Margarita Tupitsyn: ‘The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937’

Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Despite the growing literature on early Soviet photography, most studies remain limited to the photographic activity of a few avant-garde artists. This exclusive focus is problematic, as much of the history of Soviet photograph has been treated in terms of conflict between avant-gardists and other practitioners, about whom very little is known. As a result of this simplification, Soviet photographs, publications, exhibitions, and theories have frequently been misinterpreted. Furthermore, most existing scholarship fails to address the broader setting of Soviet photographic practice, in terms of both more traditional art institutions and the mass media. This context is crucial for understanding what makes a photograph “Soviet.” The very title of Margarita Tupitsyn’s book suggests that it will provide a much needed antidote–an authoritative history of early Soviet photography. However, this work falls far short of these expectations and is, at best, a collection of highly speculative essays on the far more limited field of certain aspects of the photographic production of Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Gustav Klucis.

While the introduction implies that this study has benefited from extensive archival work, there is practically no material drawn from Soviet state archives. In the introduction, Tupitsyn asserts that

[s]ubstantial archival material is available documenting the theoretical and practical aspects of the photography of Rodchenko, Lissitzky, and Klutsis, but virtually no archival material exists for most other photographers, particularly those who did not participate in the earlier stages of the Soviet avant-garde. This is due in large part to the tendency in the late 1920s and 1930s to view photography as a nonartistic production made for mass consumption rather than for museums or archives. As a result, many vintage photographs and original photomontages were discarded immediately after they were published in magazines (p. 8).

Tupitsyn uses the purported paucity of archival materials as the reason for limiting her analysis primarily to the work of these three vanguard artists. Notably, the specific “archival” materials she mentions are original prints and maquettes for photomontages.

Despite her frequent citation of Walter Benjamin, Tupitsyn’s search for “vintage” prints is highly indicative of the nature of her approach to the study of photography. This history fails to take into account the profound significance of the fact that most Soviet photographic activity–including that of the individuals examined in the book–was predominantly “nonartistic production made for mass consumption rather than for museums and archives.” Abundant archival materials related to early Soviet photography are available in some of the very same archives that she consulted for this book. However, these fonds and more accessible published primary source materials that provide insight on the publication of Soviet photographs and photomontages for both elite and mass consumption are largely neglected. This disregard for “non-artistic” production indicates that, despite the veneer of recent critical theory, this study is grounded in conventional notions of high art and the art market’s pursuit of the unique original. Instead of carefully surveying Soviet discourses and developments of the twenties and thirties, Tupitsyn prefers to superficially apply the work of recent Western theorists (Jameson, Barthes, Deleuze, Lyotard) to the analysis of the photographic work of a few individuals. This ambitious attempt to develop a complex critical vocabulary and framework for Soviet photography is highly flawed.

Throughout the book, Tupitsyn draws upon contemporary theorists to construct categories of analysis and classification, which she then attributes back to the Soviet producers. This theoretical sleight of hand may lead readers unfamiliar with the original sources to mistake her categories for historical terms and concepts. For instance, Tupitsyn makes extensive use of the concept “deframing,” a term employed by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his book Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983). The relevance of this narrative film concept to the analysis of singular Soviet photographs is, at best, questionable. Yet Tupitsyn uses this and other terms as if they were part of the Soviet discourse, while failing to seriously interrogate the work of early Soviet theorists who wrote on photography, such as Nikolai Tarabukin. The Soviet concepts which Tupitsyn does employ are also problematic. For example, she follows the example of Benjamin Buchloh in characterizing certain elements of avant-garde photographic practice as “factography.” This term suggests the existence of a cohesive, fully articulated theory of visual representation based upon factual documentary materials. However, my own examination of the Soviet usage of this term in the 1920s and 1930s reveals that the term “factography” referred primarily to a type of literary practice and not to visual representation. In Nikolai Chuzak’s elaboration of this concept, he identifies factography as “documentary literature” and provides numerous literary and journalistic examples, none of which are photographic.(Nikolai Chuzak, “Literatura zhiznestroeniia,” Novyi LEF, 1928, no. 11: 15-17.) Furthermore, Osip Brik, Sergei Tret’iakov and other proponents of documentary forms preferred to use the term “literature of fact.” During the 1930s, “factography” is more often encountered in negative contexts, as a means of opprobriation.

As in much of Tupitsyn’s earlier writings on Soviet photography, theoretical concerns are primary and often disrupt the careful historical analysis of material. She cobbles together historical evidence and snippets of theory to fit her preconceived theoretical models. The text itself is full of fragmentary quotes that are often completely out of context, such as in the following discussion of Sergei Tret’iakov: “For Tret’iakov, the formal elements contributed to the exposure of those important fragments in each subject that serve ‘as prefigurations or traces of a possible utopia.'” (p. 68) Scrutiny of the accompanying footnote and consultation of the original source of this quotation reveals that its author was not Tret’iakov, but Martin Jay. The particular passage quoted is a discussion of Ernst Bloch in Jay’s book on Adorno that has no overt connection whatsoever to Tret’iakov.(Martin Jay, Adorno (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984): 87.) A few pages later, Tupitsyn attributes these very same words to Tret’iakov himself: “…or, in Tret’iakov’s words, onto ‘a possible utopia’ “(p. 70). Like the search for appropriate citations from Lenin that accompanied the completion of many Soviet dissertations, Tupitsyn appears to have enacted a similar search for loosely related quotations from a variety of sources without considering the relevance of these materials to the matter at hand. In another instance, Tupitsyn frames a quotation by the photojournalist Arkadii Shaikhet to imply that he harshly disapproved of the publication of photographs with unconventional viewpoints (p. 102). Yet in Shaikhet’s original text, the paragraph that follows the passage quoted by Tupitsyn states:

It is necessary to conduct a campaign within the pages of Sovetskoe foto about the introduction of new photographs in our press. Our magazines should re-educate the reader and train him to perceive things from new, unusual points of view.(Arkadii Shaikhet, “Khoroshii pochin,” Sovetskoe foto, 1929, no. 23: 713.)

In this instance, Shaikhet was actually endorsing the promotion of new viewpoints. The presence of this and numerous other factual errors, such as referring to the photographer Abram Shterenberg as “Arkadii Shterenberg,” are also symptomatic of generally slipshod scholarship.

This lack of rigor is also evidenced by the absence of a bibliography or chronology. As the book makes frequent reference to the original publications of photographs and photomontages, a comprehensive bibliography of these materials would have facilitated the consultation of these often obscure sources. However a bibliography may have revealed the limitations of Tupitsyn’s scholarship. For instance, the stenogram of a presentation by Rodchenko in 1930 that is touted in the test and on the dustjacket as previously unpublished was, in fact, printed in its entirety in 1989.(Aleksandr Rodchenko, “O sotsial¹nom znachenii fotografii,” Mir fotografii, Valerii Stingeev and Aleksandr Lipkov, eds. (Moscow: Planeta, 1989): 204-206.)

With a chronological framework that is bracketed by the year of Lenin’s death and the Great Terror (1924-1937), Tupitsyn’s study claims to present a politically and socially grounded history of Soviet photography. While starting with the alleged origins of political photomontage in the wake of Lenin’s death, this book provides a conventional modernist account of Soviet avant-garde art, as it largely disregards the Bolshevik government’s special interest in photography and the development of photojournalism before 1924. In the wake of the October Revolution, the new Soviet government quickly recognized the propaganda potential of photography. Valuing photography as a useful means of visual persuasion, the government nationalized the photographic industry. During the Civil War special committees collected historical photographs, documented contemporary events, and produced diverse photographic propaganda. The early 1920s saw the foundation of the Soviet illustrated mass press. In 1923, the illustrated magazine Ogonek made its debut, while both Izvestiia and Pravda began to publish illustrated supplements. While the newly fledged Soviet press lacked experience with photography and suffered from a shortage of photojournalists, the development of the illustrated press led to the emergence of a new generation of Soviet photographers. Mikhail Kol’tsov, Ogonek’s editor and a founding editor of USSR in Construction, played a central role in the development of Soviet photojournalism and the illustrated press. Through Ogonek, Kol’tsov laid the groundwork for modern photojournalism in the Soviet Union by establishing national and international mechanisms for the production, distribution, and preservation of photographic material. Kol’tsov also actively promoted worker photography, photographic education, and the further development of both amateur and professional Soviet photography through the popular magazine Sovetskoe foto. The history related above is entirely omitted from The Soviet Photograph.

In the introduction, Tupitsyn asserts that “Photographers left their studios and went into factories” (p. 7). While situating the development of Soviet photography in the constructivist rejection of artistic creation in favor of engaged utilitarian practice, Tupitsyn fails to recognize the vital role played by the illustrated press in the development of Soviet photography–including avant-garde photography. Interested primarily in vanguard artists who turned to photography, she fails to seriously considerthe work of photographers who cut their teeth in propaganda work during the Civil War and in the early Soviet mass media. In the minor discussion of these photographers, such as Arkadii Shaikhet, Tupitsyn presents them as hostile reactionaries in order to exaggerate the innovations of the avant-garde photographers. However, it is impossible to write a competent history of Soviet avant-garde photography without seriously examining the work of other photojournalists in the mass press. Indeed, the promotion of “operative” journalistic forms by the writers and artists affiliated with Novyi LEF followed the example of the mass activist press. The engaged, activist journalist was emulated by the avant-garde–it was not their original innovation. It is no coincidence that Mikhail Kol’tsov was the individual who first offered Dziga Vertov work in film. The role of the mass press in shaping avant-garde representational practice demands serious reconsideration–as do the modernist mythologies. By indulging in irresponsible theorizing and failing to provide a broader context for the analysis of Soviet vanguard photography, this book further mystifies Soviet photographic practice and perpetuates modernist myths.

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