Representations of Women in the 1980’s Tartu Photography Exhibitions

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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]

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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