Author Topic: 20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917  (Read 1900 times)

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Offline Dominic_Albanese

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20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917
« on: January 23, 2008, 07:20:28 PM »
Interesting Book...

Moving With the Times

A new book of photographs is part of a far-reaching project to chronicle Russia's history.

By Anna Malpas
Published: January 18, 2008

In a picture from 1907, an eager crowd gathers on a cobbled street of Petersburg to see Russia's first car show, a small boy in knickerbockers racing across in a blur of excitement. In others, bonneted women admire the first electric lighting in a shopping arcade and pilots wheel out a Bleriot monoplane to take part in a 1910 air show.

But despite these signs of technological progress, abject poverty is never far from the camera's lens. Headscarfed women wait in an endless line at a pawnbroker's and bums fight outside a night shelter, whose Dickensian walls are painted with the slogans: "No drinking vodka, no singing songs, behave yourselves quietly."

The pictures come from a new coffee-table book, "20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917," which covers the turbulent period in hundreds of full-page archival images, ranging from high politics to gritty documentary photography to family portraits.
The book is part of an ongoing project by state-owned gallery Moscow House of Photography to collect and catalogue historically interesting photographs taken over the last century. It's planned that another four books will follow, loosely divided into the pre-war period, World War II, the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras and perestroika to 2000, the gallery's director, Olga Sviblova, said in an interview on Sunday.

The most familiar photographs of the Tsar's family and the revolutionary leaders are missing. The most memorable images instead show strange scenes from a forgotten past: swollen-faced residents of a leper colony pose in peaked caps; opera singer Anastasia Vyaltseva lazes in her private train car, the equal of the one now used by pop star Alla Pugachyova; and prize fighters at a Petersburg circus -- three of whom are black -- flex their muscles and handle-bar moustaches.

The photographs come from around more than 50 archives, including major state museums such as the Ethnography Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as museums in provincial cities including Ryazan, Yeletsk and Murom and many private collections.

Most of the book's 50,000 copies are being distributed to schools and libraries, using funding from sponsors Sberbank and Russian Railways. It's also on sale in bookstores at a wallet-busting 6,000 rubles ($245), a price that Sviblova justifies by the need to cover expenses with few copies on sale. Those who can't afford the book can look at the published photographs -- and many thousands more -- on a site created by the gallery,, she said.

The first book was the result of eight years' work, Sviblova said. Much of that was spent in finding out what the photographs actually showed, since archives were often irritatingly vague. "The most difficult thing is to describe the pictures: who, when, where," she said.

The original concept was to group photographs according to year, but this proved impracticable, she said. "Often you can't tell whether it's 1913 or 1917."

The book is "a history of Russia in photographs, which is a little different from a history of Russian photography," she said. Some of the photographs chosen have technical defects such as blurred or overexposed faces or marks on the negatives, but were included for their subject matter rather than their artistic value.

"What is more interesting is human life, everyday life: how people drink tea or take part in amateur theater," Sviblova said. "The idea is to give different points of view of life."

Offline Dominic_Albanese

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Re: 20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917
« Reply #1 on: January 23, 2008, 07:21:39 PM »

Moscow House of Photography acquired the publication rights from archives, but not the images themselves. Many archives had only negatives, from which the gallery made prints.

Each photograph is given a full page -- the designers tried grouping smaller images but this didn't work, Svibolova said. "They give you information, but they don't give you the emotional result." Many photographers' names have been lost or forgotten, but the book includes works by some well-known pioneers of Russian photography, such as Maxim Dmitriyev, who chronicled Nizhny Novgorod markets and lowlifes.

The brief commentaries are intended to be "exactly objective," Sviblova said. She intended the book to have "respect for historical fact, respect for reality as it is, without the mythmaking descriptions that we had for 70 years."

In this first volume, there are many intimate and family pictures, whether they are of wealthy entrepreneur Savva Morozov's nephew Mika cuddling his dog, or people at a dacha gathering round a table to drink liqueurs. "Maybe people had a feeling that this way of life would be destroyed," Sviblova speculated.

In the next volume of the series, which will probably come out at the end of the summer, there are fewer personal photographs, Sviblova said.

Citing her own family history, she said that most families didn't hold onto their photographs in the Soviet era. "If you live in a communal apartment, you think mostly where you will put a bed for your child, not where you will put books with your archive," she said. "Family history during Soviet times was completely destroyed, like all history."

Sviblova's own grandparents avoided talking of their past -- much less displaying photographs -- since her grandfather, an engineer who headed the Volga-Don canal construction, spent time in a prison camp and his wife came from a family of priests. She found one album after her grandmother's death with a few photos of her grandfather in the early 1930s and of her great-grandmother doing Red Cross work during World War I and "nothing more," she said. "It's a strange feeling when you live without history."

Nevertheless, "we have absolutely incredible material for the 1920s and 1930s," Sviblova said. "It was the explosion of Soviet photography, the time when the Soviet myth was created."

She complained, however, that Soviet publications and archives often failed to credit the photographer, let alone give captions naming the subjects. "In the Soviet Union it was important to publish photographs with emotional feeling," she said, citing the influential magazine USSR in Construction, whose stylish design only included photo credits in the foreign-language versions.

"It can be a beautiful image, but a credit saying unknown photographer is a sign of our absence of respect for a person's work," Sviblova said.

Images that went into the first book are now being exhibited in Serpukhov in the Moscow region and the touring exhibition will later visit Samara, Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod, she said.

In February, an interactive element will appear on the site, so that Russians can send in their own family photographs for display online. "I don't want to have garbage," Sviblova warned. "It's not, where you can send all photos." The photos will be carefully weeded and sorted according to chronology and themes. The web site already has more than 100,000 photographs.

Moscow House of Photography is also taking the idea of chronicling history into the present, she said, commissioning photographers to visit cities around Russia and holding the annual Silver Camera competition for the best photographs of Moscow. In February, the gallery will launch a new competition for the best photographs of Russia as a whole, taking entries on the web site. The best entries will be published each year in a book with 365 pages.

"20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917" (Rossiya XX Vek v Fotografiyakh 1900-1017) is published by Moscow House of Photography. The photographs are also available to view on the web site