Posted in: Articles, Russian art- Oct 09, 2012 Comments Off

‘The vertigo of time defeated’: some observations on the role of photography in Stalinist Russia.

                To look at a photo is to experience, according to Roland Barthes, a paradoxical feeling of connection and separation. He writes of the ‘umbilical cord’ which ‘links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze’ whilst acknowledging that the subject (or referent) in the photograph will forever be separated from the viewer by the barrier of history; in this act of looking back at a snapshot of a past event, frozen forever in time, we are simultaneously acutely aware of the inability of physical return to this moment and of its irreversible consignation to the realms of history.[1] This uncanny feeling of connection with the past is elucidated by Barthes through a simple anecdote: whilst looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s brother he became moved by the sudden realisation that ‘I am looking at the eyes that looked at the emperor.’[2] Thus we may observe that this phenomenon is even more potent in figurative photography; to see the protagonist is to register his irrefutable existence and consequently the irrefutable existence of the photographer himself; yet in the act of suspending the body in time we are reminded of its decay in reality and ultimately of the certainty of death, both for the subject and ourselves as viewer. For Barthes then photography becomes a kind of evidence, an irrefutable trace of existence, an embodiment of truths.

Yet when these ideas are applied to the photographs produced and distributed in Soviet Russia, specifically under the watchful eye of Stalin and his censors, Barthes’ connections between photography and history, truth and reality become muddied and complicated in ways he fails to acknowledge in Camera Lucida. What may be observed are the possibilities of photographic manipulation, of the medium’s ability not just to document history but paradoxically to erase and rewrite it. ‘Reality’ suddenly became uncertain and changeable, the technical nature of photography allowing censors to insert or delete figures in response to the ever changing doctrines of the state, all the while protected by the venire of authenticity that the medium retained. Meanwhile in the realm of fine art the evolution from documentary photography to photomontage and finally the ‘pure socialist realist’ photographic experiments of Alexander Rodchenko, pushed the medium to new creative and ideological functions. It will be argued that during the 1920s and 30s photography, undoubtedly due to its very nature, became the most important ideological tool of the state and was responsible (perhaps more than any other art form) for producing and reinforcing the cult of the Soviet leaders.

David King’s fascinating archive reveals much about the ideological power of the photograph and the disturbing ease with which images were manipulated in order to delete or remove unfavourable persons from history. The collection he has compiled is, it must be noted, in direct opposition to the aims of the state and such comparisons would never have been available to the Soviet public; it is only now from this removed point in time (separated by history as Barthes may put it) that we may observe the true extent of the retouching of official images that took place. A perfect example of this process is the famous image of Lenin Addressing the Troops (figure 1), depicting the Bolshevik leader’s speech from May 5, 1920 to assembled soldiers outside the Bolshoi Theatre with Trotsky and Kamenev standing to the right of the podium.[3] The iconic status of the images arises from the strength of its composition; Lenin’s presence is emphasised through the juxtaposition of his dark jacket to the pale building facade behind him, he is separated from the crowd physically, but symbolically linked to them through the workers cap he clutches in front of him. His pose is animated; he appears to be caught in a revolutionary momentum, pushed forwards by the power of his rhetoric. What we must remember then is that this, as with every photograph, is a composition carefully picked by the photographer. This observation is stressed by John Tagg, who questions the reliability of photographs as a neutral source of evidence or as purveyors of truth. In such documentary photographs, he writes, there is always a conscious ‘rhetorical construction of the image’; the meaning of the event is produced and established in part through the act of taking the photograph as the photographer chooses what to include or omit.[4]

Yet fig. 1 still undeniably depicts what was there (the “that-has-been” as Barthes calls it), even if it only provides a single subjective viewpoint of the event. In another version of the same image (fig. 2), however, we see the effect of state intervention on the image. Gone are Trotsky and Kamenev and in their place a set of stairs; in one small manipulation history and reality has changed. The substitution is clinically executed; one could easily believe, were it not for the existence of the previous photo, that the two men were never present or perhaps never existed at all. Here then is essence of photography that Soviet propagandists so expertly exploited: its irrefutable foundation in reality, making any version of a photograph, even those heavily retouched, still closer to the ‘true’ event than any painting, drawing or sculpture. Thus even in falsification, these photographs still retained an uncanny believability.

This ‘claim’ by photography to give ‘access to the real’ was essential in developing and maintaining the cult of Lenin and Stalin during the 30s. The notion of access here is key. To see a painting of Stalin, such as Fyodor Shurpin’s The Dawn of our Fatherland (fig. 3), was to experience a symbol of the leader; a powerful metaphorical depiction on a grand scale. The photographic image, by contrast, gave the people of the Soviet Union a personal connection to the leader; removing Stalin from the heroic and exclusive world of painting and brining him into the households of the proletariat as a very human presence. In essence the photograph underlined Stalin’s actual existence whilst simultaneously constructing and disseminating a highly nuanced public identity.

Fig. 4: Georgi Zelma, 'Stalin 20th century'. Vintage gelatin silver print 3.3" x 2.5"

Take for example fig. 4, an unusually informal image of Stalin taken by the photographer Georgii Zelma.[5] Yet despite this initial reading the image is by no means relaxed, as John Milner points out, ‘the image is controlled just as much by Stalin as by Zelma’, revealed by the crudely defaced figures in the background.[6] There is something very disturbing about this kind of photographic manipulation. If Barthes saw death in the capturing of a photographic image then surely there can be no stronger memento mori than the active and violent eradication of a subject. Indeed Barthes asserts that the relationship between the photo and the referent is depending and binding; to try and separate the two is to destroy them both.[7] A more shocking example of this practice is seen in the portraits taken by Rodchenko for the State sponsored publication Ten Years of Uzbekistan, which the artist was later forced to deface during Stalin’s purges of 1937 (fig. 5).[8] The result is almost a painting in itself, albeit a deeply disturbing one. The very fact that the physical format of the image remains is proof beyond doubt that the content, the person, although obscured, existed once. Paradoxically to the aims of the censors this method of intervention works to emphasise the sense of loss, of death and consequently of previous existence even more. In addition it also reveals something of the mortality of the medium itself, as pointed out by Barthes; although the event may be suspended in time forever the physical format of the image itself contradicts this immortality.


Yet despite the perishable physical nature of the photo, the medium was still fundamental in projecting Stalin and Lenin to an almost immortal status. Perhaps this partly lay in its ability to create a fabricated, idealised past through which to project a Utopian image of the future. Take for instance the photograph of Lenin and Stalin seated together (fig.6). The image is clearly a fake, yet as we have encountered before, it still has a basis in reality, having been assembled from two actual shots. The aim, clearly, was to emphasise the closeness of the two in order to invest Stalin’s leadership with a sense of historical legitimacy and inevitability. The photograph was subsequently used as documentary ‘proof’ that the succession of Stalin was somehow foretold.

Fig. 6: unknown photographer, Lenin and Stalin in Gorki, c.1930?

It is worth mentioning briefly the technique of photomontage used by various artists throughout the twenties. Comprising of a collage technique, bringing together often disparate photographic images to create a new picture, the approach was crucial in the construction of propaganda.[9]  Although arguably originating in the experiments of the German Dadaists it came to serve in Soviet Russia a uniquely political purpose.[10] This arose primarily from its ability to merge often disparate photographic images in order to ‘reconstitute a reality that could not be obtained directly’, one beyond human perception; essentially it was able to create an impression of the promised Utopia at the heart of the communist vision.[11] The work of Gustav Klutsis provides a particularly good example. In his poster Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction (fig. 7) the merging of Stalin and Lenin, as hinted at in the previous image, is finally achieved. The image of the two overlapping heads floats above scenes of industry and construction. The logical ‘reality’ of a single photograph is here replaced by overlapping imagery; the viewer makes new associations between the elements arranged by the artist. For the two leaders the result is, according to Margarita Tupitsyn, an example of ‘interindividuality’; the two individuals are morphed to form a single dual identity. [12]

The evolution from documentary photography to photomontage by the avant-garde was a vital move in maximising the power of the photographic document to convey fact. As one anonymous commentator in Lef eloquently explained:

The combination of photographs replaces the composition of graphic representations. The reason for this substitution resides in the fact that the photographic print is not a sketch of a visual fact, but its precise fixation. The precision and the documentary character give photography the impact on the spectator that the graphic representation can never claim to achieve.’[13]

Here we see by the artist’s own admission that it was the innate characteristics of photography that designated it the primary medium for the dissemination of party propaganda from the state to the masses.

The appeal of the photograph to state propagandists, beyond its ability to resurrect the past in service of the present, was the ease with which it could be disseminated throughout Soviet society. Equally important was the enthusiasm with which these images were consumed. As one American magazine editor put it in 1936:

People like to look. They like to look at everything including themselves in the mirror. They also like to look at pictures, and especially in these swift changing days they like to look at pictures which show them what is going on in America and in the world.’[14]

Fig. 8: Gustav Klutsis, Electrification of the Entire Country, 1920, vintage gelatin silver print

Truly it seems that this insatiable desire for ‘looking’ was a universal symptom of the twentieth Century that reached its peak with the development of the camera and the photographic image in its various guises. Yet it is only in the Soviet Union that we see the true sense ‘of the vertigo of time defeated’ that Barthes alluded to in Camera Obscura; time was not just captured, as in the documentary photographs of the west, it was manipulated, rewritten and displaced into a new reality, in short photography allowed the state to defeat time. When we look at Klutsis’s poster the Electrification of the Entire City (fig. 8 ) we feel the jolt of vertigo as we see the past from the standpoint of the present, used to articulate an image of the future.

Ellen Pavey recently graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art with a Masters in History of Art, specialising in  Contacts and Contexts in Russian Art, 1905 -1945

[1] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London, 1984) p. 81

[2] Barthes, Camera Lucida p. 3

[3] D. King, The Commissar Vanishes: the Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (Edinburgh, 1997) p.67

[4] J. Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (Minneapolis, 2009) pp. 95-113

[5] J. Milner, ed., Rodchenko and His Circle: Constructing the Future through Photography (London, 2010) pp. 30-31

[6] Milner, Rodchenko and his Circle p. 30

[7] Barthes, Camera Lucida p.6

[8] King, The Commissar Vanishes p.126

[9]  V. D. Coke, ed., One Hundred Years of Photographic History: Essays in Honour of Beaumont Newhall (Albuquerque, 1975) p.84

[10] B. H. D. Buchloh, ‘From Faktura to Factography’, October, vol. 30 (Autumn, 1984) pp. 82-119

[11] Coke, One Hundred Years p. 85

[12] M. Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph 1924 – 1937 (New Haven & London, 1996) p. 124

[13] Quoted in B. H. D. Buchloh, ‘From Faktura to Factography’, October, vol. 30 (Autumn, 1984) p. 98

[14] Quoted in Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame p. 101


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