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Reviewed by:
  • The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937
  • Natasha Kurchanova
Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. x + 198 pp. ISBN 0300064500. $45.

Margarita Tupitsyn's book is a long-awaited contribution to the histories of photography and the Russian avant-garde. It accomplishes two important tasks: it investigates a yet-unexplored terrain in the history of photography and it deals with issues that have occupied scholars primarily in the West, and secondarily in Russia itself, since the late 1970s–early 1980s. I single out "the West" as the privileged site of discussion, because this is where the interest in recovering the history of the subject arose.1 Toward the late 1980s, a new generation of Western scholars has become involved with the topic. Such thinkers as Benjamin Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, and Hal Foster have focused on finding a common theoretical ground for "historical" avant-garde movements, as defined by Peter Bürger and postmodernist trends. Meanwhile, art historians living in Russia obtained a political opportunity to do research and publish on the subject.2

At the moment, there is a rather clear division between those art historians concerned with theoretical issues, who find themselves confined to the camp of "Westerners" geographically, and the other group, consisting mostly of Russian scholars, who prefer to concentrate on establishing precise historical and factual data for the field. Until recently, there has been little explicit interaction between the two camps, apart from Christina Lodder's groundbreaking Russian Constructivism. The central merit of Tupitsyn's book consists of creating a discursive space where these disparate groups can engage in a dialogue.

As a contribution to the history of Soviet photography, Tupitsyn's work outlines a general conceptual map of the subject that can be used as a reference in any subsequent investigation of it. The book spans the period from Lenin's death in 1924 to the end of the Second Five-Year Plan in 1937; from the first signs of iconicity in Constructivism to its last phase, characterized by the expansive influence of photography, architecture, and design, and theoretically backed by the "formalist-sociological" method. The chapters are arranged chronologically; in [End Page 220] each one, a brief historical and political overview of the period serves as a necessary background for the ensuing discussion of the contemporary artistic and theoretical atmosphere. Throughout the book, Tupitsyn focuses on the careers of four major artists: Gustav Klucis, Sergei Senkin, Aleksander Rodchenko, and El Lissitzky, thus passing over the contributions of photographers Boris Ignatovich, Dmitrii Debabov, Arkadii Shaiket and Max Alpert. Toward the end of the book she also briefly discusses the production of two women artists: Valentina Kulagina and Natalia Pinus.

Although Tupitsyn's is primarily a historical study, it attempts to answer key theoretical questions first posed in texts by Lodder, Buchloh, and Bois.3 These authors zeroed in on the aesthetic and political choices which defined the transition from autonomous art to art that was politically engaged. How did this shift take place in Russian Constructivism? Were the artists the unwitting pawns in the hands of historical forces beyond their control (Lodder)? Were they sincere in their devotion to Communism even in its Stalinist guise (Buchloh)? Or did they simply sell out their principles to "save their skin" (Bois)? In order to answer these pivotal questions, Tupitsyn provides thorough historical background on the artistic debates of the period by using extensive documentation from archival and periodical sources.

The tension between history and theory in the book is uneasy at times, despite the author's attempts to keep the two in balance. In her attempt to answer the question posed by Buchloh, "at what point, historically as well as structurally, [the change in photographic representation] takes place… during the 1930s," (7) Tupitsyn confounds the methodological grounds of her own work. In numerous instances her narrative is interrupted by a reference to a near-contemporary philosophical authority, such as Lyotard (14), Bürger (67), Deleuze (70), Barthes (159), and others. She does this, one would think, in order to provide a link with current theoretical concerns. However, her patterns of reference are at times sporadic and arbitrary, coming dangerously...


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