Soviet Photography (1920-1930)

Soviet photography of the 1920s and 1930s developed into two main currents – experimental art and reportage. The first one was influenced by the Russian art avant-garde represented by Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin and was akin in artistic principles to Bauhaus. The leading figure of the experimental-art photography movement was Alexander Rodchenko, who was to photography what poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was to literature at the time.

Rodchenko was an ideological engine of the age, a pioneer of new approaches. Originally a painter, he became devoted to photography through his work in the typographical layout of magazines and advertising. His friendship with El Lissitzky and their teaching activities at Moscow’s VKHUTEMAS School (Higher Art and Technical Studios) provided him with a glimpse of the photography being created in the Western Europe at that time – of the work of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Man Ray and others. Rodchenko absorbed these influences and recast them into his own, idiomatic expression. He shot large details from below and above or on the diagonal in an attempt to uniquely express the dynamics of the new age and to enrich the viewer’s perception.

The reportage style was more in line with the age’s practical needs. With the gradual development of technology and with the printing possibilities, reportage became a determining factor in the further development of Soviet photography. From roughly the mid-1920s, photography in the USSR was deliberately placed side by side with written journalism. In 1930 the photo magazine “USSR in Construction” was published in foreign languages and designated for a readership abroad. This magazine showed the work of major photographers – such as A. Rodchenko, B. Ignatovich, A. Shaikhet, M. Alpert, G. Zelma, G. Petrusov and S. Fridlyand. It’s interesting that over the course of the first decade following the revolution photographers spontaneously reacted to the dramatic transformations of life and created expressive pictures often full of their own surprise. The main theme of photography became the building of a new society. Also popular were picture essays or “fotoocherki”.

Soviet photography during this period was influenced by the dynamics of social changes, and on the one hand was full of experimentation yet on the other pragmatically recorded the contradictions of the age. In the early days of the revolution and in the years following it, dramatic events pulled photographers toward spontaneous expression.