Probing photo murk.

Tag: russia

May Day

I used to get quite a buzz out of protests, but lately I’ve just found them more and more boring to photograph. I went along to the May Day march through London last monday and shot on the Rollei for a change. May Day is a bit of an anachronism, the turn out consisting of old school socialists carrying placards of Lenin and Stalin, representatives of national communist parties from places like Kurdistan (which all seems rather at odds with the internationalism of socialism) and a few anarchists presumably happy to jump on any anti-capitalist bandwagon. Anyway on to the pictures, I recommend this soundtrack while you view them.


Review: Building the Revolution

In 1918 Russia experienced one of the most significant political revolutions of modern times, thrusting the fledgling communist party to power. Already underway however was an artistic revolution that almost as significant. A cluster of movements led by artists like Eli Lissitzky, Aleksander Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis changed the way that art, photography and design were practiced, and influenced other artists and movements throughout Europe. A new exhibition at the Royal Academy explores the relationship between this Soviet avant garde art and post-revolutionary architecture, combing original artworks by some of the most important artists of the period with archive images and recent photographs by Richard Pare of striking buildings of the early Soviet era.

While the Soviet Union had a reputation for a smothering, close supervision of creative types, this was something that largely occurred from the thirties onwards as Stalin’s grip on power became more and more oppressive and he began to purge millions of perceived opponents. The period before this was by contrast relatively relaxed. The late Tsarist period had seen a relative thawing in Russian society and arts movements like Suprematism and Russian Futurism had begun to emerge from the shadows. The revolution helped to strip away what restrictions remained on radical art, and against the context of wider social changes it became possible for adventurous artists not only to experiment like never before, but also to do it with state sanction. The Soviet state not only wanted to mark itself out from the past through things like art, it also wanted to set about forging the future.

In this ambition we can see the obvious relationship between art and architecture. If Russian avant garde art was playing a role in reforming people’s intellectual outlooks, the architecture that came hand in hand with it was intended to change the way they lived and behaved. One apartment block for example was designed with extra wide corridors, to encourage communal behaviour, others had shared cooking and washing facilities and even large dormitories for children, all intended to breakdown the insularity of small family units and encourage group living. The architecture also plays a role in expressing an ideal and an aspiration as much as fulfilling a function. Tatlin’s never executed Monument to the Third International (design pictured below) was vast and probably unrealisable at the time, but it embodied the wild ambitions of the Soviet state.

The role of symbolism in Soviet architecture is also intriguing. Lenin’s mausoleum for example, providing the foundation for a speakers rostrum, tying into the notion of Lenin’s heir Stalin being as unchallengeable and infallible as the founder of the Soviet union himself. Stalin’s word was literally built on Lenin’s legacy. Other symbols are sparsely decorative, in an apartment block for secret policemen (imagine living there) an arrangement of girders at the top of the spiral staircase form a Soviet star. The constraints on the architects were practical as well as ideological, and shortages of material forced innovation. Melinkov’s remarkable house for example, composed of two interlocking cylinders honeycombed with diamond shaped windows used an innovative system of cells filled with waste materials to save on bricks which were in short supply.

What I think is particularly remarkable thing about the work featured in this exhibition is how incredibly productive and multi-talented many of the artists involved were. Not content with reinventing one discipline, many of them made enormous strides in several. Rodchenko for example was artist, photographer, monteur, print maker, designer and writer.  Perhaps in such a context the jump from art to architecture was not a vast one. Already many of the artist concerned were obsessed with geometry, and the vocabulary of art at the time suggests a desire by the artists to make things that are more tangible than paintings. Popova called her abstract works ‘Architectonics’, other artists called them ‘constructions’. the term monteur stems from the French term for a mechanic or engineer. The movement that served as an umbrella for so many of the artists included was of course Constructivism.

Sadly (and as Pare’s photographs make clear) the buildings included in the exhibition have seen better days. While a few like the Melinkov house are lived in and obviously well cared for, others have fallen into disrepair. It seems to be a strange situation that the paintings that inspired or were inspired by these buildings are highly prized, their architectural siblings are so neglected. However stretched Russian budgets have so many competiting mouths to feed, and the country’s cultural legacy is so rich, that maybe its unsuprising that it’s architectural inheritance has been rather neglected. Perhaps though this exhibition will do something to highlight this neglect and promote better protection and admiration of these incredible buildings.

Building the Revolution is on at the Royal academy untill January 22nd 2012.

A Short History of Photomontage I: 1822-1945

Man Ray once said that he painted what he could not photograph. Photomontage is a technique that falls somewhere between the two disciplines, combining collage, painting and photography to create images that abandon the assumed representational truth of photography without fully rejecting its aesthetic.

The techniques involved and the level of sophistication varies from artist to artist, and has evolved with technology from the cut and paste approach of early artists, through to the sophisticated image manipulation of the present day. Victorian photographers either cut and pasted or printed multiple images on a single sheet of paper to produce composite photographs showing dramatic landscapes scenes or strange and impossible juxtapositions, an adult’s head on a baby’s body and so forth.

During the first world war photographers like Frank Hurley used photomontage techniques to capture the horror of the trenches. While challenging the modern notion of documentary photography in the sense that such images were heavily manipulated, Hurley was justified in the use of these techniques in the sense that a single photograph was simply incapable of showing such scenes in their true form. Hurley’s images are particularly breathtaking, and many of them bear more similarity to renaissance painting than war photography as we know it today.

The twenties proved to be the golden age of photomontage. The political turmoil of post-war Europe was a hotbed of radical art and a battlefield for disparate ideologies. The two converged as artists took sides in politics, and used photomontage to support or critique competing political movements. In Germany particularly, the collapse of the Weimar republic and the rise of Nazism was the backdrop for the fervent production of political photomontage.

John Heartfield used photomontage to savagely attack the Nazi party, often twisting the symbols and rhetoric of the regime to do so, as in the 1932 montage ‘Millions Stand Behind Me’ a phrase used frequently by Hitler to shows his popular support, but which Heartfield used to attack him for his reliance on wealthy backers donating millions of Reich marks to the Nazi cause. Another Heartfield montage shows a chimp and a stork in Berlin zoo apparently discussing the contents of a copy of Die Sturmer, the Nazi party paper.

The Dadaist Hannah Hoch was also a key figure in photomontage, which she initially used like many others to attack the shortcomings of the Weimar republic, which appeared to be many to be little more the a continuation of the old order. Increasingly however she also used photomontages to vent her own frustration at the other Dadaists (almost all men) and the way they largely failed to live up to the egalitarianism, particularly in terms of gender, that they so often paid lip service to.

By contrast in Soviet Russia photomontage, like most art, served to support the political orthodoxy of the state rather than undermine it. Aleksander Rodenchenko’s montages of the construction of the White Sea canal helped to make publically palatable what was essentially a one hundred and forty mile long gulag, where as many as ten thousand people died. Rodenchenko, by no means a die-hard Stalinist, also often produced montages for non-political purposes, as in his film posters for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin.

Photomontage remained an important component of the propaganda conflict, throughout the Second World War particularly in the Soviet Union, although to some extent graphic design, particularly in the style practiced by artists like Abram Games became the pre-eminent propaganda medium. One look at Games’s posters however and it is evident that graphic artists of the time were employing similar visual devices to make messages both visually striking and easy to remember.