The social history of Russia is charted through this beautiful and intriguing assortment of photographs.
Beginning with a period when photographs were precious souvenirs, this survey explores the importance of a medium we now regard as commonplace. Through exquisite examples, an illuminating image of Russia is presented. The show starts with hand-painted, uncannily intimate portraits from 1860. These would have taken pride of place in the home. But photography wasn’t just for creating personal mementos; it provided a means of documenting the sprawling Russian empire and its diverse population. Rolling landscapes, the construction of railway stations and girls in national dress all capture a sense of Mother Russia. Most eye-catching is a group of Tartar women, resplendent in ornate robes, standing in front of mud huts.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, photographers had started to produce colour images. Championed by Tsar Nicholas II, Sergei Prokudin-Gorky was tasked with documenting Russian life, pre-WWI. His portrait of Tolstoy in 1908 is a hypnotic depiction of the eminent writer in impressionistic hues.
It’s during the Soviet era that the communicative power of photography was really exploited. Utopian visions of socialism relied on photography as a propaganda tool. Step forward Varvara Stepanova and her graphic photomontage of soldiers, a confident and determined representation of a superpower. Other photographers masked the devastation and starvation of a nation behind images stage-managed to present state-sanctioned myths about the ‘happiest people in the happiest country on earth’. Had they not got behind this socialist realism, photographers would have been sent to labour camps. Suddenly, images of plump fruit leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
By the 1970s colour film had become readily available on the market. Home-developed images, such as Boris Mikhailov’s ‘Suzi et Cetera’ series of everyday shots and naked women, expose the true reality of everyday Russian life with a raw honesty that went against Soviet ideology. They could never have been exhibited in public.
As colourful as these photographs are, it’s the vividness of the social history they bring to life that makes this show truly alluring.