“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.

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

  1. Through your analysis of the August 1974 issue of Soveskoe foto you provide valuable insight into the engagement of its public. I am especially interested to see calls for more ‘theory’; by which I wonder what the writers meant. I am intrigued to know what ‘theory’, and whether it was technical, aesthetic or philosophical, appeared in Soveskoe foto (unfortunately I don’t read Russian). This is a period in the West prior to the appearance of Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ and Szarkowski’s ‘Mirrors and Windows’, but just after John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and Scharf’s ‘Art and Photography’. What were the Soviets researching and writing in theory by comparison, and to what extent was it popular in the pages of Soveskoe foto? I hope much more to follow!


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, much of my recent research has been about amateur letters to Sovetsekoe foto and it is interesting to see what they were interested in, what advice they sought, and what complaints they had. About your question on theory, I’m currently working on an article specifically about Critical Photographic Theory in the USSR. For context, in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960, social historians began to investigate the production and dissemination of photographic media, and why this history had been ignored by scholars interested in “highbrow” aesthetics. By comparison, Soviet critics and theorists largely ignored these discussions, in part because the government and Party simply did not view photography as an artistic pursuit and largely relied on its indexical qualities (which in and of itself was quite fraught, but I digress). Instead, Soviet theoreticians (for years) were bound up trying to explain what was actually “Soviet” about Soviet photography, and what aesthetic aspects of the medium could be uniquely and distinctly Soviet. By that I mean, what aspects of photography conformed with the ideology of Soviet socialism. Here it is important to note that they weren’t actually strictly engaged in Marxist criticism (though Marx and Lenin were heavily cited), but instead a hybrid of trying to explain how photography fit within the landscape of Soviet visual culture. Hope that begins to answer your question!


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