The Odessa Regional Photography Club

In the past, I have written about the organizational structure of photography clubs. The Odessa Regional Photography club represents an interesting instance of how fractious amateur photography clubs could be.

When the club was founded in 1971, Odessa already had a history tied to photography organizations. The first exhibition organized by Odessa area photographers was held in 1896, and the Odessa Photographic Society was founded in 1915. After the revolution, the Society was transformed into an association of professional photographers, which included members of the Society who worked in the press. The association was later liquidated.

The first post-war exhibition held in Odessa that was open to amateur submissions was held in 1956. Afterwards, regional exhibitions were held on a regular basis, but amateurs and professionals struggled to form a permanently functioning photography club in the region. The reason behind this failure is representative of the quandary faced by many photography clubs in the Soviet Union, and relates to differing ideas about the express purpose of photography clubs themselves and how exclusionary they should be. Many Odessa amateurs feared that “select amateur photographers, indispensable participants in exhibitions, whose works were printed in photo albums and illustrated editions” would “jealously guard their associations from ‘encroachments’ of beginning amateurs.”[1] Chief amongst their concerns was that these prominent amateurs would selfishly engross themselves in their own work, rather than provide  “creative assistance to beginners, popularize photography, and actively participate in the social and cultural life of the city and the region.”[2] Instead, the Odessa Regional Photography Club thought of itself as a methodological center for the “guidance and provision of practical assistance to all amateur photographers, photo circles and photo sections of Odessa region,” prioritizing the needs of beginners.[3]

The club, once established and approved by the Odessa Regional Committee of the CPU, had a fairly common solution to this problem. Beginners were initiated into the club as candidate members. Each month, the work of candidate members was evaluated by the club and the strongest photographs were entered into a monthly contest “The Best Work of the Month.” The winning photographs were publicly exhibited. The club also partnered with the Odessa branch of the Union of Journalists of Ukraine. The club was also the foundation of the Regional Art Council for Photography, which was approved by the Culture Department of the Regional Executive Committee. The Council, though approved on the basis of the club, operated as a partner organization and was responsible for the selection of photographs for exhibitions, the confirmation of expositions… and also creative control over all photographic products that appear on the streets and in the entertainment enterprises” inside and outside of the city.[4]

This level of participation and attention from local cultural authorities was not a foregone conclusion. It did, however, help with financing club events and exhibitions in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Republics and the RSFSR. The club, which met at the House of Folk Art, had its own photography lab, a photography methodologist for working with amateurs, and travel funds for the strongest members to attend creative workshops and exhibitions. In this way, the Odessa Regional Photography club effectively formed its own local photography union very similar to the Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography. This type of organization was not replicated on the Republican or All-Union levels, despite the efforts of amateurs and professionals. It does, however, demonstrate that it was theoretically possible to replicate this structure on a larger scale for the material and technical benefit of amateur club members.

Despite the noble aspirations of the club, members including V. Shulga, E. Stepaniuk, V. Shishin, L. Paruzin, and A. Kotlyiarevskii left the group in 1973 and founded the Odessa based photography club Photon, which was organized around the Odessa House of Scientists.[5] This fissure was the result of differing views about photography, but also generational gaps amongst members and internal conflict. In 1975, the regional club, which was then known as “Odessa,” lost N. Bondarenko, G. Demin, S. Alekian, D. Zuubritskii, V. Tsvetkov and A. Sokolov who subsequently founded the club “Monsoon.”[6] Without an All-Union or republican structure to mediate disputes between divisive personalities, the splintering of the Odessa Regional Photography Club, despite the support network it provided and the initial concerns of potential members, demonstrates the fragility of the amateur club environment.

[1] N. Brygin, “Zaboty odesskikh fotoliubitelei,” Sovetskoe foto no. 9 (1971): 33.

[2] Ibid, 33.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Igor’ Panasiuk, “Otpechatki c sokhranivshikhsia negativov,” Doksa (2010): 532-533.

[6] Ibid, 533.

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