In revolutionary Russia, in the civil war that followed, and in the Soviet Union under Stalin, photographs and films were seen to be the most powerful tools for spreading the message of a worldwide workers revolt. “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film” at the Frist Center presents images, films, and movie posters created during the early Soviet Union, documenting a time when art was an active agent of sociopolitical will in a rapidly changing world.
Empowered by their communist leaders and armed with state-of-the-art hand-held cameras, the earliest Soviet photographers immediately began pushing the medium to its furthest edges, experimenting with expressive angles, double exposures, montage, and the manipulation of light itself. Consequently, the first gallery in this chronological display is one of the show’s most stunning, and it kicks this exhibition off with a flash.
El Lissitzky’s trio of self portraits captures the artist recovering from the removal of a lung following a bout of tuberculosis. The bandage dressing his head makes him appear like some Eastern magician, and the artist’s darkroom manipulations – an architect’s compass appears in one picture, a third eye floats above his own in another – further encourage mystical readings of these images.
Georgy Petrusov’s Caricature of Alexander Rodchenko offers an edgy, subversive take on traditional portraiture by utilizing double exposure to picture the face of his colleague on the back of the Rodchenko’s own bald head. The resulting image is as technically startling as it is seriously silly.
The experimental display reaches its zenith with a suite of Georgy Zimin’s photogram images, which he created by exposing arrangements of paint rollers, screws, scales, jewelry, and eyeglasses on photosensitive paper. These works mostly eliminate the photographer’s eye all together, creating flat expressions capturing pure light, or the lack thereof.
The exhibition’s “Constructing Socialism” section illuminates the role photography played in propagandizing the progressive and aspirational goals of the state through the idealization of machines and industry in the Soviet quest for a kind of mechanized utopia. Arkady Shaikhet’s Assembling the Globe at Moscow Central Telegraph Station pictures two workers inside the skeleton of the architectural globe being built on the facade of the titular telegraph station. The workers are rendered in monumental scale, which seeks to capture a new world being created by the Soviet proletariat, and further emphasized by a display that also includes examples of Shaikhet’s image being reprinted in publications and even re-contextualized in the works of other photographers.
While whole galleries are devoted to images of machines and buildings, some of the most arresting shots in the exhibition capture the Soviets themselves telling their own stories in stony stares, generous grins, and candid captures, lending insight into a diverse people spanned across a massive land at the beginning of a world-changing political experiment. The portraits on display are necessarily diverse: Georgy Zelma’s Voice of Moscow pictures two Uzbek men listening to the titular radio broadcast, in which the delight on their faces perhaps reveals this to be the first broadcast they’d ever heard. Alexander Rodchenko’s Vladimir Mayakovsky is an eponymous portrait of his subject, who stares out at the viewer from beneath the brim of an up-turned fedora, with all the intensity one might expect from a poet/playwright/actor/director who chafed under Stalin’s increasing censorship and replaced Russian literature’s formal and romantic language with the language of the streets.
As the Soviet experiment progressed under Stalin, photographers were increasingly told what subjects to capture and how they should be represented, and this exhibition presents whole galleries full of strong soldiers and gleaming guns, austere farmers and willing workers. It also includes a display of physical fitness culture, images of everyday Soviets representing their dedication to robust health and exercise. Alexander Rodchenko’s Dive pictures a diver tucked into a flip, dramatically framed against the clouds, captured by the photographer while he was laying alongside a pool. For cinephilic viewers, the image evokes the same vertigo as Leni Reifenstahl’s moving images of German divers in her film Olympia, which documented the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. This overlap of Communist and Nazi art reminds viewers that both the extreme left and the extreme right eventually produce the same imagery that’s always created when the inclinations of individual artists are subsumed by the tyranny of the state.