- The Soviet Photograph 1924–1937
This book not only reveals some previously unknown images, but intelligently explicates the complexities and intricacies of the keen intellectual debate which surrounded Soviet photography and photomontage during the 1920s and 1930s. 1
The foundation for this work was laid by Benjamin Buchloh in an article published in 1984, in which he stressed the importance of the move from Soviet avant-garde art from a pictorial conception centered on faktura (texture) to factography based on the mechanical and factual/documentary quality of photography. 2 Buchloh indicates what he sees as no less than a “paradigm shift” in 1928 in the photomural celebrating the tenth anniversary of the revolution made by Lissitsky, Klutsis, and Shen’kin made for the Pressa Exhibition in Cologne. Rejecting the common theory of the victimization of the avant-garde (the artist forced to put his art in the service of the state), Buchloh also maintained the willful participation of these artists in the production of Soviet propaganda even during the years of the Stalin regime.
What Tupitsyn presents us with not a dramatic change of gears, however, but a more chilling story. The years 1927–1928 did mark the end of a period of instability in Russia following Lenin’s death in 1924, with the expulsion of Trotsky from the Kremlin and the inauguration of the First Five Year Plan. Yet the change that took place, first from the primacy of painting to photography and then—most emphasized in this book—from photography’s Brechtian stance (with its full deployment of strategies of fragmentation, defamiliarization, cropping, vertiginous diagonal slants, bird and worm’s eye views) to the seamless and thus seamingly transparent realism extoled by Lukács was a gradual one. It took shape in publication after publication, exhibition after exhibition, review after review, symposium after symposium, theoretical positioning after theoretical positioning (ending up with a whole new nomenclatura on photography) from 1924 to 1937. What Tupitsyn also shows is that this move, while it did reflect Party lines, was not imposed by some authoritarian interventions from above as much as propelled by a series of repeated fractures (i.e. from fraktura fraktura)—like an endlessly splitting cell—among the artistic groups themselves.
Thus Rodchenko, Lissitsky, Langman, Ignatovich and Klutsis, defended by the critics Vertov and Tret’iakov, were repeatedly accused by fellow photographers Shaikhet and Alpert and critics like Brik and Mezherichen—even as their work transformed itself in compliance with these critiques and even as they all proclaimed themselves as enemies of so-called “Western” formalism—for “losing the idea in the pursuit of form,” fetishizing the ghosts of faktura, and holding onto the ticks of easel-painting. What is quite striking, but of course symptomatic of the necessity under increasingly totalitarian rule to sound politically correct so as to be in the “in” croud, is the gap between the subtleties of the formal differences at stake and the allegations of ideological betrayal hurled from the so-called right wing of the art community against the left. For the photographs and photomontages reproduced in 30 Days, Let’s [End Page 215] Give, October, and ROPF, as well as their layout, all have at first glance a modernist “look.” The issue, as Tupitsyn is well aware, is one of alleged connotation more than denotation. The distinction made by the Soviets between the deframed (Tupitsyn’s use of Gilles Deleuze’s term) “photo-still” and the organic “photo-picture” has to do with a much-discussed problem in photography not just in Russia, but from Walter Benjamin to Christian Metz to Roland Barthes, the problem of the “out of field,” or what Deleuze calls the “sub-set.” Croppings, close-ups, and slanting angles are fine—and indeed almost everybody uses them. The issue is, rather, how does the photograph relate metonymically to the the world beyond the frame. Does it question it? Or does it reify it, making human relations no longer explicit? Does it refer to a utopian vision of the world (Brecht’s), a space of desire...