Trouble in (a Worker’s) Paradise – Nudity and Eroticism in Soviet Photography

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Aleksandr Grinberg, Untitled, c. 1920s

Though illegal, in the late Soviet period, some amateur and semi-professional photographers pursued nude and erotic photography. This is not to imply that nude images were not available during the Stalinist period. The State Library’s Soviet era Erotica collection contains some 12,000 items from around the world, but contains few individual photographs and the majority of the collection was imported.[1] But the expansion of underground networks, the expansion of the second economy, and black market connections, coupled with the accessibility of cameras, certainly allowed for further exploration of erotic and pornographic photographs produced within the Soviet Union or smuggled in from abroad.

While the 19th century ushered in the development of erotic literature in Russia, the sexualized body in Russian and Soviet photography as a genre was never fully developed before the revolutions of 1917, nor after Stalin’s consolidation of power in 1928. Though the 1920s witnessed some experimentation with nudity and photography, as a result of the general liberalization of sexual politics, for the most part photographers of the period were disinterested in nudity as it had little to do with the revolutionary agenda of their work. Furthermore, as Eliot Borenstein noted, “pornography was at best a theoretical concept, the sort of thing found only in the decadent West, or, in a throwback to the previous century, a charge leveled at writers who broke with the accepted standards of decorum in terms of content and lexicon. Either there was no pornography at all, or the lack of an approved place for photography meant that any text with strong sexual content could be seen as phornographic.”[2] While members of the nomenklatura maintained access to pornography from abroad, it was illegal to possess or produce erotic images and literature and there was no distinction between artistic and mass-marketed erotica.[3]


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Rimantas Dichavicius, Untitled,  c. 1970s.

For some scholars, nude or semi-nude bodies that appear in photographs, paintings and sculpture are bereft of all sensuality. According to Alexander Borovsky, the lack of sexuality of nudes and nakedness in Soviet art lies in “the existence of a particular Soviet ‘optics,’ or way of viewing things, derived from the prohibitions against individuality that permeated every aspect of Soviet life and culture.” In totalitarian art, the body, although possessing all the qualities of idealized corporeality, was utterly bereft of individuality.” [4] If Soviet “optics” accounted for the incorporeal nature of nudes in art in the late 1920s and 1930s, then the state was responsible for further de-sensualizing Socialist Realist art.[5] Even after Stalin’s death, nudity remained a contentious issue in all Soviet arts, and most, if any at all appeared in paintings rather than photographs. But amateur photography in the USSR especially in postwar times, was actively channeled to… areas of intimate life…Thus, the Soviet authorities unknowingly stimulated erotic photography.”[6] Some have described erotic “photography in the private sphere as ordinarily unartistic. But life under Soviet postwar socialism was so centered on cheap self-expression – gardening, knitting, poetry writing, and photography – that even among personal anonymous photographs of the Soviet era one comes across impressive artifacts focused on exalted symbols of the private: sex, eroticism, friendship, intimacy.” [7] The emergence of nudity in amateur and unofficial photography became a means not only of exploration of intimate private spaces, but tacit subversion of official culture. Nevertheless, in postwar photography, as in other media, Soviet erotica appears tame in comparison to Western pornographic literature, images, and films. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the sexual revolutions that occurred across Europe and the United States in the 1960s did not penetrate the iron curtain until the 1980s-1990s. The majority was also oriented towards heterosexual men, and Sergei Merkurov’s 1931 “Erotic ABC” contains multiple images that do not conform to female heterosexuality but are oriented towards a male audience.

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Sergei Merkurov, Erotic ABC, 1931


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Ain Kimber, Saturday at Summer Camp, 1962

Nevertheless, on occasion the journal Sovetskoe foto published nude photographs, but only in very specific contexts. Banya (sauna) and travel photographs represented the exception to the general rule against nude photography. Republican amateur photographers were also more comfortable shooting nude photographs. A short article about the Tallinn photography club included two nude photographs, one of pioneer youths bathing, though this image was not viewed as sexualized by editors. Instead the photograph of girls bathing was presented as a slice of life.

In working with images that were reproducible, and yet not frequently reproduced, unofficial photographers explored areas of visual culture which official photographers had been unable to investigate for decades. Yet by the mid-1960s, and certainly by the 1970s, professional, amateur and unofficial photographers were increasingly willing to explore the nude female form, despite the potential legal implications of their images.

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Victor Akhlomov , In Front of the Mirror, 1971

[1] Joy Neumeyer, in collaboration with The Moscow Times and The Guardian published an article about the collection in 2014:

[2] Eliot Borenstien, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 2007), 58.

[4]Alexander Borovsky, “Closer to the Body.” Beyond Memory: Soviet Non-conformist Photography and Photo-related Works of Art, ed. Diane Neumaier (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 80.

[5] Ibid, 80.

[6] Ekatrina Degot, “The Copy is the Crime: Unofficial Art and the Appropriation of Official Photography.” Beyond Memory: Soviet Non-conformist Photography and Photo-related Works of Art, 113.

[7] Ibid, 113.


Maks Al’pert, the Fotomaster

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Okuchka svekly, (Beetroot), 1941
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Iosif Stalin (Portrait of Joseph Stalin), c. 1930s

Maks Vladimirovich Al’pert was born in Simferopol in 1899. He first worked as an assistant in a dress shop before becoming an assistant for a local photographer. He was called up for military duty in the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) in 1918. After demobilization, Al’pert began his career as a photojournalist at the Moscow based Rabochaia gazeta. Later in his career, he was employed by the agency Soyuzfoto, as a photographer and photography editor at the newspaper Pravda, the journal SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction), the Russian news agency TASS and the Press Agency Novosti (APN). Between 1931 and 1932 he was a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), a group whose work emphasized the importance of the photograph as a document, as a means of capturing reality. The ROPF formed in opposition to the photography association Oktiabr (October), led by Aleksandr Rodchenko, whose modernist work supported photography as a versatile medium that could surpass its documentary processes to produce new ways of seeing and viewing the world. The ROPF, led by Leonid Mezhericher, Arkadii Shaikhet, Semyon Friedland (Mikhail Koltsov’s cousin) and Maks Al’pert and favored “straightforward, supposedly unmanipulated reportage” but also had aesthetic aspirations.[1] Ostensibly both Oktiabr and the ROPF were dissolved in the mid-1930s.

Working as a wartime correspondent during WWII, his images were known for their emotional impact. For his service during the war he was awarded the Order of the Red Star (1943), the Order of the Patriotic War (1945) and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

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Kombat (Combat), June – August 1942

After the war, Al’pert returned to industrial themes, but also focused on other subjects including portraits. He authored several pamphlets, books and albums, and was an enthusiastic advocate for elevating the standards of photojournalism and portrait photography. In particular, he encouraged photographers to approach portrait photography as a visual chronicle – more as photojournalists than classical studio portraits. His philosophy towards photography, shaped by his days as a member of the ROPF, remained: purely formal methods employed by photographers were antithetical to Soviet press photography, as were artificially enhanced or altered images. Yet, it is unclear exactly where Al’pert drew the line when it came to editing images (which is, of course, a means of manipulating the photograph in a way that ‘artificially’ alters the image), both in his own images and as an editor.

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Katushki (Coils), 1951

Al’pert is perhaps best known for his photo essays (he completed around 50 photo essay projects as a professional photojournalist) – or a series of pictures united by a theme or event. In many images Al’pert juxtaposes large figures in the foreground of his photographs, the background composed of imposing industrial scenery. Characteristic of Al’pert’s photographs are unique shooting angles from above or below, and images that confront the viewer’s sense of perspective, such as his 1961 image of the construction of the Bukhara-Ural gas pipeline. Throughout his career, Al’pert authored numerous texts and pamphlets on photojournalism. In 1966 he received the title Honored Worker of Culture of the RSFSR. He received multiple prizes at photography exhibitions in the Soviet Union and abroad, and was on the selection committee of numerous Soviet photography exhibitions. For his contributions to photojournalism, Al’pert was widely regarded as a master of Soviet photography, or fotomaster.

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Untitled submission to the World Press Photo competition, 1974 (2nd prize)

The next Sovetskoe foto blog post will discuss nudity and eroticism in Soviet photography.

[1] Leah Bendavid-Val, Propaganda and Dreams; photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, (Zurich; Edition Stemmle, 1999), 37.

Photography and the Cultural Thaw

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Vsevolod Tarasevich, Kanatnaia doroga i “Saratovskii ledokol” (Cable car and the Saratov Icebreaker), 1958-1959

Many of my previous posts have discussed the impact Khrushchev’s Cultural Thaw on photography and photojournalism in passing. From the early 1950s through the early 1960s, though the implications of the Thaw for photographers extended beyond this period, the relaxation in censorship precipitated the development of post-Stalinist artistic and cultural activity. Many scholars have confronted the Cultural Thaw from a variety of angles, including film, literature and architecture. For Soviet intellectuals, including photographers, “remnants of the romantic revolutionary idealism and optimism that had powerfully motivated the founders of the Soviet regime lingered on…This idealism and optimism…still had the vigor to confront conformism and docile passivity” in the Thaw era.[1]

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Ivan Shagin, V Parke (In the Park), 1950s-1960s

It is unclear why exactly photography fell between the cracks of Soviet censorship in the 1950s and 1960s. It was, in part, a result of the general relaxation of censorship during the Khrushchev era. Perhaps it was because photography was classified as a journalistic rather than artistic pursuit. I would argue that a history of self-censorship certainly played a role as well. During the 1930s, as different photography groups were dissolved in an effort to artificially produce the perception of a single Socialist Realist photographic style, photographers continued to pursue their own individual styles well beyond what scholars initially believed. The 1935 exhibition The Masters of Soviet Photography visibly demonstrated that “photographers had not united, they followed no general aesthetic line, and appeared not to receive consistent guidelines from the state agencies that were nominally in control.”[2]

Modernist trends in Soviet photography persisted into 1937-1938 when critic and editor Leonid Mezhericher and photographer/poster artist Gustav Klutsis, were arrested. Both were prominent members of the photographic community. Mezhericher was arrested for alleged saboteur activities. His first conviction, on 12 June 1937, earned him 5 years of forced labor in the mines of the Kolyma region.[3] Mezhericher was accused of being a Trotskyist, spreading anti-Soviet propaganda, and possessing illegal weapons. Six months into his sentence, he was again arrested by the NKVD for alleged participation in a counterrevolutionary Trotskyist group and organizing counterrevolutionary sabotage.[4] He was sentenced to death and shot on 7 February 1938.[5] Klutsis’ arrest and execution were unrelated to his work as a photographer as he was accused of being a Latvian nationalist and he was executed on February 26, 1938. Though some have speculated that these executions had a lesser impact on visual styles than one might expect as they were only two of hundreds of photographers, photojournalists and photography editors, I would argue that these arrests and executions cast a long shadow. While neither were arrested based on their relationship to photography (although arrests during the terror were often arbitrary) the reasons behind their executions mattered less than the eventuality that they were victims of draconian capital punishment. During the Khrushchev era there was no guarantee that the State would not resort to violent suppression as it had during the Stalinist period. So, in short, it is my opinion that self-censorship during the 1950s and 1960s continued to influence how far photographers were willing to push the envelope.

Nevertheless, for photographers, the Cultural Thaw offered possibilities: Prospects for increased education (for both aspiring professional photojournalists and amateur photographers), creative autonomy, and the chance to reshape standard photographic practices and aesthetics without the immediate fear of arrest and execution (though many were initially cautious). This push came largely from photojournalists, though there was hardly an organized approach before the reestablishment of the journal Sovetskoe foto in 1956.[6] From 1957 through the late 1960s, the editors and contributors to the journal, and photojournalists in general, sought to establish their standards that moved beyond simple documentation, and on the simplest level, define what was uniquely Soviet about Soviet photography – a dilemma that critics and photographers were never able to completely resolve.

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Vladislav Mikosha, Portret Dzhemmy Firsovoi (Portrait of Jemma Firsova), 1960s-1970s

Despite theoretical debates and differing attitudes amongst critics, members of the photography section of the Union of Journalists, photojournalists and amateur photographers, the Cultural Thaw appears to mark a departure from the supposed stiffness of “high” Stalinist photography (1945-1953). Yet, photography and photojournalism in the Cultural Thaw had strong connections to the modernist photography of the 1920s and 1930s, and incorporated foreign influences, particularly Italian neorealism. This is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of neorealism as a genre. The documentary aspect of the neorealist style fit squarely within state conceptions of the role of photography, while the commonplaceness of subjects appropriately illustrated the changing cultural dynamic of the Soviet 1950s and 1960s, which gradually shifted from focusing on industry and Soviet achievements to everyday life.

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Semen Mishin-Morgenshtern, Ne otorvat’sia (Do not come off), 1955-1962

My next post will investigate the work of prominent photojournalist Maks Al’pert.


[1] Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009), 22.

[2] Emily Evans, “Soviet Photo and the Search for Proletarian Photography, 1926-1937,” (Diss. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2014), 211.

[3] Mezhericher was sentences under Articles 58-10, 58-11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. “Mezhericher, Leonid Petrovich,” Genealogicheskaia vaza znanii: persony, familii, khronika, <;.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Sentenced to death under Article 58.

[6] Sovetskoe foto was initially founded by Mikhail Kolt’sov in 1926. The journal was published bi-weekly or monthly until 1941. It resumed publication in January 1957.


Vsevolod Tarasevich

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Sborka radioteleskopa (Assembling a radio telescope), Kharkiv, 1955

Vsevolod Sergeevich Tarasevich (1919-1998) was born in Moscow during the Russian Civil War. He began publishing images in the journal Smena (Change) and newspaper Leningradskaia Pravda (Leningrad Truth) as a student at the Leningrad Electro-Technical Institute. In 1940 he became a wartime correspondent for TASS, photographing the Leningrad Blockade from 1941 to 1943. Yet, Tarasevich is perhaps best known for his postwar photography. He was considered to be extremely energetic and easily bored, sometimes conducting up to seven shoots in a single day. The political shift that occurred in the mid-1950s after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality significantly impacted Tarasevich’s career. The easing of restrictions on photographers, particularly revisions to the appropriate themes and subjects for photojournalists, coupled with Tarasevich’s insatiable need to photograph, led him to become one of the most prolific photojournalists for illustrated journals. In 1961 he was hired by APN where his work was regularly featured in Ogenek (Little Flame), Sovetskii soiuz (Soviet Union), and Rabotnitsa (Working Woman).

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Liudi za stolikami v kafe (People at tables in a café), c. 1950s
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Demonstratsiia modelei detskoi odezhdy (Models demonstrating children’s clothing), c. 1950-1958

Tarasevich covered a wide array of subjects in his work, including industry, collective farms and parades, but also women and children modeling the newest clothing styles, street scenes in Moscow, summers at the dacha, and a range of other themes that showcased everyday life. The scope of his photographs, from documentary reportage, to art photography, to essentially Soviet fashion advertising photographer (a complicated category), reveals his personality and energy: unsatisfied with a single style, Tarasevich jumps from one genre to another. Nevertheless, I find this indicative of his talent as a photographer who operated as a jack-of-all-trades who managed to master them all.

The majority of Tarasevich’s postwar photographs are visual chronicles of the Soviet experience. He usually chose human subjects for his photographs, which perhaps accounts for his popularity with illustrated journals rather than newspapers. As opposed to his colleague Bal’termants (see my previous post Dmitrii Bal’termants, July 8), Tarasevich rarely published images of public figures, instead focusing on common themes and subjects drawn from the shared experience of Soviet life.

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Nadiusha Molchanova c vishniami (Nadezhda Molchanova with cherries), 1956. From the series “Vozvrashhenie na Rodinu” (“Return to the Motherland”) in Voroshilovgrad, Ukraine (now Luhansk)

The photographs below are a few examples of Tarasevich’s untitled and unfinished images from 1958 that had yet to be cropped, complete with the photographer’s hand drawn edits. While edited images themselves are not hard to come by, Tarasevich’s unfinished images demonstrate the process by which the photographer manipulated images before they were submitted for publication. It is unclear if these “candid” shots of traditional Slavic dances (presumably Russian based on the costumes and location) were ever published, but they demonstrate the initial rudimentary editing process photojournalists used in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Untitled, Moscow oblast, Krasnopolianskii region (now Khimki), 1958
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Untitled, Moscow oblast, Krasnopolianskii region (now Khimki), 1958

My next post will include further discussion of the shifts that occurred in photojournalism and photography in the mid-1950s as a result of the Cultural Thaw.

Dmitrii Bal’termants

Dmitrii Nikolaievich Bal’termants’ photographs span six decades, from Stalinism through to the Gorbachev years. Born in Warsaw Poland in 1912, Bal’termants’ parents were well educated and part of the Russian Empire’s intelligentsia. The family relocated to Moscow after World War I began. After the Revolution, much of the family’s property was confiscated and they were reduced to living in one room in a kommunalka (a collective apartment). After his step-father’s death, at age 14, Bal’termants tried his hand at various professions including working as an architectural assistant, typist, and as a low-level employee at the state newspaper Izvestiia (News). He graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in mathematics, and taught maths at a military academy. In 1939, he left this position to become a full-time photojournalist at Izvestiia. While it is unclear when Bal’termants developed a knack for photography, he was clearly very talented.

During World War II, Bal’termants was stationed in Moscow and Stalingrad (formerly Tsaritsyn, now Volgograd). In 1942, he was fired from his position at Izvestiia over, according to his daughter, an editorial mistake in which one of his photographs of Moscow was captioned as Stalingrad. He was accused and convicted of falsifying images of the Battle of Stalingrad by a military tribunal and was stationed to a penal battalion (see my previous blog post: Bal’termants and the Three Mayakovskys, June 9) until he was rehired by a military newspaper in 1944 after he was injured at the front.

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Voennaia doroga, 1941

Despite the accolades he later received for his military service and a massive dossier of wartime photographs, Bal’termants struggled to find work as a photojournalist after the war. His conviction, service in the penal battalion, and his Jewish heritage (at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in the Soviet Union) overshadowed his portfolio. Poet and journal editor Aleksei Surkov (Literaturnaia gazeta 1944-1946, Ogonek 1945-1953) eventually offered Bal’termants a position at Ogonek (Little Flame). In 1965, he became the head of the photography department at the journal and a member of the editorial staff. His popularity coincided with the Cultural Thaw, in which many of his wartime photographs depicting the grief and destruction caused by WWII, which were deemed unacceptable for publication during the Stalin era based on this very content, were published in journals and magazines for the first time. The change in government, evident in Nikita Khrushchev’s attitude and demeanor, made a mark on Bal’termants and complimented his style of reportage: Even in his work as a government photojournalist, Balt’ermants captured the changing political climate, and his photographs seem spontaneous and humanizing, rather than the stoic and carefully manicured photographs of diplomats during the Stalinist period.

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Untitled, Nikolai Bulganin, Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Suslov. Summer, 1955

As one commentator noted, if one were to consider that photographer Aleksandr “Rodchenko invented diagonal composition, Bal’termants was a true virtuoso of horizontal composition” in his photographs. While this comment may seem to denigrate Bal’termants as an artist, his images often challenge the perspective of the viewer, as can be seen in his images Ne ogliadyvaias’ nazad. Dva Il’icha (Without Looking Back. The Two Il’iches) and Voennaia doroga (Military Road).

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Ne ogliadyvaias’ nazad. Dva Il’icha, 1972

Unlike many Soviet photojournalists at the time, Bal’termants’ talent was recognized by the contemporary Western audience. He held personal exhibitions in London in 1964 and New York in 1965 and held a number of honorary titles, including Honored Worker of Culture of the RSFSR and Honorary Artist of the International Federation of Photographic Art (FIAP).

Next week I will discuss the work of photojournalist Vsevolod Tarasevich.

You can find more of Bal’termants’ post-war photographs here:

Photography as Art in the Soviet Union

Photography theory in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s developed in and as response to photography’s lack of categorization as an official art form within Soviet cultural institutions. Unlike capitalist countries, where the market dictated (and continues to dictate) what constitutes “Art,” in the Soviet context the lack of said market meant that visual artists were almost exclusively employed or commissioned by government and state institutions for various projects. This was not at odds within the said system, it was the norm. Photography, however, occupied a very precarious place in which the medium was confined to photojournalism, photography clubs, and personal images for photo albums. While promoted as a hobby, photography clubs and amateurs were often left to their own devices, their images censored by club members or themselves.

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Ota Rikhter, Molodezh’ (Youth), 1959

What is unique, however, is that photographers, those who were most able and willing to easily assist the needs of the state – especially in terms of displaying the reality of Soviet life, falsified or otherwise, were not considered artists after the mid-1930s. Though the timeline is debated by art historians, I myself would deign to say that publicly, art photography in the Soviet Union was no longer a viable category after 1935-1936. This is not to say that art photography did not exist, only that the state failed to recognize it as such in the same way it did paintings, architecture, poetry, film etc. Though many prominent photographers and photojournalists participated in international “art photography exhibitions,” at home in the Soviet Union and abroad, their status as artists was precarious and unrecognized.

I use the term “art photography exhibitions” in quotes because for Soviet photographers, this categorization not only represented a non-sequitur, in that there were no official outlets that recognized their work as “Art” with a capital “A,” but also that many of their images were sent to photography exhibitions abroad and thus the categorization of “art photography” was applied by the photographers themselves and the awarding institutions outside the Soviet Union.

In the Soviet Union, publications and articles about photography theory carefully noted that photography was distinctive, stating that while it contained many of the creative and aesthetic qualities of Socialist Realist artistic media, it was confined to its own category.[1] By the early 1950s and certainly by the 1960s, it was almost universally recognized that photography possessed features beyond that of a simple mechanical process, but nevertheless, vaguely and necessarily connected to reality and art based on the dictates of Socialist Realism.

What did Socialist Realism in photography look like? As discussed previously, in many cases photographers embraced the modernist styles, or rather, adaptations of modernist styles, from the 1920s and early 1930s. Aesthetically, critic Leonid Volkov-Lannit wrote that “Soviet photography does not ignore sharp angles…However, we do not pursue photographic properties as an end in themselves, which inevitably leads to distortion.”[2] Volkov-Lannit reveals that the sharp angles, abstraction, and experimentation with perspective, points of view and lighting pursued by what he terms the avant-garde were not at odds with modern Soviet photography.[3] It was not necessarily the aesthetics of an image that determined if a photograph was Socialist Realist, but the method itself. Socialist Realism, for photographers, from its emergence in the 1930s through (arguably) the end of the Soviet Period, was not as embedded in the aesthetic aspects of images but rather was a state of mind and practice, rather than any particular visual style. For Volkov-Lannit and other critics, pursuing photography for photography’s sake, without taking into account the necessary ideological and political implications, was the antithesis of Socialist Realism, and thus, a failed image. While certain themes and subjects were taboo (nudity in particular), specific and detailed stylistic and creative strictures were largely absent from discussions of Socialist Realism in photography. Instead, these aspects of photographs were discussed on a case by case basis, referring to specific examples rather than photographic media as a whole.

While Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style appropriate in Soviet art, in photography the focus on motivation, rather than purely aesthetic concerns, opened up a range of creative possibilities for photographers, both amateurs and professionals, whose photographs were then evaluated on an individual, work-specific basis.

Next week I will return to the work of photojournalist Dmitrii Bal’termants.


[1]In 1968 Sovetskoe foto published a year-long series of articles debating the role of art and photography, though the author, M. Kagin, failed to reach a definitive conclusion in that time. He instead pointed to the “artistic” and “creative” features of photography, which made it unique amongst artistic media. M. Kagin, “Soderzhanie i forma v proizvedeniiakh fotoiskusstva,” Sovetskoe foto, no. 5 (1968): 27.

[2]Leonid Volkov-Lannit, O kompozitsii reportazhnogo fotoportreta, (Moskva; Izdatelstvo Tsentral’nyi dom zhurnalista, 1962), 19.

[3]Rather, the pursuit of photography for aesthetics alone, i.e. digression into formalism (of which the Western and avant-garde photographers were guilty), was what made these images unacceptable.

The Novator Photography Club

In 1958, there was only one sizable amateur club in the Soviet Union, the VDK Photo Club, whose meetings were held in the Leningrad Vyborg Palace of Culture (the name of the club is an acronym derived from their meeting place). By the early 1960s there were over 150 amateur photography associations in various cities and Republics.  The largest clubs, Leningrad’s VDK, Novator (Innovator) in Moscow, and photo clubs in Riga, Minsk, Tallinn and Sevastopol had regular attendance rates in the hundreds.

The Moscow photography club Novator was formally founded in 1961 by Aleksandr Vladimirovich Khlebnikov and Georgii Nikolaievich Soshalskii. The club is named after the local Dom Kult’ury (House of Culture) where the club held its meetings, near the metro stop Akademichiskaia on the Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaia (orange) line  of the Moscow Metro.  Thus, the name of the club only coincidentally has any connection to the creative aspirations of the club. The club, which continues to operate to this day, is currently sponsored by the Department of Culture of the South-Western Administrative District of Moscow, and meets at Library Number 175 of the same district. In 2013 there were 87 members of the club (16 were honorary members), and in 2016 the club’s membership rose to 97.

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Aleksandr Khlebnikov, Perchatka (Glove), from the series Sovetskaia sintetika (Soviet synthetics), c. 1950s

In the mid-1960s, however, Novator boasted over 300 members. The main goals of founders Khebnikov and Soshalskii was the elevation of the technical knowledge and creative initiative of club members. From the beginning, Novator demanded commitment, holding daily and weekly meetings for amateurs to discuss their work and attend seminars about the technical aspects of photography. The club also attracted professional photographers some of whom led their own thematic groups within the club, including Boris Ignatovich (head of the section of photojournalism), Sergei Ivanov-Alliluyev (head of the section of landscape photography), Vasilii Ulitin and Abram Shterenberg (heads of the section of pictorialists). Founder Aleksandr Khlebnikov offered lectures about applied photography. Lectures about photographic aesthetics were presented by professor and photography critic A. Zis, while art historian Evsei Iofis regularly lectured on photographic techniques. By 1962, only a year after its founding, Novator had become “a kind of photographic university” in Moscow, conducting upwards of two dozen photography events per month in addition to their private, members only meetings and seminars.

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Yurii Lun’kov, Zima (Winter), 1965

In the post-WWII Soviet Union, the lines between amateurism and professionalism were blurred and somewhat fluid. Outside of Moscow and Leningrad, amateurs often contributed to local and regional publications. Further obscuring the lines between professionalism and amateurism, many members of Novator who were initially amateur members subsequently became full-time photojournalists for Moscow based publications. Images from the club (its amateur, professional and amateur-turned-professional photographers) were published in local and All-Union newspapers and journals: Sovetskoe foto (The Soviet Photograph), Komsomolskaia Pravda (Komsomol Truth), Izvestia (News), and Moskovskii Komsomolets (Moscow Komsomol), to name a few. Over forty thousand spectators attended Novator’s annual exhibition in 1964. In addition to annual exhibitions in Moscow, the club also exhibited their work in Novosibirsk, Ulan-Ude, Krasnoyarsk, Cheboksary, Nizhniy-Novgorod (at the time named Gorky), Vilnius, and Lviv, in addition to numerous other cities across the Soviet Union.

Due to its size and prominence Novator, along with the VDK, largely determined standards for aesthetics and club organization for amateur photographers. The club focused on promoting reportage and genre photography, and, as photography critic and historian V.T. Stigneev noted, the group represented “the elite of amateur photography.” Thus, very early on, the club was geared towards the advanced training of amateurs, not necessarily a novice amateur who was just learning the technical aspects of photography, or an enthusiast interested in pursuing photography for vacation pictures and family albums.

The climate of the early 1960s encouraged amateur photographers to think of themselves as creative artists, which was informed and reinforced by the journal Sovetskoe foto as well as photography clubs themselves. In their opening remarks about the photography exhibition Nasha molodezh’ (Our Youth) held in Gorky Park in 1960, future members of Novator noted that their inspiration for the exhibition was showing all of the world around them, even those aspects that were worrisome or unpopular. Furthermore, their goal as a group was to create a community of people who “want to grow, not only by changing the status quo, but to expand creative communications, to improve photographic aesthetics.”

Yet, as with the photography circles, or fotokruzhok, of the 1920s and 1930s (which I discussed briefly last week), Novator encouraged a confusing combination of creativity and conformity. In a 1966 article in Sovetskoe foto, Novator member M. Gromov discussed the danger of photographers who operated outside of clubs. “Amateur photography by nature, is public, and is essentially collective…You cannot withdraw and photograph only ‘for yourself’ without showing your works, without discussing or arguing.”[1] The focus on the collective process of evaluation and judgment, based on aesthetic principles dictated by the Photo Section of the Union of Journalists and large photography clubs, like Novator, was part of what some amateur photographers found increasingly alienating in the mid-1960s and into the 1970s. But Gromov attributes this to pride:

“It comes down to vanity. Amateurs who are not prepared for the demanding and challenging role of the photojournalist, are drawn to the “quick fix” of becoming reporter-artisans. Their work, of course, has nothing to do with true photography, which does not come without great talent, and without hard work and skill.”[2]

Even by the mid-1960s, photography clubs were turning towards rules and regulations, as opposed to fostering creativity. A layman with a camera had no place in photography clubs. A true photography enthusiast would attend all club meetings, follow club rules, follow the examples in Sovetskoe foto, become a student of the club, and participate in the sort of self-censorship the club atmosphere promoted.

Next week’s post will confront how Soviet photography theorists and critics grappled with photography’s relationship to Socialist Realism.

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M. Kan, Moskva prazdnichnaia (Moscow Celebrates), c. 1960s

[1] M. Gromov, “Fotokluby segodnia i zavtra,” Sovetskoe foto, no. 3 (1966): 12.

[2] Ibid, 13.


Amateur Education

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One thing I find particularly interesting about Soviet photography in the 1950s and 1960s is the simultaneously obsessive critical attitudes towards propagating amateur photography coupled with the insatiable anxiety that amateur photography produced amongst photojournalists and journal editors. This obsessive attitude has its roots in the 1920s, when the journal Sovetskoe foto (The Soviet Photograph) was founded. As Emily Evans has noted in her work, at the time there was a disconnect between the producers of photographic knowledge and images and the (in the 1920s) imagined “proletarian” amateur photographer. In the 1920s, even if the proletariat had access to cameras, and they chose to submit their work for publication, they were willingly submitting themselves to criticism that was likely unfavorable. By the 1950s and 1960s, this hypothetical problematized fantasy had become a very real actuality. With more access to cameras, the variety of mobile models available (the FED, Zenit, Zorki, Kiev, and Smena, to name a few) and more reliable access to developing chemicals than ever before, amateur photographers had the potential to pose very real threats to normative ideas about Soviet photography put forth in the journal Sovetskoe foto: aesthetically, ideologically, and in practical terms, sheer volume.

While the nature of the political game had changed by the 1950s, the substance of articles about amateur photography remained much the same as they had in the 1920s and followed a similar rubric: show and tell, extensively, in long drawn out criticisms. But the “show” in this case was almost exclusively delivered by negative examples and textual descriptions. In showing what amateur photography “was not” or “should not be” the idea was that amateur readers would learn from these negative examples. This template showed little variation, from the founding of the journal in 1926 into the 1960s. Very few positive examples were offered up for the reader who was interested in learning about successful photographs. Those articles in Sovetskoe foto that offered advice about “successful” photographic practices rarely contained images to accompany the extensive essay-length texts. Thus, textual examples, rather than images, were used to reinforce particular best practices, while photographs were used to denote unacceptable photographic “specimens.”

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This hearkens back to the issue of education. Sovetskoe foto, its contributors and editors, were fixatedly concerned with the education of amateurs in the 1950s and 1960s, even more so than they were in the late 1920s because it was apparent that amateurism was neither a hypothetical proletarian pursuit nor a vestige of the bygone bourgeois past (as it was in the 1920s-30s). Education was a source of apprehension. This was both a matter of ideological and practical expediency. While a photography circle (a fotokruzhok) in the 1920s may share a single camera and as a result, operate as a collective out of necessity, by the 1960s each and every member of a photography club likely had their own camera and were developing their own film based on the education provided within their club and the information circulated in Sovetskoe foto. At the same time the Soviet Union was producing such a surplus of cameras that they couldn’t possibly sell them all, giving them away as lottery prizes.[1] Everyone could have their own camera without the potential oversight of a fotokruzhok, where an amateur would learn the ideological and methodological “rights” from “wrongs.” The journal Sovetskoe foto doubled down, featuring more articles dedicated towards amateur photography (i.e. amateur photojournalism, practically the only style that was promoted by Sovetskoe foto) and photography theory. These articles explained, re-explained, and showcased how to crop one’s images so that they eliminated extraneous details thus making the image more appropriate and less confusing to the viewer. Why would a viewer want to see more of a building façade when the obvious subject of the image is the window cleaner? Why would the photographer try to photograph a skier from a horizontal perspective when the observations of the skier are obviously skewed? These extraneous details would and could be eliminated by the careful cropping of the educated amateur photographer.

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Next week I will continue my discussion of amateur photography and education, focusing on the Moscow based amateur photography club Novator (Innovator).

[1] GARF, F. P5446 оп. 93 д. 1240 (1959), Though this didn’t apply to film and developing chemicals.

Bal’termants and the Three Mayakovskys

This week, I would like to draw attention to the image I selected as the banner of the site, which I have re-posted here. This is one of favorite photographs, if not my absolute favorite image, by the Soviet photojournalist Dmitrii Bal’termants.

I have spent a lot of time (probably too much) looking at, thinking about, and trying to analyze this photograph, and the more time I devote to it, the more perplexing it becomes. But first, some context about the photographer, the poet, and the monument.

The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the object of the to-be-erected sculpture in the photograph, was a revolutionary poet who collaborated on numerous projects with modernist photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko. His suicide, on April 14th 1930, made him an, what I presume to be, unwilling martyr for Stalinist appropriation. His legacy was fetishized by the Stalinist government, but also by contemporary youtube videos where you can find numerous images of his life and death set to the soundtrack of Patty Griffin’s “Not Alone.”

You can also contrast this rather romanticized interpretation of his life, work and death with an actual reading by Mayakovsky, which is somewhat militant and more in the vein of the majority of his agitation work:

Dmitrii Bal’termants began his career as a photojournalist in 1939 after leaving his position as a math teacher at a Soviet military academy.  He made a name for himself during WWII, but fell out with his editors. In 1942, while working for the periodical Izvestiia, Dmitri Bal’termants was accused by the newspaper of falsifying photographs of the Battle of Stalingrad. He was demoted and a military tribunal sentenced him to a military penal company, battalions that were stationed in the most dangerous areas of the front lines. Bal’termants was lucky. He was wounded by shrapnel, rescued and sent to a hospital in Moscow before returning to the front as a photojournalist for another military newspaper after his recovery.

Despite his checkered military past, Bal’termants went on to become one of the most prominent photojournalists of the post-war era. He joined the editorial board of the Soviet weekly illustrated journal Ogonek, and was one of only a handful of photojournalists who was frequently invited to document Party and government meetings, and was an official Kremlin photographer.

Which is why this image is so interesting. The photograph, Vybor mesta dlia pamiatnika Vladimiru Maiakovskomu (Choosing a Place for a Monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky), was shot opposite Mayakovka in Moscow. Formerly known as Mayakovsky Square from 1935-1992, it was renamed Triumphal Square in 1992. The statue of Mayakovsky is by sculptor Alexander Kibalnikov and was erected in 1958.

The potential placement of the statue in Bal’termants’ image itself is almost a “saturation” of triumphalism that boarders on the bizarre. It features not one, but three (!!!) wooden silhouettes of the Mayakovsky statue, an odd decision given that a single silhouette could easily have been moved around the square.  It operates as a precursor of the actual unveiling, which Nikolai Lavrent’ev documented in his photograph Otkrytie pamiatnika Vladimiru Maiakovskomu (The Opening of the Statue of Vladimir Mayakovsky) later in 1958 (see below). Interestingly, to my knowledge, Bal’termants was not present at the inauguration, instead capturing the three “mock-ups” of the statue, almost two dimensional predecessors of the statute that was to come. As my friend and colleague John Cline noted, “the term ‘mock-up,’ I think, is a good one because it’s an accurate description of what the giant flat facsimiles are and because it ties to Sots Art… both via its two-dimensionality and because it is, in another sense of the word, mock.”

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In my opinion, this image is (obviously) unintentionally suggestive of Sots Art in the accidental mischievousness of the image, more than a decade before Sots Art emerges as a playful and absurdist response to Socialist Realist Art. **Disclaimer: The connections I draw to Sots Art are my general thoughts, not to be misconstrued with the idea that Bal’termants was at all associated with the genre.** One might also compare the two-dimensionality of the three Mayakovskys to the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, though this is a reference to common features, not to particular artists or ideology, and again, is surely not what Bal’termants intended.

Yet, this photograph is almost absurdist, one sees a Mayakovsky looking towards the past, one looking at the present, and then a second Mayakovsky staring into the past, in contrast to Socialist Realist images (particularly in Socialist Realist paintings) of Stalin where he almost exclusively looks to the right – a subliminal connection to the future or what is to come. Though the statue was erected five years after Stalin’s death, it is significant to note that the central silhouette, the “successful” Mayakovsky, is not looking towards the future, he is instead confronting the present as if it is a Soviet iteration of J.M. Flagg’s 1917 Uncle Sam war propaganda poster, “I want you for Socialism!” or, in other words, have you done all you can for the Communist cause?

The photograph showcases several possible sculpture locations shown at once, and the silhouettes represent possible outcomes, only one of which documents the “correct” location of the statue. In terms of the documentary functionality of the image, it is incomplete in that later, the central Mayakovsky was chosen as the location of the statue. In a society in which the regime was fixated on teleological and progress oriented narratives of history, the image documents uncertainty. Where will the monument be placed? The image captures the moment in time in which it was created, but certainly not the ultimate result, which is an interesting choice by Bal’termants as a photojournalist. The left and right sections of the image are “incorrect,” in that they show potential alternate realities of the Mayakovsky statue. While this vaguely fits within the theme of socialist construction, the uncertainty of the alternate Mayakovskys is an anomaly, and I am unaware of any similar image documenting the placement of monuments. Similarly, the image represents an abnormality of Soviet photojournalism, in that it shows not the final result or construction of the statue, but serves as a precursor to many possible outcomes which again, is uncharacteristic of Soviet photojournalism.

Next week, I will return to photojournalism, but will delve further into the relationship between photojournalists and amateur photographers.

Tarasevich and Rodchenko

Welcome to Sovetskoe Foto Blog! I began this project with the goal of sharing often overlooked or underrepresented images produced by photographers in the Soviet Union. In addition to my personal interest in Soviet Visual Culture, photographs produced by Soviet photojournalists and amateur photographers provide a fascinating glimpse into a world that has dissolved quite literally, but remains captured in these images. Apart from preserving a fragment of the past, “What Else they are,” (as noted by Minor White) is somewhat mysterious and difficult to define.

Looking at Soviet photographs in particular, as an American who was born half way around the world during Perestroika, provides a sense of history that documents cannot. Photographs are simultaneously more and less accessible than text – there is no need for translation from Russian to English. But looking at these images now, they are also devoid of their original context and purpose, the construction and glorification of Soviet socialism. One can argue about authorial intent and motivation, but ultimately, for images circulated in the press, within the ideological confines of the Soviet Party and Government, this was the purpose of the medium. Thus, it is my aim that this Blog attempt to reconstruct a portion of that original context, and to re-imbue a measure of the historical purpose and meaning associated with these images.

Our first images are by Vsevolod Tarasevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko. They were created during two markedly different periods, which I will return to momentarily. Rodchenko (whose name may be familiar to the reader), was born 5 December 1891 (23 November old style dates) and was a modernist photographer, graphic designer, artist, and one of the founders of constructivism. He first turned to photography and photomontage in 1924 and was an active photographer until 1942. Tarasevich was born in 1919, becoming a photojournalist for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) in 1940 and he continued to work as a photojournalist for various journals, magazines and newspapers for the remainder of his career. Thus, while Rodchenko’s photographs were produced during the Stalinist period, the majority of Tarasevich’s work spanned three periods, from Stalinism to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. While Rodchenko’s seminal photographs were created during Stalin’s Cultural Revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, Tarasevich’s most famous images were shot during World War II and afterwards.

What is striking about these photographs, and a theme that this Blog will return to frequently, is the striking similarity of these images, despite being separated by almost three decades. The image on the left, Rodchenko’s Shukhovskaia bashnia was shot in 1929, while Tarasevich’s photograph Telematchta (on the right) was snapped in 1958. The image above, Na promyshlennoi vystavke, was also shot by Tarasevich in 1958. Both of Tarasevich’s images are reminiscent of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s industrial photography from the late 1920s, obscuring the subject of the image and shot from below as if the viewer is embedded in the steel webbing or mechanisms of the machinery.

What is particularly intriguing about the historical connections of these images is that Rodchenko’s photography was denounced by fellow artists, and ultimately, he ceased to work with photography in part due to this criticism. Yet, decades later, Tarasevich produced similarly intriguing images, shot from below and heavily cropped to obstruct and manipulate the subject for the viewer.

In my research, this is not unique to Tarasevich and can be explained by turning towards the history of Soviet photography. While Rodchenko’s photographs, along with the work of other modernist photographers, were denounced as “formalist” (a term that was ubiquitous at the time for describing what was considered “bad” art) in the 1930s, after Stalin’s death Soviet photographers began to examine the work and history of modernist photographers within the context of photojournalism. The political circumstances of the period allowed for this re-examination: Khrushchev’s widely circulated denunciation of the Stalinist “Cult of Personality” permitted photographers and photojournalists the opportunity to re-investigate modernist cropping, angular compositions, and unique shooting perspective – usually from above or below. The re-emergence of modernist photography in the press signaled an apparent shift, or rather, a return to the legacy of modernism that was cut short during Stalinism.

Why is this important? Firstly, it re-colloquialized modernist photography. Through publishing modernist influenced photographs in the press, photojournalists propagated the very style that had been all but liquidated in the 1930s. Secondly, however, it mirrored the political shift that occurred in the Soviet Union between the Stalinist and Khrushchev eras.

In this context, the visual similarity of the images acquires new meaning, demonstrating how the nuances of Soviet politics played a role in the way images looked but also their functionality. That photojournalists were reproducing the work of artists expresses this colloquial shift, which I will return to next week.