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.

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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]

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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]

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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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“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.”

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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.

Camera Technology and Sovetskoe Foto

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.

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Alfred Neumann, Castle Park in Pillnitz, 1973

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?”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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Alfred Neumann, In Pillnitz Park, 1973

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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.

 

[1]Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” Sovetskoe foto no. 2 (February) 1974: 36.

[2]Ibid, 36.

[3]Ibid, 37.

[4]Kristin Roth-Ey, “Finding a Home for Television in the USSR, 1950-1970,” Slavic Review Vol. 66, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 279, 306.

[5]Ibid, 304.

[6]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.

[7]Alfred Neumann, “S’emka ob’ektivom ‘rybii glaz,’” 37.

Is it a “Truly ‘Male'” Profession? Women Photojournalists in the Soviet Union

In 1974, Sovetskoe foto published its first (to my knowledge) article featuring women photojournalists. While women photojournalists’ images were featured in Sovetskoe foto, and there were occasional publications about specific photographers or particular images by women, the March 1974 issue of the journal featured a roundtable interview of nine women who significantly contributed to the Soviet press.

The participants were as follows:

Ol’ga Vsevolodovna Ignatovich was the younger sister of Boris Ignatovich, and both were leading members of the modernist Oktiabr’ Group in the 1930s. At the beginning of her career, in the early 1930s, Ol’ga Ignatovich worked for the daily peasant newspaper Bednota (Poverty).  In the mid-1930s she, along with her brother and sister-in-law (Boris’ wife, Elizaveta Ignatovich) while associated with Oktiabr’, formed their own collective of sorts known as the “Ignatovich brigade,” which provided images for a number of publications, including Vecherniaia Moskva (Evening Moscow), Komsomol’skaia pravda, Ogonek and Sovetskoe foto. Ol’ga Ignatovich was a frontline photojournalist for the newspaper Za chest’ rodiny (For the Honor of the Motherland) during World War II. After the war, she worked as a correspondent for APN and for the publishing house Sovetskii khudozhnik (Soviet Artist).

Maia Stefanovna Okushko began her career working for Komsomol’skaia pravda as a secretary in the illustrations department during World War II and her first photograph for the newspaper was published in 1945. She continued to work for Komsomol’skaia pravda after the war, and was invited to manage the photo section of Vecherniaia Moskva in 1964.

Luiza Kalinina, like Okushko, began work in the Soviet press prior to becoming a photojournalist. She worked as a courier for the magazine Sovetskaia zhenshchina (The Soviet Woman) in the early 1960s, before she became a photojournalist for the same publication.

Galina Zakharovna San’ko began working as a photojournalist in the 1930s, accompanying expeditions to the Arctic and the Far East. During World War II she worked for Frontovaia illustratsiia (Front Illustration), photographing the pivotal Soviet victories at the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. She was later awarded the Order of the Red Star for her service as a photojournalist. After the war, she worked primarily for Ogonek (see my post about her career and work here).

Rimma Likhach contributed to a number of different illustrated journals, though in her work as a correspondent for magazines and journals she photographed “only once in a while, and according to inspiration.”[1] There is little available information about her life and career trajectory, but she primarily photographed cultural activities.

Nina Sviridova often collaborated with her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, who was also a photographer and the editor of Kul’tura i zhizn’ (Culture and Life). Their collaborative work was featured in a number of magazines and journals, including Sovetskoe foto, and the couple traveled extensively in the Baltics, Belarus, the Urals and Transcarpathia. Sviridova and Vozdvizhenskii worked for Uchitel’skaia gazeta (Teacher’s Newspaper) and the journal Sem’ia i shkola (Family and School). Later in her career Sviridova worked for Televidenie i radioveshchanie (Television and Radio Broadcasting).

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Nina Sviridova and her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s

Elizaveta Mikulina worked as a photojournalist for Ogonek, and was a former member of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), an organization in the 1930s that adhered to realism in photography in opposition to the Oktiabr’ group.

Ol’ga Aleksandrovna Lander was a student of Mosei Nappelbaum and David Sternberg. She worked as a photojournalist for Komosomol’skaia pravda and was a war correspondent during the World War II and was awarded a number of medals for her work as a photojournalist, including the Order of the Red Star.  She later worked for the newspaper Sovetskaia rossiia (Soviet Russia).

Galina Vasil’evna Kmit began her career as a journalist, working for Moskovskii komsomolets (Moscow Komsomolets) before becoming a photojournalist. She also worked in radio and television in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 2003, she became an honored artist of the Russian Federation.

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First column: Ol’ga Ignatovich, Maia Okushko, Luiza Kalinina. Second Column: Galina San’ko, Rimma Likhach, Nina Sviridova. Third Column: Elizaveta Mikulina, Ol’ga Lander, Galina Kmit. Sovetskoe foto 1974, No. 3: 10

***

The introduction to the interview, conducted by Sovetskoe foto contributors A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, commented on the profession of photojournalism as a whole: Photojournalists “do not spare themselves, they generously give their time and energy to their favored business. In any weather, at any time of the year they are shooting and going on business trips. They have a hard, nomadic life, it is a truly ‘male’ profession. Therefore, it is a career women rarely choose.”[2]

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Ol’ga Ignatovich, N. K. Krupskaia i M.I. Ul’ianova na vstreche s rabochimi “Krasnnogo bogatyria” (Nadezhda Krupskaia and M. I Ul’ianova [Lenin’s sister] at the meeting of workers of “Red Bogatyr,”),  c. 1930s
The implication is that women, were “naturally” more inclined towards domesticity and life at home, and careers that did not involve extensive travel or frequent deadlines. Yet, as the women stated in their interview, one of the biggest issues they confronted was lack of female role models and access to positions as photojournalists. Some, despite their love for and interest in photography, entered low level positions at newspapers and journals, only later becoming photojournalists either based on the needs of the publication they worked for, or becoming mentees of other press photographers. In the interview, Galina San’ko thanked Ol’ga Ignatovich and Elizaveta Mikulina because “it was their photographs, seen in Ogonek and Prozhektor (Spotlight) that led me to the pleasant thought: since there are already female reporters, I can become a reporter myself…I was lucky, I learned the basics of photojournalism under the guidance of such masters as Shaikhet, Kudoyarov, Loskutov, Grinberg…”[3] Nina Sviridova and her husband benefitted from mutual artistic and creative vision. Rimma Likhach likewise added that while “Galina San’ko was helped by the experience of her predecessors, her work helped me to become a photojournalist.”[4] Thus, the presence of previous generations of successful women photojournalists played a significant role in their decision to enter the profession.

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Zdravstvui liubov’ (Hello love), Nina Sviridova and Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s-1970s

In their roundtable discussion, the photojournalists delved into a number of issues, but primarily talked about their favorite images and themes. They nearly unanimously agreed that they preferred shooting people over any other subject, though not necessarily portraits, but rather snapshots of everyday life. Sviridova noted that apart from set subjects from editors, she preferred to document “human happiness” in its various forms, “manifestations of optimism, joy and bright depictions of the surrounding world.”[5] Rimma Lickhach agreed. They shared their anxieties and frustrations with their work: Ol’ga Lander explained that on shoots she was regularly concerned with tight deadlines set by editors which often did not take into account how much creativity was involved in shooting successful images. Ol’ga Ignatovich lamented that the majority of her negatives from before the war had disappeared from newspaper and journal archives. Each of the women agreed with Luiza Kalinina, who explained that “passion and diligence” were the most important qualities in a photojournalist.

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Ol’ga Lander, c. 1941-1945

In their contribution to the article, Sergeev and Parlashkevich appear not to have registered the content of the interview. Their tone in both the introduction and the conclusion was decidedly patronizing. “There was a lot of talk that evening at the ‘roundtable’… talking about the profession, talking with colleagues and friends – what could be better and more useful for those who know what a hard [profession] it is.”[6] Only a small fraction of the interviews focused on the difficulties of the profession. While some of the women interviewed noted that there were aspects of the profession that were disheartening, only Galina Kmit deigned to admit that “photojournalism is difficult, it’s hard to carry equipment at times…in a word it is not a woman’s profession.”[7] Instead, overall, the interview demonstrated how supportive women photojournalists were of one another. Ignatovich congratulated Okushko on her photograph “The Bride,” which won second prize at the World Press Photo exhibition in 1963. They thanked one another for their service and dedication to the press.  Perhaps Luiza Kalinina put it best: “Of course it is not easy work…but it is the same for any correspondent, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.”[8]

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Maia Okushko, Nevesta (The Bride), 1963

 

[1] A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, “‘Za kruglym stolom’ – zhenshchiny-reportery: o professii i o sebe” Sovetskoe foto no. 3 (March), 1974: 15.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] Ibid, 16.

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 no. 5 1972

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 no. 5 1972

“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 no. 5, 1972.

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, no. 5, 1972.

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, no. 5 (May) 1972: 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.

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.

The Photo Club “Cadre”

The photography club “Cadre” was informally formed in Moscow in 1965 when R. Krupnov, the permanent chairman of the club, began gathering almost daily to discuss their photographs and read articles about photography. In October 1971, Krupnov was interviewed by photography critic Lydia Dyko, and the article was subsequently featured in the journal Sovetskoe foto. Krupnov’s interview provides a description of club activities, but also demonstrates the potential for photography clubs to become exclusionary.

“The strength of our organization was facilitated by the fact that the club brought together like-minded people who share common (creative) views and understand the aims and objectives of art photography equally. The methodology of our work, and manner of artistic reflection and cognition of life was reportage, a reportage way of creating photographs. It is this approach to photography that gives us the opportunity to capture a real life, not a fiction, and this determined the creative direction of the club.”[1]

While it is not uncommon for groups to share like-minded ideas, Krupnov’s interview shows that “Cadre” was not particularly interested in creative diversity or artistic inclusivity. Stylistically the group adhered to reportage, which was supported by critics and theorists. Krupnov went on to say that “Over time, serious requirements of the subject and the plot of photographs were added,” further limiting the images circulated in the club.[2] Yet, Krupnov noted that these requirements were the result of the size of the group, which at the time of the interview’s publication, was around 30 members. But he also reveals that the conditions of club membership were strict, and if a member was not producing enough “actively creative” works, that this was a valid reason for their expulsion.

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K. Kolochkin, Udarnaia komsomol’skaia

Interestingly, in his interview Krupnov questioned the categorization of amateur and professional photographers and what exactly distinguished one group from the other. He acknowledged that the simple answer corresponded to skill level, but this didn’t necessarily measure the aesthetic quality of images – an amateur with fewer technical skills could still produce an artistic photograph. Similarly, he points out that the purpose of the photographer is to perform a socially significant service and draw the attention of the viewer to certain events and civil problems. Referencing the Union of Cinematographers of the USSR special commission for film enthusiasts, Krupnov requested that All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions compel the Union of Journalists to organize a commission for the development of a branch of the organization to specifically address amateur interests and facilitate interaction between journalists and photographers.[3]

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V. Krupinskii, Matrosskii Marsh

Krupnov’s 1971 interview shows that nearly two decades later, the most basic desires of amateur photographers and photography clubs had not yet been met by cultural authorities or the Union of Journalists. From the very beginning amateur clubs had pushed for further official involvement and interaction between amateurs and professionals in the form of some sort of union that recognized and formally accepted that amateur photographers were part of the same cultural community as professionals. Given the organic and persistent attitude of amateur club members who wanted to extend official involvement in their hobby, it is remarkable that authorities did not take the opportunity to incorporate amateur activities into any already established union or provide them one of their own because it would have facilitated gathering information about club activities and provide the opportunity to censor problematic works and root out dissident or anti-Soviet activities. Yet, the baffling question is why a government so intently interested in monitoring the activities of its citizens and the information they had access to, passed up the opportunity to extend its reach into amateur photography even when amateur clubs themselves were petitioning for further intervention.

[1] L. Dyko, “Na puti k masterstvy,” Sovetskoe foto, 1971 no. 10, 26.

[2] Ibid, 26.

[3] Ibid, 29.

The Odessa Regional Photography Club

In the past, I have written about the organizational structure of photography clubs. The Odessa Regional Photography club represents an interesting instance of how fractious amateur photography clubs could be.

When the club was founded in 1971, Odessa already had a history tied to photography organizations. The first exhibition organized by Odessa area photographers was held in 1896, and the Odessa Photographic Society was founded in 1915. After the revolution, the Society was transformed into an association of professional photographers, which included members of the Society who worked in the press. The association was later liquidated.

The first post-war exhibition held in Odessa that was open to amateur submissions was held in 1956. Afterwards, regional exhibitions were held on a regular basis, but amateurs and professionals struggled to form a permanently functioning photography club in the region. The reason behind this failure is representative of the quandary faced by many photography clubs in the Soviet Union, and relates to differing ideas about the express purpose of photography clubs themselves and how exclusionary they should be. Many Odessa amateurs feared that “select amateur photographers, indispensable participants in exhibitions, whose works were printed in photo albums and illustrated editions” would “jealously guard their associations from ‘encroachments’ of beginning amateurs.”[1] Chief amongst their concerns was that these prominent amateurs would selfishly engross themselves in their own work, rather than provide  “creative assistance to beginners, popularize photography, and actively participate in the social and cultural life of the city and the region.”[2] Instead, the Odessa Regional Photography Club thought of itself as a methodological center for the “guidance and provision of practical assistance to all amateur photographers, photo circles and photo sections of Odessa region,” prioritizing the needs of beginners.[3]

The club, once established and approved by the Odessa Regional Committee of the CPU, had a fairly common solution to this problem. Beginners were initiated into the club as candidate members. Each month, the work of candidate members was evaluated by the club and the strongest photographs were entered into a monthly contest “The Best Work of the Month.” The winning photographs were publicly exhibited. The club also partnered with the Odessa branch of the Union of Journalists of Ukraine. The club was also the foundation of the Regional Art Council for Photography, which was approved by the Culture Department of the Regional Executive Committee. The Council, though approved on the basis of the club, operated as a partner organization and was responsible for the selection of photographs for exhibitions, the confirmation of expositions… and also creative control over all photographic products that appear on the streets and in the entertainment enterprises” inside and outside of the city.[4]

This level of participation and attention from local cultural authorities was not a foregone conclusion. It did, however, help with financing club events and exhibitions in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Republics and the RSFSR. The club, which met at the House of Folk Art, had its own photography lab, a photography methodologist for working with amateurs, and travel funds for the strongest members to attend creative workshops and exhibitions. In this way, the Odessa Regional Photography club effectively formed its own local photography union very similar to the Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography. This type of organization was not replicated on the Republican or All-Union levels, despite the efforts of amateurs and professionals. It does, however, demonstrate that it was theoretically possible to replicate this structure on a larger scale for the material and technical benefit of amateur club members.

Despite the noble aspirations of the club, members including V. Shulga, E. Stepaniuk, V. Shishin, L. Paruzin, and A. Kotlyiarevskii left the group in 1973 and founded the Odessa based photography club Photon, which was organized around the Odessa House of Scientists.[5] This fissure was the result of differing views about photography, but also generational gaps amongst members and internal conflict. In 1975, the regional club, which was then known as “Odessa,” lost N. Bondarenko, G. Demin, S. Alekian, D. Zuubritskii, V. Tsvetkov and A. Sokolov who subsequently founded the club “Monsoon.”[6] Without an All-Union or republican structure to mediate disputes between divisive personalities, the splintering of the Odessa Regional Photography Club, despite the support network it provided and the initial concerns of potential members, demonstrates the fragility of the amateur club environment.

[1] N. Brygin, “Zaboty odesskikh fotoliubitelei,” Sovetskoe foto no. 9 (1971): 33.

[2] Ibid, 33.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Igor’ Panasiuk, “Otpechatki c sokhranivshikhsia negativov,” Doksa (2010): 532-533.

[6] Ibid, 533.

The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography, Part 2

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography was a remarkable and unique development in the history of Soviet photography. Lithuania was the only republic that organized a union for photographers outside of the Union of Journalists, and was formed in 1969. Despite popular support amongst professional and amateur photographers in other republics, efforts at unionization never materialized.

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Romualdas Rakauskas, from the series Tenderness, 1962 – 1971

The charter of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography (FMD) is remarkably comprehensive, and reveals the level of professionalism and bureaucratic detail present in other union charters. Similarly, it directly addressed the major topics and problems that had been discussed in the journal Sovetskoe foto for over a decade, as to why unionization was an absolute necessity for professional and amateur photographers.

“The tasks of the Soviet of Photography of the Lithuanian SSR: a) to unite in a single organization of photographers all genres [of photography], both professionals and amateurs; educate their members…on the basis of Marxist aesthetics [and] to develop their artistic taste and abilities”[1]

The Society “directs the entirety of photo art in the Republic, renders creative, methodological and material assistance to its members.”

The Society “creates its own production sector…organizes a photographic library, creative and production studios and photo laboratories provided with all necessary equipment.”

“Members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have reached creative maturity and recognition, as well as persons who do not create photo works, but actively support and promote photo art – theorists, critics, historians, and persons who actively promote photo art. Candidate members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have not yet reached the artistic level of actual members. The society promotes their creative growth, and sends their work to All-Union and international exhibitions.”

Full membership included a number of perks, including funding to attend exhibitions, lectures and meetings organized by the FMD both in the Soviet Union and abroad.

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Antanas Sutkus, Young Doctor, 1970

What is so extraordinary about the FMD is that it controlled all levels of photographic production in the LSSR. It controlled the publication of its own books, albums, pamphlets and exhibitions. It completely controlled the circulation and censorship of its own images. In other republics, this was ostensibly the responsibility of a variety of state agencies, Glavlit (The General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press), for example, was responsible for approving images circulated in the press and their publication (though my research has revealed that state censors generally left photographers to their own devices anyway). In unionizing, Lithuanian photographers were technically a part of the republican government, BUT, as opposed to other republics, it was the only organization in which photographers themselves completely controlled exhibitions and published images and content about photography, rather than outside bureaucratic organs. In this respect, the FMD wielded enormous and almost autonomous power over the circulation of the images of its members. This was of course tempered by outside institutions, and if images were to be selected for publication or exhibition outside of Lithuania, they needed to conform to the standards of the organizers; the Ministry of Culture of the Lithuanian SSR or the Republican Council of Trade Unions could liquidate the Society at any time. Nevertheless, that the FMD was able to independently evaluate the social utility and aesthetic value of its members’ images is remarkable and a development that was largely supported by photographers and amateurs across the Soviet Union.

Despite discussing a photographer’s responsibility to uphold Marxist aesthetics, the term Socialist Realism is oddly absent from the document. While the drafting members of the charter mention aesthetic and creative education multiple times throughout the document, the absence of references to Socialist Realism is puzzling because its omission implies that photographers of the Society had no responsibility to conform to the only acceptable representational style in the Soviet Union. This is perhaps a stretch, but, given that professional and amateur photographers across the Soviet Union had spent the better part of the last decade forcefully declaring that photography was a Socialist Realist art form, to the deaf ears of the Ministry of Culture, that Socialist Realism is not included in the charter perhaps indicates that for Lithuanian photographers, this moniker was no longer necessary to prove the value of the medium once they achieved their goal of unionization.

[1] The Charter of the Lithuanian Society for Art Photography was published in Sovetskoe foto’s October issue in 1971, pp.30-1.