by Lucian Perkins
For almost a century, the infamous curtain between the Soviet Union and the West kept us from seeing the evolution of photography in Russia. When I first met Russian photographers and began to learn about their work, their dedication and passion inspired my own photography. One of them, Alexander Lapin, is a Russian teacher and a wonderful photographer, who was fired during the Soviet era for showing controversial works by one of his students. He describes what it was like to work during the Soviet period for many of the photographers: "We worked fully for ourselves and our art. We had no hope of being published or recognized." When communism fell, these photographers were finally free to show their work to the world after years of being banned and hidden.
Photography in Russia goes almost as far back as its beginnings in this country. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, recognized this in the late 1890s, he knew that Russia was an important photography market his company needed to reach. And to some extent it did. Leo Tolstoy's wife, Sonia, an avid photographer owned her own Kodak camera, and processed and printed her own images. She photographed her family, and the many people who visited her and her husband at their country home outside Moscow.
The parallels between Russian and American photography is remarkable, as seen in the current exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, curated by National Geographic Senior Editor Leah Bendavid-Val and titled "Propaganda and Dreams." The exhibition reveals two governments (the United States and the Soviet Union), sending out their best photographers, such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange on one side, and Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Elizar Langman on the other, to document their respective societies. Viewing the works together, sometimes side by side, we see the striking similarities and differences of two cultures separated by the iron curtain. The exhibition will be at the Corcoran until October 3, 1999, and I can't recommend it enough to anyone interested in photography.
The parallels continue as we learn more
about Russia's World War II photographers. Yevgeni Khaldei, whose image
of a Soviet soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin,
is often compared with Joe Rosenthal's image of U.S. soldiers hoisting
the flag at Iwo Jima. The two photographers met several years ago and remarked
on the irony that they, two Jews, made the two most famous photo icons
marking the end of WW II.
Like Russia's soldiers, her photographers operated under very difficult conditions both politically and physically. Several years back, I had the pleasure of spending time with one of them, Vsevolod Tarasevich. He told me that if any of his photographs had a dead Soviet soldier in it, it would have meant an immediate "death sentence" for him. He also remarked to me how surprised he was to find out that his images were "sharp" when he returned to Moscow to see them for the first time at the end of the war. "Why were you surprised?" I asked, somewhat baffled by this comment. "Because I only had one camera to cover the whole war with," he responded. "And at the beginning of the war, my viewfinder cracked, so I was never sure whether my images were sharp or not."
Since WW II, up until the fall of Communism, the unofficial photographers who were not hired by the Soviet media produced some of the most passionate photography of that period. Small circles of them would meticulously photocopy a book by Cartier Bresson that someone had managed to bring from the West, and pass the images around for all to see and study.
After the fall of Communism, the world was turned upside down for Russian photographers as they tried to make their way and survive under new circumstances. Previously, many photographers had figured out ways to navigate the Soviet system and produce art. Now, they had to work in a totally different system that is still evolving. Andrey Chezhin (www.pressroom.com/~lucian/chezhin.html), a distinguished art photographer, from St. Petersburg, photographed for a construction company there, during Soviet rule. He had an easy job of documenting the progress at construction sites, and was able to spend most of his time doing his own work. He also had access to unlimited amounts of film, paper and equipment from his employer for his personal work. "Back then I had the facilities to produce my work. But, I was never allowed to exhibit my photographs, except in the privacy of my friends' homes. Now, I can show my work, but I can't afford to make it," Chezhin explains. Yet, he notes that regardless of how difficult times are now, he prefers them to the Soviet days.
Today, many of the photographers who were never hired in the Soviet system are working today. Several have been discovered by the West. Kathy Ryan, picture editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, uses a number of Russian photographers after visiting Russia in 1995 as a speaker at InterFoto (an international photography festival, in Moscow, which I helped start). There, she saw the work of Vladimir Syomin, Gregori Pinkhassov, and Nikolai Ignatiev to name a few. http://www.interfoto.ru
New magazines and newspapers are popping up throughout Russia. The Russian media is searching for its identity, and evolving. Russian photographers are learning how to work with the new media. Andre Polikanov, Russian picture editor for Time magazine, describes it this way, "Russian photojournalists are now working for foreign newspapers and magazines. They are learning Western practices and discipline and imparting them to the Russian media. I'm amazed at how much more professional Russian photographers have become over the last few years." During the war in Kosovo, Polikanov hired several Russian photographers to cover the war from the Belgrade and Kosovo perspectives for Time magazine (www.pathfinder.com/time/daily/special/photo/kosovo4).
Eddie Opp, (www.oppfoto.pp.ru) an American who moved to Moscow in the early '90s, finds himself in the reverse situation, as he is now the photo editor of Kommersant newspaper, one of Russia's largest and best. When he arrived in Moscow in 1992 he says of it, "Back then the Soviet journalistic morals, rather lack of them, was one of the most striking things to me. There were tremendous shots, less documentary than Western ones, more sensational and artistic. The level of photography was always high, but the journalistic values always questionable. Over the years, I think Russian photojournalism has gotten a little more professional and a little more honest. Thanks (or no thanks) to the opening up of the society and the influence of the Western press, these things have had an impact. There has been a little evolution, but the basic differences between the Russia and the West have stayed the same more than they have changed."
Now, with the free exchange of ideas between Russia and the West, both sides have a chance to learn about each others art. I can only speak for myself by saying that the friendships I've developed with many Russian photographers, and the inspiration their work has given me has enriched me as a photographer and a person.
Lucian's Russian photos: http://ww.pressroom.com/~lucian/rhp.html
Chezhin's images: http://www.pressroom.com/~lucian/chezhin.html
Russian coverage for Time: http://www.pathfinder.com/time/daily/special/photo/kosovo4
Russian exhibition: http://www.dbcc.cc.fl.us/dbcc/htm/smp/russia.htm
Russian photography website: http://www.photographer.ru
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