Images of a Utopian Realism

"How is Soviet photography different from Western photography?" asked an eminent Russian critic during the innovative fervor of the post-revolutionary period. "No tricks, no commerce; with the people and for the people; life in all its typical manifestations -- that is the material Soviet photography uses. Photography is the most contemporary realist art."

While many would now dismiss these rigid, ideological dictates as the very reasons why Soviet photography (and visual art in general) degenerated into bland, simpering propaganda, Margarita Tupitsyn's study of The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937 seeks instead to demonstrate how the search for a form that could marry politics and art was a creative, explosive and exhilarating one.

Established, world-renowned painters such as Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis renounced brush and easel in order to spend their time gaping down the lenses of their primitive Leicas at collective farm laborers, industrial workers and athletes. Their aims were both to record the radical, revolutionary social changes taking place in the country at that time, and to use the mass media to disseminate the party message. "The workshop of the revolution," Klutsis felt, needed "artists, agitators and propagandists who know how to respond to the practical needs of the Revolution."

The results of these early experiments in social and political photography was nothing less than spectacular. While other photographers were complacently mired in the creation of lyrical, pretty, delicately composed "photo-pictures," Rodchenko and his fellow innovators favored the "photo-still," a nervous, jagged, angular photo-fragment which somehow conveyed a hurtling kinetic energy which extended far beyond the 10-by-8-inch bounds of their camera frame.

In "Soviet Automobile," Rodchenko uses his camera to slice away sections of an auto engine. The close-up of cogs and sprockets creates the impression not only of the revving, clanking totality of the machine, but also of the factory hive and the swarming Soviet laborers who created it. In "Lacemaker," Elizar Langman shoots the craftswoman's face through the lace lattice of her own work, drawing attention to the intricacy of her labor and, in the process, creating a photographic masterpiece of his own.

What these photographers were really doing was taking tiny snapshots of a revolutionary process in flux. They imbued the Soviet transformation of the 1920s with more immediacy and excitement than any of the self-aggrandizing posturing that was to follow in the era of Socialist Realism. Looking at a Rodchenko photograph, even now, it is easy to believe that the future is bright, bold and socialist. As the critic Tretyakov said, these tiny enclosed photographic spaces, through their very constrictions, opened out onto "a possible utopia."

Predictably, this unprecedented excellence soon fell prey to savage criticism from the artistic goons and mediocrities who always seem to rise to the top in every totalitarian system. Even the overtly political photo-montages of Klutsis, which combined striding workers and posing Stalins or Lenins with revolutionary slogans and titles in what has now become the classic Soviet poster style, were condemned in the thirties for "deindividualizing the workers."

But the real critical invective was reserved for Rodchenko and his realist cohorts who were accused of the cardinal Soviet sin of Formalism, and of being indistinguishable from western advertising. "Lacemaker" was deemed "the apogee of Formalism." Later, the cultural ideologues were shown at their pettifogging worst when they attacked Rodchenko's photograph "Pioneer Girl," which shows the figure gazing skyward. "The young pioneer has no right to look upward," ranted the critic, "that has no ideological content. Pioneer girls and Komsomol girls should look forward." The work of these photographers was gradually replaced by a mindless, story-book style mythologizing the proletariat and idolizing leaders. Rodchenko was banished to the cultural wilderness. In 1938, Klutsis was summarily shot.

Tupitsyn's book puts forward its points with more brevity than any of her previous works and is refreshingly free of the judgmental slant -- revulsion at the propagandistic bluntness and the manipulative characteristics of some of the work -- that a Western commentator would, no doubt, have. The drift towards realism is viewed as a natural, organic response to political reality and not as a brutal imposition from above. What Tupitsyn laments is not the re-emergence through photography of clinical realism, but the fact that Soviet culture eventually gravitated around the worst, most simplistic realistic elements.

Unfortunately, though, Tupitsyn still succumbs too often to her familiar vice of littering her text with largely incomprehensible post-structuralist jargon. Admittedly, she is far from the worst offender in this area. Many St. Petersburg art critics -- Victor Mazin and Alesa Turkina in particular -- sound like they have swallowed the post-structuralist lexicon whole and are now suffering from very gaseous critical indigestion. Tupitsyn's study of "Perestroika Art" managed to be obscure and vacuous in equal measure, leaving the reader in a haze of critical terminology and snippets of Roland Barthes and Bakhtin. Her articles in "Flash Art," that wasteland of trendy blather, have been little better.

The Soviet Photograph still finds her disputing minor points in the work of the French philosopher Jean Fran?ois Lyotard and bickering with Barthes over issues that will leave most readers yawning in the aisles. Take this for example: "according to art historian Benjamin Buchloh, 'By 1931 the goals of factography [in the Soviet Union] had clearly been abandoned.' I would argue that it was not until 1932 that factography began to be replaced by Stalinist or mythographic imagery." Frankly, my dear...

Luckily, Tupitsyn has chosen a subject that would be engaging in the hands of almost any half-decent writer. Even after exasperation has set in with the sludgy academic style of Tupitsyn's prose, this book offers, for the reader's enjoyment, some of the most arresting and affecting photographic images that were produced this century.

"The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937" by Margarita Tupitsyn. Yale University Press, 198 pages. ?30, $45.