Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Primrose: Early Russian Colour Photography

Yelena Mrozovskaya - Portrait
 of girl in Little Russia costume, 1900s

The Photographers’ Gallery in London is currently holding an exhibition on early colour photography in Russia (Primrose apparently translates as ‘first colour’ in Russian).  The introductory blurb states that it is simultaneously an examination of the history of Russia in photographs and the history of Russian photography.  It’s a neat formulation, but as colour has been a small element of Russian photography for most of the discipline’s history, neither one is an achievable goal within the exhibition’ compass.  Certainly if you were to rely on it for an education in Russian history you would come away with only a partial understanding, but then it is hardly likely anyone would want to do so.  After all, a mere hundred and forty photographs cannot do justice to the subject, and the exhibition does feel a little sketchy when considered as a whole.  Even so, one can trace the technological changes in photography alongside an outline of developments in Russian society during a tumultuous century.

Notwithstanding reservations about the exhibition’s lofty goals, the photographs included are well worth a look.  Eschewing fancy thematic groupings beloved of curators, the photographs are hung chronologically on two floors, one devoted to the Czarist period, the other to post-Revolution photography.  The earliest images date from the 1860s, and show a mixture of studio portraits and landscapes, with hand-colouring often producing beautiful results.  Then come photographs that were a more accurate representation of the scene photographed, including Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s three-plate additive technique and reproductions of some lovely autochromes.
Varvara Stepanova - Be ready!, 1932

After the October Revolution there were the familiar photomontages used as propaganda by the Soviet government, and the inclusion of works by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova hint at a paucity of colour photography at that time.  With a more rigid orthodoxy under Stalin, photography was controlled by state monopoly, private studios banned, and limited supplies of colour stock were used by approved photographers in adherence to Socialist Realist tenets (cue heroic peasants and workers and the odd collective farm, and lots of carefully composed – and stilted – compositions).

Yakov Khalip - Sea cadets, late 1940s

Under Khrushchev’s reforms photography started to permeate society and was used less formally to document social conditions, though it is clear that there were still strict boundaries as to what was permissible in the early years.  Russia only began producing colour film in quantity itself in in the 1950s, and film became widely available to the public in the 1960s (another significant development was home processing of colour transparencies, which as well as reducing costs lessened the risk of official disapproval). With the increasing availability, state control became more difficult.

Ivan Shagin - Student, early 1950s

The final part of the exhibition is a slideshow of Suzi et Cetera by Boris Mikhailov, which explores the drabness of a society that had failed to fulfil its promise.  The photographs are direct and uncompromising in their subversion of the idealised image of everyday life that had been the Communist norm, and an enormous contrast to the sedateness of the rest of the exhibition.  Some of them are explicit, and it is amusing that the slideshow is put in a little corner area so that the interested can see it without the rest being offended.  Sitting there feels a slightly clandestine activity, which in a way replicates the original viewing conditions when the slides were presented privately to small artists’ groups.

I was puzzled by the exhibition’s title on two counts (leaving aside the relevance of the primrose): firstly there are landscapes that were taken in Kiev, and Mikhailov lives and works in Ukraine, so the exhibition is not completely 'Russian'; secondly, going up to the 1970s somewhat stretches the definition of 'early'.  Still, it is enjoyable in a number of ways.  The pre-revolutionary photographs are poignant, showing landscapes and people in a diverse country before it embarked on its astonishing transformation.  The inter-war years show initial optimism, but also increasing regimentation.  The post-second world war photographs open a window onto a world that was hidden for so long from the West and made to feel completely alien because of the Cold War.  The current political situation in Russia feels like a backward step, and the post-Soviet artistic experimentation may eventually take on its own nostalgic glow in a society that once again subordinates freedom of expression to ideological control.

Dmitri Baltermants  - Rain, 1960

The gallery staff could take a look at how they produce the captions stencilled on the walls.  Letters come away easily, making some words difficult to read, and it would help if they were applied in a way that rendered them less vulnerable to damage.  I don’t want to carp though, because the exhibition shows what can be done on a limited budget, and the curator and gallery staff are to be congratulated on a fine display.  Anyone with an interest in colour photography and/or in Russian history would be well rewarded by a visit.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London until 19 October 2014.  It is curated by Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography Museum and ‘Multimedia Art Museum’ and is part of the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014’ (probably not an auspicious year to hold such an event, which is a shame).