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.

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Vladimir Moshinskii, BallerinaSovetskoe foto, 1972 no. 5.

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.

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L. Yakutin, from the series Brest-Citadel of GlorySovetskoe foto, 1972 no. 5.

“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.

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Yurii Mesniankin, ArtekSovetskoe foto 1972, no. 5, Front Cover.

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.

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Yakov Riumkin, StrollSovetskoe foto, 1972 no. 5, Back Cover.

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, 1972 no. 5, 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.

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