amateurs, and “patiently explain” the meaning and practical applications of complex ideas and skills.

What did the editors take away from this appeal to amateur readers to explain what they wanted from the journal?

“A well-prepared magazine today should have high-level conversations about the most diverse problems of modern photojournalism and photographic art. For those who only recently began to hold a camera in their hands, but sincerely and ardently love photography and want to comprehend the basics of mastery, our magazine intends to print both educational and reference materials.”

In return, editors asked readers to provide more information about which articles were appreciated and which were unhelpful, which were interesting and which were simply tedious. They concluded: “We are waiting for your wishes, advice, criticism, dear friends!”

Though the journal had published amateur letters for years, what is remarkable about this open solicitation of letters is that editors were directly appealing to amateurs for advice on content, in a way that was unprecedented. They recognized, of course, that it was impossible to satisfy the demands of every reader, but their interest in the desires of their readership, as opposed to imposing content on readers, represented a shift in how the journal editors related to their audience.

[1] “‘Zhdem vashikh pisem!’ ‘Sovetskoe foto’ otkyvaet zaochnuiu chitatel’skuiu konferentsiiu,” Sovetskoe foto no. 8 (August) 1974: p. 46.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Camera Technology and Sovetskoe Foto

The editors of and contributors to the journal Sovetsekoe foto had many anxieties about photography in the Soviet Union – from educating amateurs to the production and distribution of cameras and equipment. But another source of anxiety was technological advancements in camera technology: it was difficult enough to try and train amateurs in the basics of producing technically and aesthetically sound images with the appropriate ideological motivations (one should not simply snap a photograph for the sake of it), but the emergence of new camera technology presented its own challenges.

In February 1974, Alfred Neumann, the editor of the East German magazine Fotografie, published a short piece in Sovetskoe foto about fisheye lenses. The article was partially instructional (focal lengths, which Soviet produced cameras were suitable), and partially historical: Neumann explained that while the first lenses themselves were produced in the 1920s for meteorological studies, it was only in the 1960s that they were mass-produced for cameras and primarily in Japan. The majority of the article, however dealt with the aesthetic and ideological implications of fisheye lenses and what this new technology meant for photography in socialist countries where successful images must serve a social purpose beyond a unique point of view.

Castle Park Pillnitz.png
Alfred Neumann, Castle Park in Pillnitz, 1973

In his article, Neumann attempted to answer two questions about fisheye lenses as they related to photography in socialist countries: “Are their applications universal or limited? Do they enrich the possibilities of artistic expressiveness or are they rather a technical toy?”[1] Neumann noted that some critics of the technology argued that fisheye lenses cultivated “distortions, especially in depicting people and create pictures that deviate from normal perception.” According to his argument, these criticisms did not bear much weight as “If everything were so simple, then we would have to give up black and white photography, because our world appears in color …[and] it would be necessary to condemn all artists because they create pictures in two dimensions.”[2] As a result, this approach was “alien to the creative method of socialist realism.”

Neumann goes on to explain that fisheye lenses presented an interesting opportunity for photographers to alter and challenge viewer’s perceptions of the world and assist in the creation of “realistic and artistic” photographs. Nevertheless, there were some caveats. The lenses should not be used for purposeful distortion (no more than a fisheye lens already distorts reality) and photographers should not use them to achieve “very strong hyperbole or caricature” in their photographs, because “then the use of the lens is unjustified.”[3]

In Pillnitz Park.png
Alfred Neumann, In Pillnitz Park, 1973

The “problem” with this technology, then, was in how individuals used it. A notable, and similar, example was the Soviet government’s ambivalent relationship towards television: while it could “stand as an emblem of the socialist ‘good life,’” there were concerns about its social effects and this led to “definite tension in Soviet rhetoric between the celebration of the technology and the reality of its use.”[4] One of the primary reasons that Sovetskoe foto directed so much of its content to amateur audiences was this tension between technological advancement, mass-production for consumers and actual usage. Consumer products (including cameras and television sets) were a key aspect in the Cold War competition because they “served as a powerful symbolic marker of the Cold War nexus between scientific progress and the good life.”[5] But allowing the average Soviet citizen the trappings of “the good life” meant relinquishing some control: What was the individual photographing? Did they possess the skills to create “successful” images?  If they did, were they ignoring their ideological responsibility to act as amateur propagandists? True, the Soviet government cared very little about what and how amateur photographers chose to photograph, so long as unsatisfactory images were not publicly circulated, and even then, amateur’s status as “hobbyists” meant there was little official oversight.[6] Rather, it was photographers, critics and editors that labored over how individuals were using their cameras and what their photographs looked like, in part because they didn’t want amateurs to degrade what little standing they had within the Soviet media hierarchy.

One of the final points Neumann included in his article was a call for the “optical industry of the socialist states to quickly release their own models to the market in order to guarantee [they are] accessible to all.”[7] In a way then, the editors of Sovetskoe foto were attempting to get ahead of technology that they expected to reach amateurs at a later date, rather than combatting an issue that already existed. Anticipating the production of fisheye lenses in the Soviet Union or other socialist countries, they endeavored to proactively train photographers in the correct methodological and technical approaches to using this new technology.


[1]Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” Sovetskoe foto no. 2 (February) 1974: 36.

[2]Ibid, 36.

[3]Ibid, 37.

[4]Kristin Roth-Ey, “Finding a Home for Television in the USSR, 1950-1970,” Slavic Review Vol. 66, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 279, 306.

[5]Ibid, 304.

[6]Eduards Kļaviņš, “The Story of Inta Ruka and Her Photoportrait Stories.” Stories, Storytellers: The Republic of Latvia’s Exposition Catalogue. Venice Biennale 48th International Contemporary Art Exhibition, Ed. H. Demakova. Riga: Soros Contemporary Art Centre, 1999, p. 13.

[7]Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” 37.

Is it a “Truly ‘Male'” Profession? Women Photojournalists in the Soviet Union

In 1974, Sovetskoe foto published its first (to my knowledge) article featuring women photojournalists. While women photojournalists’ images were featured in Sovetskoe foto, and there were occasional publications about specific photographers or particular images by women, the March 1974 issue of the journal featured a roundtable interview of nine women who significantly contributed to the Soviet press.

The participants were as follows:

Ol’ga Vsevolodovna Ignatovich was the younger sister of Boris Ignatovich, and both were leading members of the modernist Oktiabr’ Group in the 1930s. At the beginning of her career, in the early 1930s, Ol’ga Ignatovich worked for the daily peasant newspaper Bednota (Poverty).  In the mid-1930s she, along with her brother and sister-in-law (Boris’ wife, Elizaveta Ignatovich) while associated with Oktiabr’, formed their own collective of sorts known as the “Ignatovich brigade,” which provided images for a number of publications, including Vecherniaia Moskva (Evening Moscow), Komsomol’skaia pravda, Ogonek and Sovetskoe foto. Ol’ga Ignatovich was a frontline photojournalist for the newspaper Za chest’ rodiny (For the Honor of the Motherland) during World War II. After the war, she worked as a correspondent for APN and for the publishing house Sovetskii khudozhnik (Soviet Artist).

Maia Stefanovna Okushko began her career working for Komsomol’skaia pravda as a secretary in the illustrations department during World War II and her first photograph for the newspaper was published in 1945. She continued to work for Komsomol’skaia pravda after the war, and was invited to manage the photo section of Vecherniaia Moskva in 1964.

Luiza Kalinina, like Okushko, began work in the Soviet press prior to becoming a photojournalist. She worked as a courier for the magazine Sovetskaia zhenshchina (The Soviet Woman) in the early 1960s, before she became a photojournalist for the same publication.

Galina Zakharovna San’ko began working as a photojournalist in the 1930s, accompanying expeditions to the Arctic and the Far East. During World War II she worked for Frontovaia illustratsiia (Front Illustration), photographing the pivotal Soviet victories at the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. She was later awarded the Order of the Red Star for her service as a photojournalist. After the war, she worked primarily for Ogonek (see my post about her career and work here).

Rimma Likhach contributed to a number of different illustrated journals, though in her work as a correspondent for magazines and journals she photographed “only once in a while, and according to inspiration.”[1] There is little available information about her life and career trajectory, but she primarily photographed cultural activities.

Nina Sviridova often collaborated with her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, who was also a photographer and the editor of Kul’tura i zhizn’ (Culture and Life). Their collaborative work was featured in a number of magazines and journals, including Sovetskoe foto, and the couple traveled extensively in the Baltics, Belarus, the Urals and Transcarpathia. Sviridova and Vozdvizhenskii worked for Uchitel’skaia gazeta (Teacher’s Newspaper) and the journal Sem’ia i shkola (Family and School). Later in her career Sviridova worked for Televidenie i radioveshchanie (Television and Radio Broadcasting).

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 5.31.45 PM.png
Nina Sviridova and her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s

Elizaveta Mikulina worked as a photojournalist for Ogonek, and was a former member of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), an organization in the 1930s that adhered to realism in photography in opposition to the Oktiabr’ group.

Ol’ga Aleksandrovna Lander was a student of Mosei Nappelbaum and David Sternberg. She worked as a photojournalist for Komosomol’skaia pravda and was a war correspondent during the World War II and was awarded a number of medals for her work as a photojournalist, including the Order of the Red Star.  She later worked for the newspaper Sovetskaia rossiia (Soviet Russia).

Galina Vasil’evna Kmit began her career as a journalist, working for Moskovskii komsomolets (Moscow Komsomolets) before becoming a photojournalist. She also worked in radio and television in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 2003, she became an honored artist of the Russian Federation.

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 3.17.29 PM.png
First column: Ol’ga Ignatovich, Maia Okushko, Luiza Kalinina. Second Column: Galina San’ko, Rimma Likhach, Nina Sviridova. Third Column: Elizaveta Mikulina, Ol’ga Lander, Galina Kmit. Sovetskoe foto 1974, No. 3: 10


The introduction to the interview, conducted by Sovetskoe foto contributors A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, commented on the profession of photojournalism as a whole: Photojournalists “do not spare themselves, they generously give their time and energy to their favored business. In any weather, at any time of the year they are shooting and going on business trips. They have a hard, nomadic life, it is a truly ‘male’ profession. Therefore, it is a career women rarely choose.”[2]

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 4.40.24 PM.png
Ol’ga Ignatovich, N. K. Krupskaia i M.I. Ul’ianova na vstreche s rabochimi “Krasnnogo bogatyria” (Nadezhda Krupskaia and M. I Ul’ianova [Lenin’s sister] at the meeting of workers of “Red Bogatyr,”),  c. 1930s
The implication is that women, were “naturally” more inclined towards domesticity and life at home, and careers that did not involve extensive travel or frequent deadlines. Yet, as the women stated in their interview, one of the biggest issues they confronted was lack of female role models and access to positions as photojournalists. Some, despite their love for and interest in photography, entered low level positions at newspapers and journals, only later becoming photojournalists either based on the needs of the publication they worked for, or becoming mentees of other press photographers. In the interview, Galina San’ko thanked Ol’ga Ignatovich and Elizaveta Mikulina because “it was their photographs, seen in Ogonek and Prozhektor (Spotlight) that led me to the pleasant thought: since there are already female reporters, I can become a reporter myself…I was lucky, I learned the basics of photojournalism under the guidance of such masters as Shaikhet, Kudoyarov, Loskutov, Grinberg…”[3] Nina Sviridova and her husband benefitted from mutual artistic and creative vision. Rimma Likhach likewise added that while “Galina San’ko was helped by the experience of her predecessors, her work helped me to become a photojournalist.”[4] Thus, the presence of previous generations of successful women photojournalists played a significant role in their decision to enter the profession.

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 5.31.27 PM.png
Zdravstvui liubov’ (Hello love), Nina Sviridova and Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s-1970s

In their roundtable discussion, the photojournalists delved into a number of issues, but primarily talked about their favorite images and themes. They nearly unanimously agreed that they preferred shooting people over any other subject, though not necessarily portraits, but rather snapshots of everyday life. Sviridova noted that apart from set subjects from editors, she preferred to document “human happiness” in its various forms, “manifestations of optimism, joy and bright depictions of the surrounding world.”[5] Rimma Lickhach agreed. They shared their anxieties and frustrations with their work: Ol’ga Lander explained that on shoots she was regularly concerned with tight deadlines set by editors which often did not take into account how much creativity was involved in shooting successful images. Ol’ga Ignatovich lamented that the majority of her negatives from before the war had disappeared from newspaper and journal archives. Each of the women agreed with Luiza Kalinina, who explained that “passion and diligence” were the most important qualities in a photojournalist.

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 4.29.06 PM.png
Ol’ga Lander, c. 1941-1945

In their contribution to the article, Sergeev and Parlashkevich appear not to have registered the content of the interview. Their tone in both the introduction and the conclusion was decidedly patronizing. “There was a lot of talk that evening at the ‘roundtable’… talking about the profession, talking with colleagues and friends – what could be better and more useful for those who know what a hard [profession] it is.”[6] Only a small fraction of the interviews focused on the difficulties of the profession. While some of the women interviewed noted that there were aspects of the profession that were disheartening, only Galina Kmit deigned to admit that “photojournalism is difficult, it’s hard to carry equipment at times…in a word it is not a woman’s profession.”[7] Instead, overall, the interview demonstrated how supportive women photojournalists were of one another. Ignatovich congratulated Okushko on her photograph “The Bride,” which won second prize at the World Press Photo exhibition in 1963. They thanked one another for their service and dedication to the press.  Perhaps Luiza Kalinina put it best: “Of course it is not easy work…but it is the same for any correspondent, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.”[8]

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 4.36.54 PM.png
Maia Okushko, Nevesta (The Bride), 1963


[1] A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, “‘Za kruglym stolom’ – zhenshchiny-reportery: o professii i o sebe” Sovetskoe foto no. 3 (March), 1974: 15.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] Ibid, 16.

Camera Repairs and Equipment Distribution in the Soviet Union

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the editors of Sovetskoe foto received a large number of complaints regarding the state of camera repairs and the distribution of camera parts and equipment. While complaints about distribution were common, particularly developing chemicals and photo fixers, the letters received by the editors specifically referred to the availability of replacement parts and the problems facing amateurs whose cameras needed regular maintenance.

The problems being raised by amateur readers of the journal, according to the editors, were really threefold. First, when their cameras required maintenance, regular or otherwise, amateurs were unable to find qualified repair specialists even in Moscow and Leningrad. Second, many factories, based on output quotas, failed to produce replacement parts for recent camera models, including those that were less than five years old and also did not produce the necessary instruments required for camera repairs. Third, when spare parts orders were placed by repairmen to manufacturing warehouses, these work orders were often lost, ignored, or contained unneeded or unnecessary parts.[1]

Smena 1 2018-07-15 at 11.26.53 AM.png
Smena 1, 1952

The first problem was related to the latter two. Amateurs were not always able to repair or modify their own cameras, and this was due to the lack of available spare parts, but also their skill level. While the majority of photojournalists repaired their own cameras, many amateurs lacked the technical expertise to tinker with their own cameras, which were often lower quality, cheaper models to begin with. The professionals who did repair their own cameras were largely self-taught, and presumably had the means to purchase a replacement camera, should their attempts at repair fail. Furthermore, professionals often used older cameras, ignoring the contemporary automatic models.[2]

Repair personnel had little if any formal training themselves, and the majority were non-specialists who also worked on watches and small household appliances, including electric shavers, vacuum cleaners and irons. They often worked in cramped, dimly-lit, basement shops, as many as 10 people worked in the average 15-20 square meter workshop.[3] Those who received any training at all were usually former plant workers who attended a six-month seminar training program on camera repairs at the factory where they worked. But given the variety of camera models available for purchase, this hardly prepared them for working with the majority of domestic cameras and certainly not on foreign models. Similarly, the standard cost of camera repairs, set externally and not by repairmen, did not reflect the time one would need to repair more complicated models. Therefore, while the estimated cost and time of repairing a Smena and Kiev camera was the same, the latter required far more time and technical skill due to the intricacy of the device itself.[4]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 11.29.40 AM.png
Zorki 5 with Industar-50 lens, 1959

To combat the lack of repair specialists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were some piecemeal attempts at further training. The Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant collaborated with the Ministry of Public Services to train a number of specialists in repairing their Zorki and Zenit models. The Rostov and Kuibyshev educational and industrial complexes commissioned professional photographers and photojournalists to help train repairmen. Between 1969 and early 1972 the two programs had trained nearly 100 specialists, and projected that these programs would train a further 500 specialists by the completion of the Ninth Five-Year Plan in 1975 at a rate of 100 per year.[5] At the time Sovetskoe foto published its report on the state of camera repair work in January 1972, the journal was facilitating negotiations between the Ministry of Consumer Services in the RSFSR, the Deputy Chief of the Department “Glavrembytekhnika” in Ryazan and the Leningrad Optical and Mechanical Association to improve training programs.

The second and third issues, related to replacement parts and distribution. In an attempt to further assist camera repair workers, in 1971 the Ryazan regional production association “Rembytekhenika” produced prototypes of specialized tools for camera repairs, so that specialists would no longer need to rely on technical tools designed for repairing household appliances. “Rembytekhnika” forecast that by the end of 1972 all repair shops would be equipped with these tools, though there was no concrete production schedule.[6]

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.19.34 PM.png
Zorki-10 prototype, 1969


In the early 1970s, the successful delivery of replacement parts for cameras from factories and manufacturing warehouses was estimated to be 60-80%. This, however, masked the reality of the goods sent to repair shops. Often times, repair shops were required to purchase “kits” that involved a number of unnecessary spare parts that would then sit unused. Once new models were in circulation, factory equipment was repurposed for the production of new cameras and thus, factories lacked the ability to produce replacement parts. Manufacturing warehouses, where replacement and spare parts were stored for cameras still under warranty, often ignored work orders for months though they were meant to process these orders within 10 days. In one particularly egregious example, the 12th Camera Workshop in Moscow sent an order to the Krasnogorsk factory (23 km outside of Moscow) for a warranty repair of a Zorki-10. The replacement parts only arrived six months after the initial order was placed.[7] In another case, the 18th Camera Workshop in Moscow submitted an order for 24 parts worth 1,292 rubles to the Kiev Arsenal plant. The parts were never delivered.[8]

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.21.00 PM.png
Zorki-10, 1969

Because requests for replacement parts needed to be sent to specific factories and warehouses based on individual camera models, the margin of error for each individual work order was extremely high. While the Arsenal plant had a particularly unreliable reputation for replacement parts, in that they would often send and demand payment for unnecessary parts sent to workshops, the FED plant in Kharkiv, responsible for producing FED cameras, had a reputation for responding to work orders on time and upon first request.[9]


Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.21.51 PM.png
FED 4, 1964-1980

What was most concerning for the editors of Sovetskoe foto was the issue of spare parts. In July 1971 Izvestiia reported that between 1971 and 1975 the production of cameras would increase by 160%. But the editors at Sovetskoe foto were quite anxious about these statistics. Amateur photographers did not and would not need new cameras if they were able to purchase replacement parts and have their existing cameras serviced properly: “In releasing the new models of photo and cinematographic cameras, it should also be remembered that [plants should] ensure the release of parts and repair shops for cameras already available to the population.”[10]

“The complaints of consumers and workshops are completely justified,” stated the Chief Specialist of the Department of Local Industry, Cultural and Household Goods and Consumer Services I. M. Belov. “The Ministry [of Public Services] does almost nothing to help repairmen,” and while Belov sympathized with amateur photographers, he blamed all deficiencies on the local and republican Ministries of Consumer Services and the State Planning Committee of the USSR.[11]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 11.32.49 AM.png
Zenit-E with Helios 44-2 Lens, 1971

The problems associated with camera repairs as well as replacement parts, related not only to distribution, but that the Soviet command economy, while able to provide consumers with certain finished products, failed to take into account the needs of amateur photographers who didn’t necessarily want to replace their cameras, but instead repair them. These issues also related to education and technical expertise. Similarly, the size of bureaucratic organizations in charge of distribution, spread over multiple ministries, factories, warehouses both locally and across the Soviet Union that were unaffiliated with photography clubs and the photo section of the Union of Journalists, meant that those responsible for addressing distribution issues were able to pass the buck. Because no single organization was able to account for the peculiarities of equipment distribution, production and training, the result was that access was uneven and haphazard at best. At worst, it meant that amateur photographers were unable to have their cameras repaired (or find qualified people who were able to do so), were unable to rely on the warranties provided when they purchased their cameras, and even assuming they were able to find a reputable expert, could not necessarily depend on the factory/warehouse distributors to provide the necessary parts for repair in anything that resembled a timely manner based on the guidelines for processing orders.

While the Soviet economy ensured that goods were priced at a rate that the average citizen that could afford, the availability of specialist goods (i.e. camera parts) remained problematic. Similarly problematic was that the responsibility for delivering specialist goods was divided across multiple institutions and organizations that did not communicate with one another. As a result, apart from compiling reader complaints, Sovetskoe foto’s only recourse was to attempt facilitation between government ministries, and draw attention to the deficiencies in communication.


[1] Uluchshit’ obsluzhivanie fotoliubitelei, Sovetskoe foto no. 1 (January) 1974: 41.

[2] Ibid, 41.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 41-2.

[6] Ibid, 41.

[7] Ibid, 41.

[8] Ibid, 41.

[9] Ibid, 41.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 42.

Outsider Impressions of Photography in the Soviet 1970s

The journal Sovetskoe foto, despite its popularity among amateur and professional photographers in the Soviet Union, often acted as an echo chamber for the same voices touting the same ideas: the same photojournalists, the same critics, the same dominant voices from photography clubs across the Soviet Union (particularly from Novator in Moscow and the VDK in Leningrad). On the rare occasion, however, those from outside the community of regular critics and photographers were asked to contribute to the journal. One such instance was a series of interviews published in May 1972.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.17.20 PM.png
Vladimir Moshinskii, BallerinaSovetskoe foto no. 5 1972

Each of those interviewed professed an “interest” in photography, but the interview subjects, Yuri Smolich (Hero of Socialist Labor and the Chairman of the Ukrainian Writer’s Union), Grigorii Tsarik (Hero of Socialist Labor, Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR and employee of the Arsenal Factory), and Vasily Kasiian (People’s Artist of the USSR) had different ideas about the role of photography in the Soviet Union, sometimes counterintuitive to the views held by many of the frequent contributors to the journal. Each of the interviewees were asked the same two questions: “What place does photography occupy in your life and the life of the Soviet people? What is your attitude about significant issues confronting photographic creativity?”[1]


Grigorii Tsarik approached these questions differently from the other two respondents, and thus I will address his comments first. Tsarik was in some ways closer to the photographic community than the others interviewed because the Arsenal factory in Kiev, where he worked, produced cameras and photographic equipment, particularly the “Kiev” and “Salyut” models.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.19.41 PM.png
L. Yakutin, from the series Brest-Citadel of GlorySovetskoe foto no. 5 1972

“Millions are engaged in photography in our country. And this huge army of amateur photographers must be equipped with cameras that are sound, convenient and reliable. This is also our business at ‘Arsenal.’ The ‘Kiev’ and ‘Salyut’ cameras have earned a good reputation, but there is still a lot of work to be done so that the photographic output of the plant meets unusually increased demand.[2] Our comrades [at Arsenal] realize how much consumers expect from us and what our responsibility is: The good name of the Arsenal plant should be a guarantee of exceptional quality. After all, the success of our Soviet photography, and we understand this perfectly, depends not only on the skill of photo artists, photojournalists and amateur photographers, but also on the development of domestic photographic equipment.”[3]

Tsarik focused on how he, and by extension all Arsenal employees, contributed to the development and production of cameras and equipment. While he recognized that creativity was an aspect of photography, for both amateurs and professionals, his emphasis was on industrial output and the quality of domestic goods. For photographers at the time, this sort of “solidarity” from workers involved in the manufacturing of cameras, and the reassurance that industrial workers took pride in the products they were making, was certainly welcome.


While Tsarik dedicated his interview to production, Smolich and Kasiian focused on photography’s (apparently) inextricable links to reality and the medium’s documentary properties, the same issues that contributors to Sovetskoe foto had talking about for nearly 20 years.

In his interview, Smolich focused on the connections between photojournalism, fact, authenticity and reality, but also echoed amateur and professional photographer’s efforts at unionization. He noted that the “Masters of photography work in the same embattled system with our writers, artists, filmmakers and journalists and carry out the same serious propaganda tasks.” Thus, it was time for “photographers to finally receive a single creative and organizational center – a society or an alliance. The existence of such a center…would enhance the responsibility of photography workers and the effectiveness of photographic propaganda.”[4] That Smolich includes photography as a pursuit worthy of an official society or union is an odd choice given his position as the Chairman of the Ukrainian Union of Writers, because writers were afforded the status of unionized “high” artists, a privilege that photographers in the Soviet Union never achieved. But this support was undoubtedly reinforced by the editors of Sovetskoe foto, photojournalists and amateur photographers who had been actively petitioning for a union since 1957.

Smolich goes on to say that the “effectiveness of the photo-document is in its authenticity and the ability to convince people…” and that “photography has become one of the convincing ways to refute all sorts of insinuations and lies about our country.”[5] Thus, while photographers performed the same propaganda and creative tasks as other artists, the value of their contribution was based almost entirely in the perceived authentication that photographs provided.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.23.09 PM.png
Yurii Mesniankin, ArtekSovetskoe foto no. 5, 1972.

Smolich’s appraisal, however, was not entirely in line with the editors of Sovetskoe foto. In his interview, he fell into the same habitual attitude many bureaucrats held about photography, that photography served the purpose of an indexical illustration that provided authenticity:

“As a writer who works a lot on historical and revolutionary subjects, I often have to deal with photo-documents. And every time I feel a, quite understandable, excitement; pictures enrich our knowledge of time not only in information, but emotively as well. Their help in creating books is difficult for me to overestimate.”[6]


It is likely that Kasiian’s interview would have been met with the least positive feedback from readers and contributors. In his interview, Kasiian took the standard line espoused by many involved in the unionized arts, that photographers performed a valuable task, but one that was fundamentally different from artists. In a way, his contribution was almost patronizing, using the interview, in a way, to put photographers in their place:

“The popularity and authority of photography – and this is very important – has been growing from year to year among the population…As an artist, I have followed the evolution of photography with a mixed sense of joy and jealousy. Joy, because the rapid growth of photography, as well as photojournalism, are obvious and impressive. Jealously, because the rapid growth of photography sometimes…tries to substitute other types of art. I’m talking about those experiments, where the authors try to substitute a photograph ‘for a painting,’ or [take a photograph] “for its graphics,’ or ‘for impressionism,’ etc. There is nothing new here, at the dawn of photography I remember these attempts were meant to imitate the masters of painting and at every turn the photographer met a dead end. The artist builds on reality to create a new world in his work.  Photography works with objective reality exclusively and its basis is always documentary. The documentary [aspects of photography] are its strength; leaving these behind results in a loss.”[7]

Thus, it would appear Kassian is fastidiously “jealous” of the flexibility of the medium, while also criticizing those photographers who chose to challenge the documentary “purpose” of photography in the Soviet Union.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.23.27 PM.png
Yakov Riumkin, StrollSovetskoe foto, no. 5, 1972.

He goes on to attack color photography: “Color works, for all their effectiveness, often do not rise above the protocol of a fixation on the reality [of the everyday]” and thus were not as timeless or emotive as black-and-white photography. “Color has not yet become an active means of expressiveness” in photography.[8] Thus, Kassian’s attitude towards photography was incredibly conservative in that he preferred black and white over color, and “straight” photojournalism over any other creative style.


By the 1970s, photographers and critics had long argued, partially due to the politics of unionization, that photography served the dual function of “art” and “document.” Thus, Somolich’s comments on the medium were likely received positively, whereas Kasiian’s comments were more combative and more critical of photography as a whole, not only its development and the aesthetic choices made by photographers, but because he situated photography only within its utility as a medium tied to photojournalism. While photographers themselves had argued this very point, that one of the unique properties of photography was its ties to reality, they also argued for its creative and artistic merits. Tsarik, while abstaining from a discussion of photography in terms of creativity, expressed interest in amateur photography and focused on how his factory work contributed to the medium as a whole. Alternatively, while both Smolich and Kasiian touched on the issue of creativity, Smolich did so in an inclusive manner, i.e. Soviet photographers should have the opportunity to organize themselves in order to further the causes they were already engaged in propagating, whereas Kasiian’s approach was much more limiting, going so far as to suggest which “types” of photography (color versus black and white, style etc.) were acceptable.


[1] “Fotografii – v obshem stroiu,” Sovetksoe foto, no. 5 (May) 1972: 25.

[2] The Kiev and Salyut (later renamed the Kiev 80 and with further modification, the Kiev 88 or Zenith 80) models had a mixed reputation. It had a low retail price which was appealing to amateurs, but internationally earned the Arsenal plant a reputation for poor quality control, though this fluctuated from year to year and model to model. That being said, however, these cameras were relatively easy to modify.

[3] “Fotografii- v obshem stroiu,” 25.

[4] Ibid, 25.

[5] Ibid, 25.

[6] Ibid, 25.

[7] Ibid, 25.

[8] Ibid, 25.

Representations of Women in the 1980’s Tartu Photography Exhibitions

А. Тенно - № 20.png
A. Tenno, No. 20, 1986

In 1983 and 1986, the Tartu fotoklub hosted the international/inter-club exhibitions Zhenshina v fotoiskusstve (Women in Photo Art). Contrary to what one might think, this was not an exhibition of women photographers and their work, but rather artistic photographs of women. Actually, women photographers hardly participated in the exhibitions: in 1983, only 6 of the 112 artists chosen by the selection jury were women, or roughly one in twenty.[1] In 1986, the number of women participants rose to 15 out of 216, or just over 7%. [2]

И. Матвиенко - Материнство .png
I. Matvienko, Motherhood, 1986

These figures are both remarkable (given the title of the exhibition), but also unsurprising and indicative of the male dominated photography club environment. As I have previously described in my post “Why Gender Matters in Soviet Photography Clubs” about photographer and artist Zenta Dzividzinska, photography clubs were often hostile environments for women – especially those who chose to depict the female form in ways that confronted masculine ideals of beauty. Even for women photographers like Dzividzinska, whose Untitled series depicted women in Latvian villages and explored traditional narratives such as motherhood but in non-traditional ways, the club environment was not necessarily welcoming.

А. Тенно - Вдвоем.png
A. Tenno, Together, 1983


There are more or less four “types” of women that emerge from the pages of the 1983 and 1986 exhibition catalogues. Or rather, four age groups. The first are young adolescent (prepubescent) girls aged about seven to ten, often depicted as wonton or whimsical. The second “type” portrayed are young women, in their late teens to mid-20s, who are either coquettishly/provocatively dressed by the standards of the day, and were often photographed nude or semi-nude. The third category is mothers with infants. The fourth group is of elderly women or babushki. These categories or age based groups were not wholly identified in the catalogues, but become clear upon viewing the exhibition images as a whole. While some images depict women at work in capacities other than motherhood, these images are far outnumbered by those that fit in to one of the four aforementioned age categories. One might say that this is both indicative of how male photographers chose to depict women as well as how the selection committee wanted the exhibitions to represent women (to my knowledge there is no comprehensive list of entries to the exhibitions, only the successful applicants).

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 4.10.42 PM.png
Tartu Fotoklub Exhibition Catelogue, 1986

In the images presented in the catalogue, there is a strong emphasis on youth (i.e. women of childbearing age). The nude/semi-nude images of young women only reinforce this emphasis, and the categories listed above represent more of a chronology of male ideas about events in women’s lives – childhood, sexual maturity, maternity, and old age – with little deviation (though the exhibition catalogues are not organized in this chronology). Based on the images as they are presented in the Tartu exhibitions, women were represented as performing a single, specific task, culminating in reproduction. Perhaps this is hardly surprising given the conservatism of the post-1930s government and Party.

Т. Нооритс - Аеропорт.png
T. Noorits, Airport, 1983

In the introduction to the 1983 catalogue, selection committee member V. Parkhomenko expounded on the success of the exhibition and the talent of those selected to participate. A few things, however, stand out in his account. At first glance, Parkhomenko shared my observation that women were not, on the whole, presented as being socially useful outside of their role as mothers: despite the number of images submitted to the committee, Parkhomenko complained that photographers “did not pay sufficient attention to the local and national features related to the life and activity of women in the republics, regions and oblasts etc.” and that few “serious industrial portraits about [women] as a socially active person were presented.” He then, however, goes on to say that more importantly, the exhibition “broadly shows the role of modern women in the family – the image of women as mothers. After all, it is this image that the highest aspirations – family, love and fatherland – are directly related.” In making these remarks, Parkhomenko ties women’s utility and purpose to their reproductive capabilities: women could be productive workers, but good communist women were or aspired to be mothers first and foremost. Parkhomenko also noted that “the exhibition [was] dominated by the poetic theme of women’s beauty…” associating beauty not only with reproduction and motherhood, but also with youth given the number of images of women aged 40 and under, conforming to male dominated ideas about what constitutes “beauty” and “value.” Of the 1986 exhibition, Parkhomenko commented that while the submissions received by the selection committee were more varied, women continued to be shown “in the most important and necessary ‘profession’ – Motherhood.”

С. Покалякин - Портрет I.png
S. Pokaliankin, Portrait I, 1983

It is also worth briefly commenting that stylistically, the images from the 1983 and 1986 Tartu exhibitions demonstrate the prevalence and general acceptance of pictorialism amongst the jury. The acceptance of pictorialism, a long maligned and supposed “hold-over” from the pre-Soviet period, and an almost naïve romanticism is evident in many images included in the 1983 and 1986 exhibition catalogues.

Н. Глейзд - В ожидании.png
N. Gleizd, Pending, 1986

The narrative put forth by the exhibition images is almost impossible to ignore given the time and place they were produced. The only surprising revelation, perhaps, is the proliferation of nude images – of which there almost certainly would have been fewer 10-20 years earlier. Nevertheless, in the Soviet 1980s, as the acceptable means of portraying the female body expanded, male ideas about femininity, beauty, and even functionality and purpose, remained the same. Here I wish to reiterate that this is not surprising, there was no feminist “moment” or movement in the Soviet Union (barring the cast aside values of the October Revolution). The inclusion of more female participants may or may not have changed and challenged male depictions of women, it is impossible to know. Similarly, applying contemporary ideas about equal (or semi-equal) representation ignores the context and regime in which these images were produced. In many ways, the images were a product of their era as so many images and photographs are, but despite this, they nevertheless represent how amateur male photographers in the late Soviet period conceived of femininity and women’s social role.

С. Васильев - В мастерской скульптора II.png
S. Vasil’ev, In the Sculptor’s Workshop, 1986

[1] Rahvusarhiiv f. t-483 op. 1 d. 896 l. 37 exhibition catalogue.

[2] Rahvusarhiiv f. t-438 op. 1 d. 896 l. 39.