Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs captured the idealism and pioneering spirit of the early Soviet Union
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!” wrote Wordsworth about the French Revolution. Those words might equally have belonged to the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko. He created a photographic vocabulary that mirrored the social and political upheavals of the former Soviet Union during a period that extended from the intellectually adventurous Lenin years to Stalin’s cultural oppression. He used bold camera angles, aggressive perspectival foreshortening and intimate close-ups, and pioneered the use of photo montage, a process that we now take for granted but which, at the time, must have seemed incredibly radical and modern.
Having already gained an international reputation as a painter, sculptor and graphic designer, Rodchenko took up photography in the 1920s, believing it to be the medium of the future. Together with other members of the avant-garde, he supported the Bolshevik cause, and in 1918 had joined the newly founded visual arts department of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. Abandoning “pure” art for a medium through which he could address a mass audience, he applied himself, using photomontage, to designing and producing posters, magazines and book covers, as well as advertisements for state-owned grocery and department stores.
The new “Rodchenko method” spread rapidly. “New forms in art”, claimed the philosopher and critic Viktor Shklovsky, “are created by the canonisation of peripheral forms.” Photography became not only a means of reflecting reality but also a vehicle for representing novel intellectual ideas and socio-political change. Joining forces with other avant-gardists – poets, writers, critics and architects – Rodchenko worked on the magazine LEF (Levyi Front Isskustv, or “Left Front of the Arts”), dedicated to defining “a Communist direction for all forms of art”. His aim was to make “completely believable photos, the kind that never existed before, pictures that are so true to life that they are life itself”.
Rodchenko’s vision of a brave new world full of electrical pylons, car gears and camshafts, a world of light bulbs being produced en masse, coupled with his photographs of choreographed parades in Red Square, not to mention his highly evocative images of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Young Pioneers smiling optimistically into the future, helped to build the collective dream of an ordered Soviet utopia. It had been as a student at the Kazan Art School, in what is now the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, that he had first come into contact with the Russian futurists and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, with whom he later collaborated. It was also there that he met his future wife, Varvara Stepanova.
One of his first subjects was Mayakovsky, a brooding, good-looking man who seemed never to smile. Among the others were fellow members of the LEF group, such as the poet Nikolai Aseyev, the writer and critic Osip Brik and the architect Alexander Vesnin. These portraits, like a psychologically-charged shot of Rodchenko’s mother now on show in London and his experimental photo graphs of Stepanova and the painter Alexander Shevchenko, form an unusual archive of a tumultuous period in history.
Cinema, rather than fine-art portraiture, influenced these compositions. Rodchenko was interested in capturing an individual’s essence and felt it necessary to “record a person’s life not just with one ‘synthetic’ portrait, but in a mass of momentary photos”. He worked systematically with angled viewpoints, which he considered to be one of the most important factors in establishing a new photographic language. Many of his experimental photos were taken with a Kodak Vest Pocket roll-film camera.
It was this stylised approach that was to get Rodchenko into trouble. In 1931, he was accused of plagiarising western photographers, of being a formalist and of advocating bourgeois ideas through his innovative foreshortening. He was accused of misrepresenting and distorting the Soviet ideal in his Pioneer series. Soviet photography had polarised into two camps: the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers, which represented the ideologically correct (and often sentimental) proletarian path, and the avant-garde October Group, of which Rodchenko was one of the leaders, that the political powers that be considered to be made up of petty bourgeois formalists far removed from the class struggle.
Stalin’s first five-year plan had been accompanied by a cultural revolution in the arts which insisted on realism. Eventually expelled by the October Group, Rodchenko turned to reportage (for which he needed a permit) and produced a series of stunning images that, despite state censorship, showed the construction in 1933 of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was being built with forced labour. He also began to experiment with photographs of movement. His images of athletes not only reveal rhythm and grace, but seem to be paeans to Soviet sporting prowess.
Official parades, the theatre and the circus also became themes. The circus allowed him both to express his love of geometric form and to indulge in nostalgia and Romanticism. It is not far-fetched to imagine that, ill and continually harassed by the state, Rodchenko saw the circus as a metaphor for life. Communism may be dead, but its spirit of optimism, and the belief that a social revolution can be choreographed visually, live on in these extraordinary photographs.
Alexander Rodchenko Revolution in Photography at the Hayward Gallery, London until 27 April 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Alexander Rodchenko
Published in New Statesman