Aglaya K. Glebova —
What should the modern world look like? The Soviet artist Aleksandr Rodchenko, like many of his avant-garde comrades both east and west of Moscow, had strong opinions on the subject. The modern world was one of speed, change, and movement. It was also one of technological progress. In the modern world, Rodchenko wrote in 1928, there could be no eternal truths, no single approach to a scientific or cultural problem, but only constant development. Space, too, was now ever-changing: the city of factories and skyscrapers, traversed by cars, buses, and trams, was not a totality but a network that could only be glimpsed in parts, obliquely. Likewise, the modern person (Vladimir Lenin included) was not defined by a unique personality, but, rather, was “many… and sometimes entirely opposed.” It was this multiplicity and contingency that photography, Rodchenko’s chosen medium, had to capture. For him, the snapshot was especially well-suited to documenting contemporaneity because of what Rodchenko saw as its essential qualities: instantaneity, mobility, and mass reproducibility.
It is then startling to discover, among Rodchenko’s photographs, posed portraits; long exposures; singular prints delicately painted by hand; still-lives that betray no interest in the world outside the studio, and landscapes that show not a hint of movement, to name a handful of exceptions to his hyper-modernist program. These photographs, some of them little known, are part of what I call Rodchenko’s “shadow oeuvre”: works that have long been overshadowed by images that better fit modernism’s deep-rooted attachment to medium-specificity, which is also part and parcel of Rodchenko’s own stated commitment to a particularly modern and modernist version of photography (fast, serial, defamiliarizing, multiple). Aleksandr Rodchenko: Photography in the Time of Stalin hence departs from the artist’s own dicta and established readings of his work to examine the temporal and material expansions of Rodchenko’s photography. The book’s subtitle denotes not a monolithic era of Stalinism–though Stalin’s figure unsurprisingly looms large as the 1930s draw to a close–but the multiple temporalities that Rodchenko’s work brought to the surface in spite of the accelerative “battle for time” waged under the auspices of the Five-Year Plans. Aleksandr Rodchenko argues that, in the context of forced and ruthless modernization, the refusal of newness, rupture, and speed could be urgent, even critical.
Such a refusal is most evident Rodchenko’s overpainted photographs, in which the artist drew out the temporality of the prints by returning to them with crayon and brush in hand. But the embrace of stillness and contemplation is also evident in much of Rodchenko’s “shadow oeuvre” as well as his more canonical photographs. Starting in the late 1920s, Rodchenko’s works increasingly framed the recent past as part of the present, showing the co-existence of the outdated and the just now, the durational and the future-oriented, the “what has-been” and “what is” (or “what should be”).
Figures of newness abounded in Rodchenko’s photography of the late 1920s in particular, but even here the transformation was almost never total. A photograph taken around 1930 presents a paradigmatic Rodchenko composition, an oblique view the artist advocated as a way to see the world anew (photograph from any point except “from the navel”! he would proclaim).
A city street rises on a diagonal, which simultaneously reveals and defamiliarizes this slice of urban space. We find ourselves in the thick of things in Moscow; the steam roller is paving Leningrad highway, linking the still-new and the old capitals, and one of Moscow’s busy train stations is a few hundred feet away. The highway was being asphalted for the first time, as the whole neighborhood, together with much of the city and most of the territory of the Soviet Union, were undergoing rapid changes in the fast-paced era of the First Five-Year Plan. Rodchenko’s photograph shows the arrival of technology as a fact, a patchwork process, and a spectacle: note the dozen or so bystanders whose shadows fall on the finished strip of asphalt.
The image also appeared on the cover of the journal Smena in 1931, an apt illustration for the magazine’s title, meaning Change or Shift. The issue was designed by the artist Varvara Stepanova, who was also Rodchenko’s lifelong partner (they would collaborate on dozens of important graphic design commissions later in the 1930s; my book’s final chapter discusses one example of their collaboration). Stepanova cropped the photograph for the cover, getting us a little closer to the machines; a handful of shots by Rodchenko inside the issue likewise give us a sense of Moscow’s changing space, with new tramlines cutting through the dense network of streets and residents gathering at the recently constructed Park of Culture and Leisure. Yet the transformation captured in Rodchenko’s photographs is almost never total: notice, for instance, the horse-drawn carriage on a street parallel to the highway, and the prominent outlines of the pre-revolutionary churches in the upper left-hand corner, overlaid by the titular “change” in Stepanova’s cover design.
Like many avant-garde artists, and perhaps more so than most, Rodchenko pursued multiple mediums at once. In the second half of the 1920s, for instance, he continued working extensively in both graphic and film design. Yet from the mid-1920s until the mid-1930s, photography was the primary locus of Rodchenko’s practice, in part because he saw it as uniquely connected to the moment he inhabited, to what he described as the “real” or “authentic” character of contemporary life. This was not just a question of opinion: as Rodchenko began to make a name for himself in photoreportage, he increasingly worked on assignment and took on a wide variety of subjects. A selection of photographs Rodchenko took in 1929 for the themed issues of just one journal, Daesh’ [Let’s Give], offers a sense of the range: from the Moscow Electric Station, representing the “full speed ahead” ethos of the First Five-Year Plan, to photo-series on dairy and grain production, on Moscow’s botanical garden, on a textile factory, on a crèche, on water pipes that were not installed on time and, the best-known of the lot, on the AMO automobile factory.
This list offers only a sliver of the subjects that Rodchenko documented. He photographed many sites and projects, some of which he had little, if any, interest in; some that he may have been skeptical of; and some that exposed him to the regime’s exponential violence. Rodchenko’s photographic and photography-adjacent practice hence dealt with a wide swath of Soviet life and its transformations in the first decade of Stalinism. As a result, this monograph unfolds not only chronologically but also thematically, zeroing in on the cultural fault lines of the moment and examining Rodchenko’s images within their constantly shifting discursive ground, where the meaning and value of concepts such as “personality” or “ecology” could change radically within the space of a year or a few months, and sometimes a few days. The book’s five chapters delve into some of the pressing issues of the Soviet 1930s, such as the question of collectivity (with Rodchenko’s urban photographs unexpectedly opening up a space for socialist interiority) and the place of nature and ecology in the rapidly industrializing nation. What emerges is a portrait of an artist looking for a different way–or, rather, ways–to respond to, and grapple with, the rapidly changing politics of the time.
Aglaya K. Glebova is associate professor in the History of Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley.