Out of Russia: Historic Pictorial Photography
by Mary Stark Love
"The past is intrinsically no more or less interesting than the present. Rather, the deepest satisfaction comes from viewing the past through the eyes of the present and contemplating how they are related through time."
Enrico CoenNatural History, May 2002
Much of what we learn about an object, an event or an era depends on how well it is documented. Digital images, for example, whether printed or viewed in electronic format, are being seen worldwide by a vast audience and are well documented for future viewers. Yet, at the beginning of the iist century the struggle continues to gather the history, the story and evidence of the existence of many photographs and their makers from more than a century ago.
FotoFest's Russian Pictorialism show, the cornerstone of its classical photography exhibitions, introduced to the United States vintage works from the 1880s to the 1930s by 15 photographers. When they were made, these images were as fresh and as much the "new, new thing" as is digital photographic art today. The exhibition also includes work by a contemporary artist. Most Russians, however, know very little about this period of creative, artistic photography and it isalmost unknown outside Russia.
Pictorialism was a late 19th and early 20thcentury worldwide photographic style, which arrived in Russia in the late 1880s through European magazines and Russian photographers who traveled abroad. Curators Evgeny Berezner and Irina Tchemyreva (of the State Center for Museums and Exhibitions of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation) write in the FotoFest catalog essay that in Russia the movement "blossomed like an amazing flower, quite dissimilar from its Western counterpart." Pictorialism took Russia by storm, bringing about a new way of seeing and recording in a vast land of diverse peoples. Its influence went beyond the scope of photography and it endured long after its popularity faded in other countries. Prior to World War I, it was the dominant trend in Russian photography.
The efforts of pictorialists "to create the perfect work of art ae beautiful and simple in form, harmonious and rich in content ae stimulated a perception of pictorial photography as a visual meta-language" write Berezner and Tchmyreva. For a time, it served as a unifying medium that crossed class, cultural, societal, generational and geographic lines, bringing people together and allowing them to express their aspirations.
Like their peers in other countries, Russian pictorialists shared the creative urge to produce a Work of Art. "But in Russia, the artists themselves and, to a very great extent, their public also saw pictorialism as an absolute value, representing a mode of ethical self-improvement, a way to define beauty and to plumb the depth of the image," according to the curators. Pictorialism also became a means of spiritual growth and fulfillment. For Russian photographers, pictorialism embodied the spirituality of creativity of Russian culture's "Silver Age," a brief 60-year period of qualified freedom between the abolition of serfdom and Stalin's regime.
"Pictorial works remained as unique prints not only because of the destruction of all traces of the Silver Age during the Soviet period, but also because the pictorialists intended to leave behind a well-cleaned studio and one (unique) photo for exhibition."
Members of the first generation of Russian pictorialists in the 1880-1890s came from various social levels. These artists were contemporaries of Chekov and Tolstoy, Kandinsky, Chagall, Lip-shcitz and Stravinsky. Some, like Aleksey Mazurin, from a wealthy Moscow merchant family, became serious photographers after travel in Europe. Others were self-taught like Sergey Lobovikov, the orphaned son of a rural sexton, who grew up in a foster family of merchants and photographers. Anatoly Trapagny, whose family, originally from Italy, were bankers and ship owners, studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture while holding a day job as a photographer at the prestigious Dore' studio. Trapagny was among the first in Russia to photograph nudes, paving the way for, among others, Aleksandr Grinberg.Mazurin was the first photographer to be well known in European artistic centers. He exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Great Britain and was an honorary member of the French Photographic Society. His funding helped establish the Russian Photographic Society in Moscow in 1894. Recognition of Lobovikov's work beyond Russia x he won a Bronze Medal for work shown in the Russian section of the World Trade Fair in Paris as was another major achievement. Lobovikov was famous for his artful, compassionate photographs of rural scenes and peasant children, which were printed using gum bichromate and bromoil techniques.
The next generation of pictorialists who began photographing on the eve of World War I expanded the boundaries of pictorialism and created a mass culture for their works. Among them were Nikolay Andreyev, who participated in 63 photo exhibitions in Russian and abroad and won numerous medals; Vasily Ulitin, co-founder of the All-Russian Society of Professional Photographers in 1915; Boris Eliseev and Aleksandr Grinberg.
The last group of pictorialists worked in the 19205 and included Leonid Shokin, who in less turbulent times might have been a splendid landscape photographer, and Sergey Ivanov-Alliluev, renown for his landscapes and portraits..
While it was the pictorialists who initially brought the art of revolutionary Russia to the world, the concept of what constituted Soviet art became increasingly rigid. The press began to refer to pictorialism as bourgeois, petty and harmful to new proletarian art. Nevertheless, creativity peaked in the mid-19205 and several leading pictorialists, including Grinberg, worked at Moscow's film studios as photographers and cameramen. By the late 19208, pictorialist photographic societies were dissolved. The artists continued to meet informally for discussions on the future of photography until 1935, trying to adapt to the new social and cultural reality and applying their skills where they could.
In the 1935 Masters of Soviet Photography exhibition, the work of some pictorialists were awarded certificates of merit, but this was the last occasion that photographs in this style were seen in Russia for more than 50 years. A review in the magazine Soviet FOTO acknowledged the "unquestioned mastery and high professional skills" of the pictorialists. What followed this hard-won acclamation was a virtual death sentence for Russian pictorial photography. While no names were mentioned, works were criticized for: "admiration for pre-Revolutionary culture of the estates of the gentry and architecture of old Moscow," referring to photos of Ery-omin, Klepikov, Svishchyov-Paola and Grinberg; "depiction of useless scenes of rural life in the period of socialist restructuring of agriculture," focusing on works by Andreyev, Ulitin and Shokin; and "nude models the working class has no need for" pointing at photos by Grinberg and Eryomin. Soon afterward, Grinberg was convicted of "propaganda of pornography" and Ulitin was tried for calumny of Society power. Both spent years of hard labor in exile.
Imagine, then, the challenge faced by Mikhail Golosovsky, a Russian optical engineer and photographer who searched out, collected and preserved many Russian pictorialist masterpieces at a time when the style was not only artistically unfashionable but out of favor politically. Golosovsky headed the well-known Moscow photo club "Krasnogorsk" where, in the 19708, he came in contact with Russian pictorialist masters and became interested in their aesthetic ideas, their practice of "art for art's sake" and their depiction of the Russian countryside. He began acquiring works of those masters, buying an archive from a disinterested widow, or finding individual prints in out of the way places. Today, Golosovsky's private collection is at the center of the revival of Russian pictorialism.
The work of by photographers, Sergey Lobovikov (1870-1941) and Leonid Shokin (1896-1962) shown together at the Williams Tower Gallery, point out how differences of style existed between generations of photographers. Lobovikov as of the first generation ae presents an intimate, tender view of pre-Revolutionary Russian life. His portrait of Akulina, the Sweet, captures the essence of a peasant beauty whose big, lovely smile is as enduring as the day it was photographed in 1940.
Shokin shows a vision more attuned to line and shape in the way workers and environment intertwines. In Flax Strewing(1940) gelatin silver-toned bromide print, a curved line of women in a field bend at the waist, gathering strands of flax that they lay to dry in shimmering rows that resemble pale waves lapping a shore. In his photograph, The Meeting of the Collective Farm (1931), a work-worn woman addresses the men who oversee her collective. As she raises her hands to plead her case, Shokin captures her frustration, anger, helplessness and grief. The gesture could serve as a metaphor for the decades-long ban of pictorialism and censure of its adherents.
MARY STARK LOVE IS A FREELANCE WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER LIVING IN HOUSTON, TEXAS.
Editor's Note: The exhibition Russian Pictorialism, by ROSIZO State Centre for Museums and Exhibitions of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation with FotoFest, presented works by 16 artists. It covered the history of pictorialism in Russia from the 1890s to the present day. Included are works from: the Kirov Regional Art Museum, Mikhail Golosovsky's large private collection in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the family collection of Sergey Andreyev, son of the pictorial photographer Nikolay Andreyev, from Pushchino; and works loaned by George Kolosov.