by David Jacobs
"How many photographs have you seen today?"
First day of class.
"How many? Where d you see them? What were they about?"
The best reaction to no answers is more questions. Two intrepid students launch in, and soon we're into billboards, driver's licenses, magazine covers and newspapers, TV, movies.
After a while, "How many did you see that you didn't know you saw?"
"How many entered you before you knew it? How many are lodged in there, beyond memory or recollection? Beyond consciousness?"
We agree that it's a whole lot more than we know. But specifics? Dozens before lunch? Hundreds before bedtime? Who can watch and still get through the day? We can't watch ourselves watching, but can we afford not to?
Beyond the numbers, what do they do to us? Some 15 years ago, a National Institute of Mental Health study estimated that by the age of 16, the average American has seen some 18,000 homicides on television — which works out to something like three deaths per day, exclusive of newspapers, movies, magazines and all.1 How do they shape us? Do they acculturate? Anaesthetize? Mythologize? Alienate? Titillate?
What carries more clout in consciousness — the pictures we remember or the pictures we don't?
These familiar, vexed questions are occasioned by the publication of The Commissar Vanishes, an extraordinary book that documents the ways that photographs were altered during Stalinist Russia. The book is the product of exhaustive research by David King, a former editor of the London Sunday Times. King's research into archival and published materials has resulted in a collection of photographs whose alterations were intended to control the public's consciousness about its leaders and how the history of the post-Russian Revolution would be written.
The alterations take a variety of forms. Sometimes pictures are airbrushed, so a baggy-eyed Stalin in the originalphotograph is softened into a friendly, avuncular fellow on the facing page. The crow's feet are gone, the darkness under the eyes lightened, the mustache turned up in the hint of a smile, the eyes wistful. Stalin almost looks sexy, which isn't easy. King sardonically captions these images, "Hollywood, USSR."
And there are other kinds of enhancements. On one page Lenin addresses a sizable crowd, while on the facing page he gives the same speech to a vastly larger multitude. Many images, in fact, helped create the cult of Lenin, an agenda that served Stalin's purposes. An obviously faked photograph of Lenin and Stalin engaged in conversation in 1922 becomes the source for a long line of photographs, sculptures and graphic depictions. In these works one gets the impression of great, yet amiable minds at work, with Stalin subtly depicted as the dominant figure of the two.
There are radical kinds of photographic surgery: excisions and revisions that reflect the intrigues and purges of the Stalin period. Page after page documents photographs of political figures who were later eliminated from the pictures when they fell from power. Their fates are mimed in the often awkward photographic manipulations that turned them into chairs, trees or other props in the doctored photographs after they were imprisoned or executed. The book's title, The CommissarVanishes, derives from one set of such images. The original photograph shows Stalin standing beside three cronies who, picture by picture, are subtracted until Stalin stands alone in the fourth picture. Ironically, some of these pictures take on the poignancy of snapshots, suggesting as they do the ephemerality of life, to say nothing of political power.
In Stalin's time, the dissemination of information and images was controlled by the state. To what extent these Orwel-lian objectives succeeded is impossible to say, because the inner life of an oppressed people is always difficult to gauge. Whileoutward behavior might suggest compliance with the reigning powers, inner psychological realities and underground activities suggest different realities. There is little question, though, that some degree of indoctrination took place through images such as these. Few can fend off a steady of diet of ideologically charged images, and surely this was the case for the generation of Soviet children who were born and came to maturity between the early 19205 and the end of World War II.
In Stalinist Russia, publications were carefully controlled, and a specific ideology was disseminated to the exclusion of all others, backed up by the appalling ruthlessness of the purges and the gulags. In our time, images and ideas proliferate in the West and even in Russia. We like to think that we're more sophisticated about how images (and viewers) can be manipulated. Our digitized image-world has hardened us up and made us hip. Just like Justice Stewart paging through Hustlermagazine, we know a fake when we see one. Speilberg dinosaurs, Godzilla stomping New York, mobsters dying by the score, bang, bang, you're dead — we know what we're doing when we suspend disbelief.
Mr. King's research into the Russian archives is an exercise in investigating the role of photography, and photographic manipulation as it plays into the construction of ideology and history. King knows Stalin in a way that few of his contemporaries could have, and he takes evident pleasure in vilifying him at every opportunity. Accordingly, this book is richly suggestive about the kinds of mystification that can occur as a cultural moment is lived, and as it is later reconstructed by historians.
Bearing this in mind, the book makes one wonder what some photo researcher might discover about our version of fin de siecle 50 years hence. Imagine a later-day King, given access to the negatives, proof sheets and memoranda of TV networks, ad agencies or political parties, writing something like the following in the year 2050.
"The first picture was made in Houston at a baseball game, a popular sport in the middle of the 2Oth century that began to decline in the 19805. The second picture was made on Fifth Avenue around the same period, when the avenue now famous for audio equipment was a fashion center. And the third is on Piccadilly Circus. Notice the old statue of Admiral Nelson, which, of course, was replaced long ago with the Saatchi Brothers Memorial. Three very different pictures, and yet closer analysis reveals startling similarities.
If you enhance these pictures 40 times on your hand-digitizer, you will see that countless people in all three pictures arewearing identical symbols. In the Houston picture, zoom to the fourth quadrant, lower left, where a baby is wearing a shirt with the same symbol that the man next to him has on his cap. Zoom closer, tilting 37 x 53 degrees southwest, and notice the identical symbol on the woman's shoes. Now look randomly at the shoes and apparel of thousands of people in these three photographs and you will discover that the same symbol appearing in a multitude of guises. These "swooshes," as they were known, are virtually beyond counting, so indoctrinated are these populations.These symbols were worn throughout the social strata of the period, regardless of economic station, race or creed. Indeed, television archives suggest that their vogue was in part created by images of athletes caught in various stages of jumping, running andmugging for the camera. This well-orchestrated parade of images had an incalculable effect upon ..." •
David L. Jacobs is a professor of art at the University of Houston.
1. David Jacobs, The Art of Mourning: Death and Photography, Afterimage (Summer, 1996), pp. 8-11.