An Unlikely Success Story? The Norilsk 69th Parallel Photography Club

In 1974, the editors of Sovetskoe foto published a photo-feature on what they considered to be the unlikely success of the Photography Club 69th Parallel, based out of Norilsk. The feature about the club was not dissimilar to others in the journal. The article demonstrates, however, how smaller clubs developed, performed at exhibitions and attracted new members.

The article begins with a rosy narrative and epic description of the humble beginnings of the club: “The year – 1965. The place – The Palace of Culture of the [Norilsk] Metallurgical Plant.” At the time of its foundation, the club had 20 members, many of whom had little if any experience. The hero of this story was E. Moskalev, an amateur photographer cum “teacher, mentor, educator and artist.” Described as though he were assembling a rag-tag group of underdogs for a baseball team, Moskalev immediately expected “the highest demands of club members…this turned out to be the best kind of help and study” for the new photographers. So, “they filmed, debated and searched.”[1] They were to shoot “enthusiastically,” to develop ideas about photographic genres, and to learn how to print their own photographs.

Перед членами клуба выступает фотокорреспондент журнала "Огонек" А. Награльян.png
Club Members Photographed by Ogonek Correspondent A. Nagral’ian, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

They participated in their first exposition, then their second. At the inter-club exhibition “Our Modernity” (Nasha sovremennost’) they received their first third-place diploma. “The club was getting on its feet…”[2]

One of the biggest hurdles faced by the club, apart from inexperience, was geography. Norilsk was described as “a city-island in the ocean of the tundra.” More practically, it was a city only accessible by limited railway connections (used predominately for transporting nickel rather than passengers), or by air in the summer and ice roads in the winter. The city itself was largely built by the forced labor of Gulag prisoners. Yet, for the purposes of our story, it was necessary for our dauntless amateurs to become acquainted with the work of other clubs “from the mainland” so that isolation did not impact their activities and creativity. The author of the piece, Sovetskoe foto special correspondent M. Leont’ev, expressed that it was important to recognize the “commendable” efforts of those “mainland” photographers who assisted the club in their development. Who came to the rescue? The titans of photojournalism Vsevolod Tarasevich (see my post about his work here), Lev Ustinov, and Gennadi Koposov among others. Tarasevich spent hours critiquing the works of club members, and at one point brought his own works for examination, which resulted in a five-hour discussion. As a result, he became an honorary member of the club.[3]

Член превления клуба В. Чин-Мо-Цай проводит занятия.png
Club Member V. Chin-Mo-Tsai, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

Though the club had many successes at various exhibitions, they often received the same request from All-Union magazines: Why not photograph in color? And, so, our “intrepid heroes” did! Their first prize medal at the All-Union exhibition “My Country” (Strana moia) was for color photographs of an otherwise colorless landscape of snow and tundra, which could have been rendered in black and white. Why? According to club member and medal laureate Yuri Ishchenko, there were a number of reasons. The first was an understanding of the subtle color differences between the “polar air, sky, earth and snow.” Secondly, club members understood that one could shoot almost anything in color, but this was unnecessary if the image could “live” in black and white, there was no need to “dress it in colorful clothes.” To club members, the the environment, the city, and its people could not be rendered or captured without color. Third, club members likewise understood that for many of the exhibition attendees, the Arctic Circle was an exotic place, therefore, color photography further enhanced the richness of the landscape. Finally, and most complicated according to the author, was the depiction of the people of Norilsk: while the conditions of the arctic city were a struggle against the elements, their color (as well as black and white) photographs were “surprisingly cheerful” and optimistic. This was because of “the authors’ constant addiction to the life of the region, its people.” Thus, the implication is simply that black and white photography might undermine the cheerful character of the people and the vitality of the city. [4]

According to the author and Ischenko, the conditions of the region required maximum commitment. Not only to work in the harshest weather conditions and in the mines, but also maximum commitment to cheerfulness: The people of Norilsk, according to the article lived without “emotional skepticism and despondency…it is impossible to do without comradely mutual assistance [and] mutual aid.” “In such conditions, the Norilsk photographers wanted to prove to everyone in photos that it is possible to live and work in the tundra.”[5]

Очередное занятие.png
Another Lesson, Sovetskoe foto no. 4, 1974

Amidst the struggles against the elements, as well as dangerous and challenging work, what other struggles did the “heroic” club members continue to face? The club admitted that their level of expertise in color photography exceeded that of black and white photography. They also felt they suffered when it came to attracting new members and reached out to Young Pioneers and Komsomol members. The age of future (already registered) members of the club was remarkable: Yuri Ishchenko (presumably the son of the medal laureate above), was a mere 11 years old in 1974. Other future club members were V. Chin-Mo-Tsai who was 21, P. Bunigin was 10 years old, Y. Volkov was also 10, and their eldest future comrade, known only as “Parfentiev,” was just 28 years old.[6]

In his concluding remarks, Leont’ev noted that during his interview, club members enthusiastically “shared their joy” and despite the harsh climate, were impatiently waiting to return to their craft One exclaimed: “‘a rare day, what a sun! We must catch it! We must shoot!'” Yet, “the sun was just a barely noticeable yellow speck.”

 

[1] M. Leont’ev, “Na 69-i paralleli, Zolotaia medal’ – Noril’skomu fotoklubu,” Sovetskoe foto no. 4 (April) 1974: 14.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 14-15.

[5] Ibid, 15.

[6] Ibid, 15.

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