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.
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?” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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. 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.” 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.
Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” Sovetskoe foto no. 2 (February) 1974: 36.
Kristin Roth-Ey, “Finding a Home for Television in the USSR, 1950-1970,” Slavic Review Vol. 66, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 279, 306.
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.
Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” 37.