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Boris Ignatovich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Youth, 1937.
NEW TIMES DEMAND NEW FORMS

The stunning 50-year transformation of Soviet photography

By Yana Iskakova

Curator, Soviet Photo

The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow is hosting an exhibit titled “Soviet Photo.” From 1926 to 1997, the magazine Photo-Reporting and Amateur Photography published all the USSR’s important photographers, and ran discussions about the role of photography and how the field’s methods and genres were changing. Here, Meduza presents some of the most interesting photography from Soviet history, with narration by the curators of “Soviet Photo,” Yana Iskakova and Ekaterina Zueva.

boris may day
Boris Ignatovich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Technology decides everything. May Day, 1930s.

Diagonal shots, bold cropping—these are some of the techniques used by the infamous left-wing photography collective called October. Their motto was: “New times demand new forms.” October sought to create a new language of photography, but faced a lot of criticism from other photographers and later from the government for their lack of interest in people and for their focus on abstract forms.

boris stairwell
Boris Ignatovich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
A stairwell in a dormitory, 1929.

Debates surrounding the October photography collective marked the beginning of politicized photography in the Soviet Union.

In 1932, the USSR government issued an edict “on literary and artistic organizations,” and photographers shifted their focus to socialist realism. The October group was disbanded.

boris youth
Boris Ignatovich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Youth, 1937.

This photo by Boris Ignatovich shows how left-wing photographers shifted towards socialist realism, which stipulated that a photograph has to be bigger than a depiction of reality: it must represent a dream, a symbol, a communist ideal. This photo is an iconographic depiction of the youth and beauty of a Soviet person.

alexander refuge
Alexander Ustinov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
No name (Refuge). June 1941.

Above is the work of renowned photojournalist Alexander Ustinov, who photographed the front lines and the home front during World War II. Pictured here are public order volunteers working in Moscow during the first days of the war.

woman with artillery
Alexander Ustinov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Everything for victory, 1941.

Ustinov moved westward with the Soviet troops and photographed some of the main chapters of World War II. He made it to Berlin and photographed the meeting of Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe River on April 25, 1945.

commisar in battle
Ivan Shagin/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
A commissar continues the battle, 1944.

After the war, Soviet war correspondent Georgiy Lipskerov said, “A good photograph is like a good bullet.”

death in battle
Anatoly Garanin/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Death in battle, 1941.

During the war, the styles of different photographers began to converge into one unified style. The government issued protocols for each stage of the war, detailing what should be depicted and how. Photography was an instrument of foreign and domestic policy. During the first years of the war, newspapers published images that inspired anger towards the enemy.

soldiers at piano
Dmitri Baltermants/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Germany, 1945.

Dmitry Baltermansh is one of the few Soviet photographers whose works were exhibited in London and New York during the 1960s. He was an expert air-brusher and knew how to create realistic photo-collages. The light from the window pictured above symbolizes the coming peace.

soldier killing animal
Arkady Shaikhet/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
The hands of a soldier, 1929.

Shaikhet’s series called “Hands” has been lost almost entirely. Some of the photos from this series can be found in the archives of the magazine Soviet Photos.

hands of a manicurist
Arkady Shaikhet/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
The hands of a manicurist, 1929.

In the 1930s, Soviet photographers focused on developing “series,” and the “Hand series” by Arkadiy Shaikhet was one of the most important developments of this genre.

woman with camera
Vladimir Stepanov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
From a report about cameras, 1959.

The story—“Start”—of the production of the Soviet camera was shot by Vladimir Stepanov in 1959 for the magazine Soviet Photos.

woman inspecting camera
Vladimir Stepanov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
From a report about cameras, 1959.

The photos detailing the production of the Soviet camera “Start” were published in a piece which talked about all the latest developments in Soviet camera-making at the time.

khrushchev and castro at lunch
Vasily Egorov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Khrushchev and Castro have lunch at a kolkhoz in Georgia, 1963.

Above is a photo from Fidel Castro’s 1963 visit to the Soviet Union. Over 38 days, Castro traveled all over the country. He was the only state leader to have accomplished such a feat. The trip was documented in detail by Soviet newspapers and magazines. This picture is from a lunch in Georgia.

composer dmitry shostakov
Vsevolod Tarasevich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
The Twelfth Symphony, 1961.

This is an infamous portrait of composer Dmitry Shostakovich. The photo made way for a reconsideration of portraiture: instead of going for an official shot of a posing Shostakovich on stage, photographer Vsevolod Tarasevich found out where the composer rested between performances and took this shot in secret.

Vsevolod Tarasevich/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
The duel. From the series “Moscow State University.” 1963

The political thaw of the 1960s brought with it a new romanticism in photography.

gymnastics
Alexander Abaza/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
University gymnastics. Moscow, 1973.

This collage of four different photos turns a gymnastics routine into an entire alphabet of gestures.

dog in snow
Vladimir Bogdanov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Not my doggone business. 1965

In the late 1950s, photography became a popular pastime and many photo clubs for amateurs emerged. Vladimir Bogdanov started as a newbie in one of these clubs and quickly started publishing his work in various newspapers and magazines. This photo made him famous.

Vladimir Bogdanov/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
From series No. 318. 1969

Alexandras Matsiyauskas is one of the founding fathers of the Lithuanian school of photography. Lithuania was known is the Soviet Union as “the photography republic.” Unlike other Soviet photographers, Lithuanians were free to choose their subjects and could work on one topic for many years. Alexandras Matsiyauskas worked on his series “Village markets” for two decades.

ballet dancer
Vladimir Vyatki/Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography
Behind the scenes at the Bolshoi Theater, 1983.

Vladimir Vytkin was a jury member of the famous international World Press Photo contest three times, and was a prizewinner six times. He got his first nomination in the World Press Photo context in 1983 for his work “Backstage in big ballet.” As a result of his international experience, he criticized the lack of eventfulness in Soviet photographs in a series of articles published in the 1980s.