In conjunction with the annual Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Convention and the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibition “Revolutsiia! Demonstrtsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” provides a superb look into the visual and material culture of the Russian Revolution and the artistic developments up until the 1930s. So much of the revolutionary art and design of this period is bound to photography. The fervor of the revolution created a new visual reality in conjunction with the ideological and political paradigm shift. Visual innovations in what is commonly referred to as the Soviet “avant-garde,” (though these modernist trends were also present in other European art movements at the time), were claimed by Soviet photographers as unique to their past and continued to inform photography, photojournalism, and photographic theory for the next 40-50 years particularly in the RSFSR, but also in the Soviet Republics.
Many of the photographs included in the “Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia!” exhibition were shot by photographers who were associated with either of two sparring photography groups in the early Soviet period. In the 1920s and 1930s, the photography section of the group Oktiabr was led largely by Aleksandr Rodchenko but Gustav Klutsis, Eleazar Langman, Dmitri Debabov, and Boris Ignatovich identified with the group. The ROPF (Union of Russian Proletarian Photographers) was spearheaded by Leonid Mezhericher, Arkadii Shaikhet, Semyon Friedland, Mark-Markov-Grinberg and Maks Alpert and favored “straightforward, supposedly unmanipulated reportage” but also had aesthetic aspirations. Though both groups were committed to documentary representation, they differed in their methodological approach to documentary composition. The work of Oktiabr was based “on fragmentation and they viewed reality as a disconnected and puzzling space” while the ROPF “leaned toward whole images and saw the world as a concrete and continuous entity.” Aesthetic differences between the two groups stemmed from fundamentally different ideas about the purpose of the camera. Mark Markov-Grinberg’s main objection to Oktiabr was that form and style overtook content in their photographs. “Chasing after the shot dominated content,” he said. “We, in the opposite group, photographed for a reason, for a purpose. Art for Art’s sake is nothing…” It would appear that modernist trends in photography disappeared as a result of editorial decisions at newspapers and journals, and the arrest and execution of prominent former ROPF and Oktiabr associates in the Terror of the late 1930s, rather than the apparent dissolution of the groups themselves.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the history of modernist Soviet photography was rewritten by (largely Russian) cultural and art historians. This was in part a process of reclaiming that which was excised from national and all-Union culture by Stalinist policies, and could be considered a redressing of Leninism as a means of atoning for the crimes and excesses of Stalinism – which occurred in many social, cultural and political forms. The abrupt liquidation of modernist trends in photography, and visual and material culture generally, or rather, photographer’s and critic’s perceived truncation of the evolution of Soviet avant-gardes, led to a reevaluation of the historical and cultural value of early Soviet photography. In the 1950s and 1960s though, the rewriting of this history tended not to focus on the differences between individual artists and artistic groups but instead presented the multiple Russian avant-gardes as stylistically and ideologically uniform and glossed over differing ideas about the social utility of Soviet art or, for photographers, the express purpose of photography within the Soviet context.
This glaring omission, collapsing conflicting versions of modernist styles and philosophy into one collective, unified group came from Stalinist policies: In reevaluating modernist trends in photography, critics unquestioningly accepted the Stalinist government’s declaration of a unified photographic community. In practice, this declaration, that aesthetic differences between groups had been resolved, was absolutely false: while Oktiabr and the ROPF were officially disbanded, the dissolution of their loose collectives had little impact on individual style. The 1935 Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography contained 450 works, many of which were included in personal exhibitions of former ROPF and Oktiabr members. While the exhibition was advertised as evidence of the termination of the quarreling groups, the images included in the exhibition did not attest to ideological and aesthetic unification of the groups.
The Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia! exhibition shows how photography was just one part of the Revolution in visual culture and objects that occurred between the 1910s-1930s, including book, theatre and industrial design, posters, architecture and so on. Like in other artistic genres, modernist photography was reevaluated in the cultural Thaw. What is interesting, however, in this reevaluation and reinstitution, was that critics’ publications accepted the collapsing of modernist groups into a single style without much in the way of introspection. Additionally and critically, modernist styles became the focal and reference point for socialist realist artistic and photojournalistic images simultaneously – absorbing and nullifying the contradictory ideological frameworks put forth by ROPF and Oktiabr photographers. In doing so, photography theory in the post-war and late Soviet periods was plagued by contradictions from collapsing diametrically opposed ideas about what was “Soviet” about Soviet photography.
Nevertheless, the specter of Russian modernist art continues to inspire current visual artists, most notably Mikhail Karasik whose lithograph images and book designs incorporate photomontage and elements of Suprematism. Despite being only a small part of Soviet modernist visual culture, modernist Soviet photography holds a lasting impact on subsequent generations of Soviet and Russian artists, demonstrating its visual potency.
 Leah Bendavid-Val, Propaganda and Dreams; photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, (Zurich; Edition Stemmle, 1999), 37.
 Margarita Tuptisyn, The Soviet Photograph 1924-1937, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 67.