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In the Soviet School of Photography: Lessons in Photographic Literacy

By the mid-1930s, the literary works of the aging Russian naturalist author Mikhail Prishvin abounded in the Soviet press, from children’s books to literary journals.[1] But despite a long list of publications, the author has been relegated to a secondary position in the Soviet literary canon. It has only been with the recent publication of his vast and detailed diaries that Prishvin’s authorial persona has sparked growing scholarship and interest.[2] And it was not until December 2015 that viewers were able to see the first exhibition of his equally meticulous and remarkable photographs. The Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (MAMM) mounted an exhibition of images taken by the writer with subjects ranging from the destruction of the bells in his beloved Sergiev Posad, to prisoners and guards at the White Sea Canal construction site, to intimate portraits of his faithful hunting dogs and delicate close-ups of spiderwebs. Illuminated by the bright lights of the gallery, and displayed next to minimalist iPad “guides” with recorded excerpts from the author’s stories and diaries, the enlarged photographs shone for the first time. In their straight-on presentation of subjects, Prishvin’s photographs seemed anachronistic in an exhibition hall bearing the name of the pioneer of modernist photography, Aleksandr Rodchenko.[3] However, as the show made clear, the photographer’s contribution to modern art was not in innovation, but to see the old in the new—the persistent holdovers from a past way of life in Russian peasants, Old Believers, and the textures of nature. But even in this celebration of the photographer’s work on its grandest scale to date, his subjects were often overlooked in the young visitors’ rush to take selfies. Prishvin, the hunter, nature lover, and author of naturalist ocherki, was welcomed into the gallery’s avant-garde canon just as he was crowded out by the distractions of contemporary media.

Prishvin was an avid photographer in the tumultuous years of 1925–1936, just as photography was providing new ways of documenting and mapping the rapidly changing political and social reality of the nascent Soviet state. A few years before Prishvin received his first Leica camera, Anatolii Lunacharskii, the Commissar of Enlightenment during the most open period of Soviet artistic expression, linked a vision of the new nation with photographic literacy, stating in 1926: “Just as every forward-looking comrade must have a watch, so must he be able to handle a camera. This will surely happen with time. Just as the USSR achieved universal literacy in general, so too will it have photographic literacy in particular.”[4] Soviet citizens en masse would now have access to portable means of organizing both time (the watch) and space (the camera). This democratically empowering call would also inspire the worker photography movement, a burgeoning number of author-photographers, and well-known avant-garde artists to employ the camera in their own framings of a volatile Soviet experience.[5]  

However, wielding a camera is but one part of photographic literacy. The photographic avant-garde, largely through the pages of the periodical press, would also teach a viewing public how to read their new world, defamiliarizing everyday objects with extreme close-ups and the cutting and reassembling of photographs into new collaged and montaged worlds. In so doing, modernist photographers, like Rodchenko and other members of the October (Oktiabr’) group, became easy targets in the heated discourses over shifting attitudes towards photographic and textual representation in the 1930s. With the rise of Socialist Realism, the strategies employed in creating and reading photographs were necessarily reformulated, reflecting the central tensions surrounding the visualization of everyday objects, people, and production within the Soviet Union. How can a photograph alone capture the whole of Soviet space—industry, production, peoples? How can a single snapshot capture progress over time, from the ages of backwardness before the revolution to the success of the Five-Year Plans? Just at its moment of greatest saturation in print media, the camera’s limited scope potentially threatened the photographic experiments of both experimental modernists like Rodchenko and the out-of-time and out-of-place Prishvin.

While the work of Margarita Tupitsyn and Erika Wolf has confirmed the extended life of the photographic avant-garde well into the late 1930s, from Rodchenko’s photo-stills to El Lissitzky’s photomontages in USSR in Construction, this article will diversify the representative works and photographers in this Soviet canon to include Mikhail Prishvin. Prishvin, an author writing both for children (young subjects under development) and for adults (subjects undergoing a new transformation), provides an unexpected and heretofore missing primer for understanding the defining trajectory of photographic literacy and the forces shaping visual and textual production in the early Soviet period. In two unconventional lessons, moving from the children’s book to elite journals, we will slow down our perceiving eyes and camera lenses in order to read with expert speed a rapidly changing Soviet present. By learning to read photographically, we gain a new lens through which to view the complex trajectory of Socialist Realist imaging, just as Socialist Realism would become the lens through which authors, artists, and readers would experience the shape of their own worlds.

Lesson One: Learning the Photo-Still

The late 1920s and early 1930s were characterized by a polyphony of voices vying for dominance in the sphere of Soviet photography, chief among which were the journalistically oriented ROPF (Russian Association of Proletarian Photojournalists) and the Constructivist group October (Oktiabr’).[6] The photographers who would come to form the short-lived October group in 1930 stressed a formal approach to the subject of the photo-still: the striking close-up, the diagonal composition, or a shot from sharply from above or below the subject. Seeing itself as pioneering, this avant-garde group was opposed to what it viewed as the retrograde art of embellishment, represented by traditional Western painting in particular.[7] Photography was central to their model of artistic production, which they saw as not only capturing an industrial and modern world, but also as capable of organizing life itself.[8]

Rodchenko, a professor at VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios) in the 1920s and a later leading voice in the October group, was an advocate of this new photographic technique in the tendentious spaces of the art and journalistic press.[9] Photographs, Rodchenko argued, should not resemble painterly landscapes with horizons painted at “navel level”—an angle characteristic of prerevolutionary photography.[10] Moreoever, in echoing the earlier words of Lunacharskii in Sovetskoe foto, Rodchenko utilized his own metaphors of “photographic literacy.” In an article entitled “Large-Scale Illiteracy or Dirty Little Tricks,” published in Novyi LEF in 1928, Rodchenko lashed out at critics in Sovetskoe foto who accused him of plagiarizing the work of Western photographers.[11] In that original accusation, a note from the editor is illustrated with evidence: three Rodchenko photographs juxtaposed with examples from Western photographers, including Moholy-Nagy’s “Bauhaus Balconies” (1926) and Rodchenko’s “Balconies” (1925)—both taken from Rodchenko’s signature “worm’s eye view.” The editorial note sarcastically chastises Western photographers for copying the Rodchenko “point of view.” All the while, the visual evidence in fact shows that the examples of Western photographs were taken after those by Rodchenko. In his rhetorical flourish in Novyi LEF, Rodchenko claimed that the critics who criticized him were photographically “illiterate” and, in the course of several short articles, proceeded to show them how to see and “read” photographic space. The work of contemporary photography—as the artistic medium of the proletariat as well as a popular form in print—was not in fact, Rodchenko argued, to privilege his originality as auteur, but rather to free photography from its subordination to painting. Photographs taken from every point of view (except “from the navel”) would be capable of “showing the world from all points” and educating “the ability to see from all sides.”[12] In order to achieve this goal, he wrote, the editors of photographic journals should encourage the repetition of subjects and perspectives (what some of his critics decried as Rodchenko’s plagiarism) and print numerous examples of such photographs in their journals. Only then could photography overcome centuries of viewing the world from a painterly perspective and capture a new, contemporary (Soviet) reality.[13]

But it was not only visual echoes that Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko shared in 1928. In the very same year, Moholy-Nagy published his own prophetic vision of photographic literacy: “[F]irst must come the realization that the knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.”[14] Moholy-Nagy’s comments form the coda for a brief manifesto on “image sequences; series,” which lauded not the single photograph (as in the gallery), but rather the “photographic series—photographic comics, pamphlets, books.” Organized in a series, he wrote, photographs acquire a different power—as “a potent weapon or tender poetry” (“Vision in Motion,” 208).

One such example features a collection of photographs, quite similar to those published in the earlier years of Novyi LEF: Vladimir Griuntal’ and Grigorii Iablonovksii’s children’s book What Is This? (Chto eto takoe? 1932).[15] This book by two lesser-known members of the October group transforms the defamiliarization of space and object into a game for the child reader. In the first half of the work, the “snapshot-puzzles” (snimki-zagadki) ask the reader to guess at what is being pictured in the black-and-white photographs and, at the same time, to solve an arithmetic problem (fig. 1). The answers to both the visual and arithmetic puzzles are revealed in the second half of the book (fig. 2), where objects that were initially shot from unexpected angles or shown in unrecognizable close-ups—such as a grouping of eggs shot from above or a close-up of a household grater—are revealed from a more familiar angle. The photographed objects (alongside the solution to the mathematical problem) are refamiliarized, revealed as recognizable objects from everyday life.[16]

Fig. 1. Vladimir Griuntal’ and G. Iablonovskii, What is This? (Chto eto takoe?, 1932); Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

While the mathematical problem has no direct relation to the object with which it is paired, it accompanies the problem of the defamiliarized object as a parallel procedure, serving as a “helpmate” for solving the latter. If the child reader cannot guess the picture puzzle, she is told that she can use the arithmetic solution to locate the answer. Turning to the back of the book, the first solution (2x2=4) is accompanied by the proclamation “Arithmetic is a good thing!”[17] When the puzzle is solved (either by completing the arithmetic problem or by guessing what is pictured in the photograph—by far the more difficult task!), the child might return to the first image (the eggs from above, the metal texture of the grater), creating a dynamic reading experience that resists a left to right, front to back relationship with the book. And at first look these riddles, coupled with the nontraditional ordering of the book, appear to embody a visual ostranenie—the technique of breaking our perceptual habits in order to make objects “unfamiliar” and thereby increase the difficulty and length of the perceptual process. One review of the book, by Sergei Morozov in Proletarskoe foto, does hint at this reading, as well as describing the work of the camera lens in capturing “some detail of an object familiar to a child” which “can make new the sensation (oshchushchenie) of that thing.”[18] As Viktor Shklovskii states in his seminal “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priem”): “The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to what the image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive it in a special way, in short, to lead us to a ‘vision’ of this object rather than mere ‘recognition.’”[19] Sara Pankenier Weld has also demonstrated that this distinction between seeing and recognition has basis in Shklovskii’s privileging of the child’s untrained “innocent eye.”[20] However, for the child working through the problem sets of images and arithmetic of What is This?, the game of defamiliarization can serve to play against the slowing of perception (Shklovskii’s ostranenie) by training the mind to speed up the process of recognition. In fact, Shklovskii states that the “algebraic method of thinking”—as opposed to the workings of ostranenie—leads to spatial recognition and back to automatization “in the blink of an eye.” He goes on to say that “in the process of algebrizing, of automatizing the object, the greatest economy of perceptual effort takes place. Objects are represented either by one single characteristic (for example, by number), or else by a formula that never even rises to the level of consciousness” (“Art As Device,” 5).[21] In What is This?, rather than arithmetic serving the photographs, arithmetic’s organizing structure makes the defamiliarized photographs into algebraic unknowns to be solved.

Fig. 2. Vladimir Griuntal’ and G. Iablonovskii, from What is This? (Chto eto takoe?, 1932); Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

The artists’ book was, in part, favorably reviewed in Proletarskoe foto by Sergei Morozov.[22] Morozov opened his review by reaffirming that photography (like film), “as the most documentary of the arts,” should occupy a conspicuous place in children’s textbooks. In such cases, the “photograph or a series of photographs can be used as the most convincing illustrations in a teacher’s program” (Morozov, “‘Chto eto takoe,’” 18). Further, the camera’s lens and the photograph, even in extreme close-ups and from oblique angles, can serve to sharpen a child’s ability to discern quickly what is before her (smekalka), to reveal new scale relationships amongst objects, to arouse her curiosity, and to expand the boundaries of her impressions and ideas (18). And it is precisely this kind of photographically based pedagogy that was proposed by Lunacharskii: “Photography is the foundation of the school and is necessary everywhere. No offices or laboratories can play such a broad role in educational matters as photography can on its own” (“Nasha kul’tura i fotografiia,” 2). Like Rodchenko, and like Morozov in his review of What is This?, Lunacharskii saw the possibilities for photography to “illustrate all sides of life, all knowledge that the child receives” (2). To reformulate this revolution in visual thinking, the Commissar of Enlightenment reminds us that the camera can see beyond the visible realm as it captures detailed images of distant stars or microscopic worlds. In the hands of the child, a camera can “little by little” (malo-pomalu), like the ever-growing building blocks of language, become a tool for producing images of scientific and pedagogical value (2). Thus, even as photography moved beyond a means of restructuring vision—in order to “revolutionize visual thinking”—it also formed the means by which one gains new mastery over space.[23]

This mastery lies both in reading the photograph (e.g., recognizing an object from an unexpected angle) and in playing at being a photographer. Rodchenko’s photographs were used to play such a game as a variation on the ubiquitous “foto-zagadka” in the interactive pages of children’s magazines.[24] In 1933 the young adult journal Pioner published one of Rodchenko’s famous images of balconies on Miasnitskaia Street (from the same series of photographs for which he was accused of “plagiarism” in Sovetskoe foto) with the caption (fig. 3):[25]

The photographer Rodchenko has sent in one of his photographs of the very tallest buildings in Moscow—No. 21 Miasnitskaia Street. He sent it . . . without saying from which side you should look at it. We turned it and turned it and haphazardly placed it as it appears here. We ask our readers to respond, did we do it right? From which side should we look at this photograph? How did Rodchenko photograph this building?[26]

This exercise calls on the child to literally play out Shklovskii’s metaphorical call to overturn convention, that is, to invert the image in order to see the object from a fresh perspective.[27] But much like the guessing games of What is This?, the suggestion of a solution for the “right” placement of Rodchenko’s photograph suggests that the task of photographic literacy is refamiliarization. While the student photographer might learn to take photographs from “all sides,” the reader of Pioner is called upon to recognize the familiar object, not see anew. In so doing, mastery over her object-world is once again gained through the traditional game of recognition.

Fig. 3. Alexander Rodchenko, “Photo-Question” (“Foto-vopros”), Pioner no. 13 (1933). 

By the late 1920s, Rodchenko was coming under increasing attack for his formalism and the limited scope of his camera lenses, particularly from the photo-journalists of the competing ROPF. Given the comparatively late appearance (in 1932) of What Is This?, Morozov’s negative turn at the close of his Proletarskoe foto review is unsurprising. He criticized the book as “tricks played by crafty experts in photographic art,” referring precisely to the pictures of eggs as reproduced here in figures 2 and 3. He goes on to suggest that while one should “find striking viewpoints and be inquisitive” there is no reason to “fracture things” (Morozov, “‘Chto eto takoe,’” 18).[28] And just as the photographs fracture and distort, he argues, the book itself does not cohere as a whole. Building neither thematically, nor increasing in difficulty from start to finish, it is (in Morozov’s view) an incomplete knowledge base.[29]

Enter the Narrative

One winning solution to the problems of fragmentation and the “formalism” of the October group techniques was found in the move towards narrativized photography. By the late 1920s the ocherk, or short documentary sketch, had become the dominant mode of representation for the “literature of fact” movement, documenting a rapidly transforming landscape during the drive toward industrialization of the First Five-Year Plan.[30] This “factographic” movement drew directly from Soviet reality, inscribing reportage, documents, scientific data, as well as photographs and film into brief accounts of contemporary life.[31] In tandem with the proliferation of the portable Leica camera—renowned for its high quality images, ease of use, and quick shutter release, the short ocherk was favored due to the rapid pace at which it could be produced, and lauded from a pedagogical point of view for its clear narrative structure, which would “teach new writers to write and new readers to read” (Papazian, Manufacturing Truth, 15).

Sergei Tret’iakov’s notion of the extended photo-observation (dlitel’noe foto-nabliudenie), first articulated in response to ROPF photographers Al’pert and Shaikhet’s “Day in the Life of a Moscow Working Class Family,” is an emblematic example of the increasing narrativization of photography and the dominance of photography in the ocherk genre.[32] Tret’iakov praised Al’pert and Shaikhet’s photo essay as an “initial incision” which would be followed by extended photo-observations that would note “every moment of growth and change in [the Soviet citizens’] condition.”[33] Echoing Lunchacharskii’s pedagogical visions for “building” photographic information over time, Tret’iakov advocated repeated visits to a site, producing a subsequent plot in photographic images and text, which would serve to provide a complete picture of new areas of Soviet life (e.g. at the kolkhoz). In so doing, an extended photo-observation would provide, not the fractured sensation of a singular object or even individual subject, but “the sensation (oshchushchenie) of dramatic progress” (“From the Photo-Series,” 77; “Ot fotoserii,” 45).

By 1930, the camera had become an essential part of the writer’s kit for both Tret’iakov and Prishvin. A statement by Ivan Romanov, the subject of one of Prishvin’s ocherki, echoes Tret’iakov’s famous words in Sovetskoe foto in 1934: “I do not know what would be more difficult when traveling as a writer: if I were to lose my pen and writing pad or my camera.”[34] Romanov states that “[Prishvin] usually went with his ‘Leica’ camera, taking snapshots. . . . In his pocket he always had his notebook.”[35] And while Prishvin embraced the Soviet ocherk—shaped by both pen and camera—as a way in which the aging author could keep pace with the rapid changes taking place around him, the ocherk as a genre was also a natural extension of Prishvin’s literary debut, In the Land of Unfrightened Birds (V kraiu nepuganykh ptits, 1907). This ornately illustrated ethnographic work explored the rich and largely unknown landscape of Karelia in the far northwest of Russia, and featured many of his photographs, including images of the water and water routes in Karelia, peasants and Old Believers, accompanied by Prishvin’s ocherki about his encounters with this far-off place.[36] One contemporary Soviet critic, writing shortly after Prishvin’s death, remarked that Prishvin’s geographical compositions, from this first work to his last, were like clearings in the forest, which reveal “the connection between the striving to understand the great in the small, which is characteristic of ‘microgeography’ and the laconicism of the bare written record, which is transformed into the radiant colors of spring in a miniature about nature.”[37]

Fig. 4. Mikhail Prishvin, Spiderweb detail from “Hunting with a Camera” (“Okhota s fotoapparatom”), Pioner no. 13 (1933).

One of Prishvin’s favorite microgeographical subjects, and one featured in quadruplicate in the MAMM exhibition, was the spiderweb (fig. 4). In the very same issue of Pioner as one of Rodchenko’s “Photo Questions,” a mini-photo-ocherk by Prishvin also appears: “Hunting with a Camera.” Prishvin is introduced by the editor as a “remarkable author” who, despite his advanced age (60), has taken up a new kind of hunting—hunting with a Leica camera. The author’s camera captures photographs of the natural world which “show us what the eye of a skilled observer of nature sees where another person would see nothing interesting” precisely because Prishvin combines the keen observation of a hunter with the mastery of a writer.[38] Below the close-up of two spiderwebs, one large in the foreground and one small in the background, Prishvin’s extended caption illuminates the water droplets barely visible in the photo reproduction. So too does it come with an injunction on behalf of the spider:

In August and September the early morning dew accumulates on a spiderweb in the smallest drops, and then the delightful work of the forest weavers is revealed to the amazed eye. Spiders make these webs to hunt and kill (unichtozhit’) a great many of our enemies (nashikh vreditelei). We must overcome our aversion to this interesting insect (8).

This excerpt could be read in any number of allegorical directions, but is uniquely shaped by the combination of the editorial framing (Prishvin as a hunter with the camera) and Prishvin’s suggestive usage of vreditel’. While “enemy” here could as easily be rendered as “pest,” its usage in charged Soviet rhetoric link the word to its more nefarious meaning—a saboteur or enemy of the state who must be obliterated (unichtozhit’). Despite not showing the world from oblique angles and extreme close-ups, Prishvin’s microgeographies—like the spiderwebs and perhaps the overlooked spider (here Prishvin)—offer a penetrating look at a world easily overlooked by the casual observer with everyday perceptual habits through a kind of alternative ostranenie.

However limited in scope and audience this piece in Pioner might be, it does provide a small but representative sample of Prishvin’s contribution to narratively inscribed photography just at the rise of photographic Socialist Realism: his personally framed photo-ocherk.[39] While the ocherk was embraced by the author-photographers of the early 1930s, the general trend of narrativizing photographs became even more pronounced with the dissolution of competing artistic groups in 1932, and the implementation of Socialist Realism as the unifying artistic method in 1934. Socialist Realism marked a return in literature to a straightforward narrative structure, and in art to figurative representation. In its ideal form, Socialist Realist art should reflect a total and unifying vision of the way life ought to be in the Socialist state—and therefore would reject Rodchenko’s photographic vision as formalist. The realm of photography was not subject to so complete or immediate a transition as was literary production.[40] Nonetheless, photography was repeatedly presented as a foil to a literarily defined Socialist Realism at the Writers’ Congress of 1934. In the words of Karl Radek, quoted by Sovetskoe foto editor Leonid Mezhericher: “We call this realism socialist, because it is not simply a photograph of life. It is founded on an understanding of where the world is headed . . . to the triumph of socialism.”[41] While Radek’s insinuations were largely a rhetorical device, utilizing photography as a stand-in for a purely technical naturalism, Mezhericher was clearly wary that such statements could preclude photography’s role in Socialist Realist production.

Lesson Two: USSR in Construction

Even after the dissolution of the various artistic and literary factions of the late 1920s and early 1930s, modernist trends and artists’ heterogeneous perspectives were still distinctly visible in Soviet photography, albeit largely inscribed within the textual framing of the photo-series so favored in the Soviet periodical press from the pages of Sovetskoe foto to the photomontages of USSR in Construction.[42] Published from 1930 to 1941 for Soviet and Western audiences in Russian, German, French, and English, USSR in Construction was a journal of images that relegated text to a secondary function in its celebration of industrial achievements and progress across the Soviet Union.[43] Following models introduced by photographers like Al’pert and Shaikhet in the smaller pages of A-I-Z and Sovetskoe foto, USSR in Construction featured photo-narrative documentation that ranged from the single snapshot with caption to adaptations of the “extended photo-observation” on the largest scale.[44] With each issue devoted to a particular theme (e.g., the Soviet Arctic, gold mining, Dnieperstroi), Soviet artists and writers from different backgrounds and genres were called upon to contribute, including the modernist Rodchenko—and Mikhail Prishvin.

In 1935 the journal published an issue dedicated to the history and development of the Soviet fur industry. An editorial note introduces Prishvin to the scene, quoting the author and contextualizing his presence in this issue:

Vast and rich is the world of fur-bearing animals that inhabit . . . the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. . . . Tsarist Russia exterminated the fur-bearing animals in a barbarous and wasteful manner. The tsarist colonisers who engaged in the fur trade enriched themselves by cheating and mistreating the peoples in the outlying sections of the country. “How many efforts, how many lives, how many legends!” writes the well-known author Prishvin. “One’s hair stands on end at the tales of the hunt as practiced in tsarist Russia. . . . ” M. Prishvin’s wonderful stories revive this past of barbarity, plunder, violence, deceit, and virtual destruction of the country’s wealth. M. Prishvin’s well-known stories published below tell of this past.[45]

Much as with his inclusion in Pioner, Prishvin serves as an emblem of the past facing the onrush of new Soviet industry. In the pages that follow this note, excerpts from Prishvin’s texts narrate the author’s adventures (largely pre-revolutionary) in hunting sable, squirrels, arctic foxes, honey martens, hares, and mountain sheep. Photographs, spanning two or sometimes three fold-out pages, feature the peoples of various geographical regions from the Far North to the Far East, framed by these textual histories of Prishvin’s hunting, as well as, in striking contrast, contemporary accounts of Soviet fur farms and processing penned by the editors.

Fig. 5. Cover for USSR in Construction no. 10 (1935). Uncredited. Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

Before I turn to these compositions in more detail, the striking covers (both front and back) of the issue bear closer examination (fig. 5). At first glance we are presented with a puzzle direct from the pages of What Is This?, the only linguistic marker being the journal’s heading—USSR in Construction. In what has the appearance of an aerial topographic photo, the undulating topography of a fur pelt is transformed into what might be a map of the Soviet Union itself. As we turn the pages, we see that each page of the issue presents a distinct point on this “fur/map” of the USSR, from the animals native to the taiga to the large-scale fur processing industry humming away in the center of Russia. Reading the opening lines of his ocherk chronicling a past trip hunting mountain sheep in Kyrgyzstan, we might imagine an animated Prishvin moving through the topographical map of the cover: “The blue hills resembled the tents of giants roaming in these steppes, called Kyzyltau, which means red hills. From afar they also appeared blue, but as we drew nearer they became black, fringed with yellowish bushes.”[46] However, turning the page, we see the solution to our puzzle refamiliarized in three images: the fur pelt from the cover is now rendered in traditionally framed (rectangular and square) photographs, this time from several different angles and perspectives. It is accompanied by images depicting the new role of the Soviet state in the fur harvest in Uzbekistan, including (as the captions tell us) “the preliminary treatment of Caracul skins in the state farms” and “teaching Uzbek shepherds to sort Caracul skins” (fig. 6).[47] This text, along with that on the following page, was written not by Prishvin but rather a M. Ginzburg. These texts, unlike the pinpoints of Prishvin’s reframed ocherki, further expand the scope of the fur industry map to the whole of the USSR: “The Soviet Union has gone swiftly ahead in the sphere of the treatment of fur skins. During the first five-year plan a well-equipped fur treating industry, the biggest in the world, grew up in the country. At the present time it has 15 factories in Moscow, Leningrad, Kazan . . . and other towns.” This flow of multiple images and text makes clear the role and scale of human intervention and ingenuity in establishing a sustainable fur industry in the Soviet Union (fig. 7). Although this issue of the journal utilizes some modernist techniques—even showcasing shots of a single subject from many angles—these images are neither fragmented or fractured. They are socially, thematically, and narratively linked.

Fig. 6. G. Sashalski, “Mountain Sheep,” USSR in Construction no. 10 (1935). Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
Fig. 7. N. Shekutyev, “Fur Processing,” USSR in Construction no. 10 (1935). Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

As Emma Widdis has shown, mapping played a key and empowering role in Soviet visual production, from Dziga Vertov’s non-narrative cinema to children’s literature. The skills deployed in reading a map (reading a new geographical landscape) led to better “knowledge of one’s environment.” Such knowledge, particularly on a local level, might be seen as “prerequisite for exemplary citizenship.”[48] Even in mastering one’s own, highly localized space, like the close-up image of the fur pelt on the cover of USSR in Construction, one can enter “into a closer physical and mental relationship with the material world,” one that is predicated on the assumption that in such a relationship “the local was [almost always] metonymically symbolic of the national” (Widdis, Visions, 103).[49] Here, the transformative narrative, emplotted and localized onto the “map” of the USSR, is not only thematically resonant with ideological implications for reading the creative mapping of the five-year plans, but also recalls the montages of Vertov’s earlier film, A Sixth Part of the World (1926).[50] This narrative depth is remarkable in a number of respects. In moving between the contemporary images and Prishvin’s older texts, the reader is left to infer, or montage, for herself how the smiling native hunters (evoking many visual echoes of the native peoples featured in Vertov’s film) undergo their rapid transition into members of the working class via the series of photographs.[51] Cueing this time-lapse reading of the photographic subjects, several photographs—taken by Prishvin himself—are positioned like filmstrips across the bottom of several pages (fig. 8).[52] Arranged thus, they might easily call to mind Eadward Muybridge’s animal locomotion studies of the previous century. Sam Rohdie, describing Muybrige’s arrangement of photographs as montage writes:

Movement was not seen, but imagined in the gaps between instances of stillness. . . . In the pages of Muybridge’s publications, the gap between one image and the next is perceptible, but in staging them into sequences, effectively editing the images, the gap is bridged by the reader (spectator), making a leap in time and space lured on by an apparent continuity and the wish or assumption of it without attending to its construction.[53]

This suggests that the reader might imaginatively montage the movement between the static individual shots.[54] Analogously, the textual information forms a secondary layer of time-lapse motion by embedding the static images within the flow of the “natural” progression of history. Anchoring its subject in space, while creating the effect of duration, these sequences transform the violence of prerevolutionary hunting, a focal point of Prishvin’s texts, into the sanitized industry of the Soviet fur farms in the span of just three pages—providing the reader with a Tret’iakovian sensation of dramatic progress.

Fig. 8. Mikhail Prishvin, details of sables, USSR in Construction, no. 10 (1935). Permissions courtesy of L. A. Riazanova, M. M. Prishvin Estate. Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

In fact, the nearly filmic quality of this issue was lauded as a model of photo-textual production in Sovetskoe foto, one that was likened to a clear, documentary cinematic picture, as opposed to those issues of the journal that lapse into something more like a “photo album.”[55] The critic Vladimir Shmerling praised precisely this issue of USSR in Construction for its distinct point of view (“Zametki,” 9). The exemplary factor was the formation of a new genre, “in which the work of the author-ocherkist is successfully matched with that of the photo-master” (9). In the case of the fur number, one of the photo-masters (while not named by Shmerling) is Prishvin himself. However, an important disruption to the overarching narrative of progress appears in the last story of the issue. Prishvin’s signature spiderweb, previously published in Pioner, makes its appearance, nested into a collage with two other photos, a wooded area (“A typical place for woodsnipe”) and a close-up of the head of a woodsnipe (fig. 9). The photographs illustrate an excerpt from a Prishvin ocherk entitled “The First Wood Grouse.” In a first-person narrative, Prishvin and his guide (Antipych) await their quarry in the moments before dawn. But Prishvin cannot hold himself back as he sits listening for the wood grouse: he fires into the darkness, seemingly against his will—“My finger pulled the trigger of its own accord.” And so the story ends. Along the bottom of the page, however, the story seems to play out in its filmic entirety: four men with rifles row to shore, a wood grouse is spotted atop a tree, the wood grouse preens in the grass, and finally—in a punctuating shot with the caption “wood grouse”—the bird lies dead among the leaves. Rather than the final darkness of the text, the photograph illuminates the bird’s fate.

Fig. 9. Mikhail Prishvin, “A Typical Place for Woodsnipe” and “Head of a Woodsnipe,” USSR in Construction no. 10 (1935). Permissions courtesy of L. A. Riazanova, M. M. Prishvin Estate. Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

But in the framing of the ocherk excerpt, the spiderweb serves no narrative purpose. Rather, it appears out of scale for the story, while also paradoxically dominating in its microgeographical declaration of an alternative and non-narrative space. The inclusion of the spiderweb might also serve as a signpost for Prishvin’s authorial eye/I, drawing attention to the complex relationship between authorship, text, and image created by the journal’s montage. Not coincidentally, Shmerling addresses this problem as a potential drawback in his generally laudatory assessment of the fur issue of USSR in Construction. The credits presented in the back page of the journal often did not specify the authorship for every image and text, but simply listed the “contributors,” leaving only those fully literate in the journal’s vernacular to identify and pair up the author with each image and textual excerpt. Thus, deducing authorship in this case is a small mathematical riddle: some images are attributed to lesser known photographers in Leningrad, Moscow, and the Far East and “the rest are by M. M. Prishvin.”[56] While the overall effect of the issue gives the sense of dramatic progress from pre-revolutionary hunting to the modern Soviet fur industry, so too is this effect one which foregrounds the spatialized, microgeographic constructions that might be considered distinctly Prishvinesque. Together, the photographic series builds a composite whole of Soviet production on the landscape of the fur itself, each microgeography containing a depth of field composed of time (narrative) and space (the photograph). And in the figure of the spiderweb, embedded in a layout which is structured on the sensation of narrative dénouement (story of the wood grouse), provides an arresting point that might give one cause to ask, What is this? Such a spatialized disruption, out of scale and out of sync with the story on both micro- and macro-scales, offers an alternative notion of montage. In allowing us to ruminate on a progression that is non-linear, it might, in the words of John Berger, “destroy the very notion of sequences.” Rather, from the spiderweb emerges a “field of coexistence” among the photographs and text on the page, restoring them to an organic “living context.”[57]

If the spiderweb’s appearance allows for this contemplative arrest of attention, opening a more metaphorical expansion of the “web” of Prishvin’s microgeographical construction, so too does the author’s literal signature on his own copy of this very issue of USSR in Construction. The author’s archive at Dunino reveals that he marked each of the photographs he took with his penciled signature (wood grouses included), which we can read as another example of Prishvin’s insistence on authorship, an imprint of “self.” The act of adding his signature seems to further slow the rapid transformation taking place in the pages of the journal, as we can imagine how Prishvin slowly moved through the issue, signing each of his images in his careful hand. If these autographs had been included in the final edition, they too might have slowed the reader’s movement through the spaces of image and text so as to contemplate the nature of the authorship of the image—adding, as it were, another layer to his authorially-shaped ostranenie.

Auteurs and Monteurs

Prishvin’s fur issue bears comparison with the oft-cited jubilee “Stalin Constitution” issue from 1937.[58] By the late 1930s, editors like Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and El Lissitzky were orchestrating many issues, as the journal, in large part, did not accept photographs as they were submitted; rather they were altered, joined together, and collaged with photographs taken by different photographers into a single montaged image. Image credits included a long list of photographers or a general credit to Soiuzfoto.[59] The jubilee issue, in contrast to Prishvin’s issue, was among the showpiece issues of the journal; and, in a totalizing vision, the issue eschewed authorial perspective and traditionally framed photographs to celebrate the unity of Soviet space and production in photomontage, with Lissitzky and his wife and collaborator Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers (Es Lissitzky) responsible for the artistic design.[60] Moreover, this showpiece also followed, and in a sense “covered up,” the violent purge of the journal’s editorial board at the time of the Terror.[61] The final product is an almost atlas-like rendering of mappable Soviet space in photographic form. In a testament not only to the size of the Soviet Union but to the magnitude of the celebration of the Stalin Constitution, this issue was so large it was counted as four months’ worth of content, from September to December. In each featurette, the first page comprises a simple drawn outline map of the republic (Ukraine, Belorussia, Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic) with photographs of representatives of ethnic groups and their new apartment buildings (fig. 10). The next two pages make up a single photographic montage including images of the natural resources of the Republics, processing factories or production sites, and representative members of the proletariat at work. For example, in a photomontage presenting a view of Belorussian timber and paper production, women working in the various stages of wood processing are superimposed onto a cross-section view of a paper factory, framed by trees (fig. 11). The trees mimic the straight lines of the factory building, creating the illusion of a seamless transition between outside and inside. The accompanying text—nothing more, really, than an extended caption—provides only a succinct and dry summary of the formation and transformation of the Belorussian Republic through its incorporation into the USSR, as well as its vital role in timber processing. It reads: “The Byelorussian Republic occupies fourth place among the union republics in the manufacture of paper. . . . Greatest of all, however, is her timber industry, her sawmills, which supply timber to places beyond her own borders.”[62] The reader is thus reminded that the timber, though harvested and processed at this specific pinpoint on the map, is transported to, and serves, a larger Soviet space. The text adds the (minimal) necessary context for this point in the ideological and historical narrative: the place of the Belorussian people is defined by their role as providers of the means of production to the Soviet Union as a whole.

Fig. 10. El and Es Lissitzky, “The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic,” USSR in Construction no. 9–12 (1937). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
Fig. 11. El and Es Lissitzky, “The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic,” USSR in Construction no. 9-12 (1937). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

While the text locates the role of the people and the state in shaping the Belorussian landscape, the space of this photomontage still requires that we ask yet again “What is this?” The sharp angles of the photographic fragments, as well as the disproportional relationships between objects recall the techniques of October group photographs. It is undeniable, however, that this is a radically different kind of image from those in Prishvin’s issue, where the montage would have been made up of several individual photographs framed by extensive text. The photographic image in the Stalin Constitution issue is less dependent on literary material and a narrow authorial perspective, while still limiting the polyphonic potential of each photographic element. Without calling attention to its formal composition, this landscape encapsulates the total duration of production, depicting in a single plane the role of the Soviet citizen in gathering and producing essential products for the Soviet Union at large. As a landscape, the perspective of the photographic image returns to a painterly perspective “shot from the navel,” with an embellished frame.[63] Each Soviet republic featured in the issue is presented according to this same visual code: workers, resources, and production as landscape. This is a code that runs against Rodchenko’s avant-garde goal of abolishing the traditional horizon line and the easy-to-read painterly landscape, but which seems to embody in toto Lissitzky’s (much earlier) proclamation that (constructivist) art would come to organize life. Moholy-Nagy addresses the problems of cognition in encountering such an image: “Photomontage . . . attempts to develop a technique for the recordings of events occurring on the threshold between dream and consciousness . . . Most photomontages demand a concentrated gymnastic of the eye and brain to speed up the visual digestion and increase the range of associate relationships” (“Vision in Motion,” 212). In the reception of the photomontage the speed of perception is forcibly, but unconsciously, increased. The repetition of this code throughout the issue, rather than providing different views of a single object, as in Prishvin’s fur issue, puts the republics of the Soviet Union onto a map of the USSR that does not aesthetically reflect the depth of their local variations, but rather constructs and conveys a vision of unified sameness. Here the modernist artists El and Es Lissitzky, utilizing the images of an army of photographers, enact a seamless photographic presentation of industry, people, and material in an ideologically scaled space, reflecting a totalizing vision of both Socialist Realism and industrial production—a “posterization” of the journal page that anyone could clearly read. Such montage, while not filmic per se, might very well embody Vertov’s declaration that the montaged material could “alter the world itself.” In 1924 Vertov had stated: “To follow the growth of the young Soviet organism, to record and organize the individual characteristics of life’s phenomenon into a whole, an essence, a conclusion—this is our immediate objective.”[64]  While this was an early statement on the aims of Soviet documentary, Vertov’s “immediate objective” would lay the foundation for his lasting notions on montage: the capture of Soviet life into a “whole” which coopts the camera and montage, as Elizabeth Papazian notes, “to actively take part in organizing the present reality toward the necessary conclusion: the bright future” (Papazian, Manufacturing Truth, 101).[65]

The role of the monteur and auteur in the construction of photographic space featured in the critical discourse of Sovetskoe foto. In 1935, Viktor Afanas’ev distinguished the opposition of the “artist-photographer” from the “montage-artist” in that the latter’s task is “to strengthen (usilit’) the effectiveness of the photo as the means of agitation and propaganda, to add (dopolnit’) with his work that which was unattainable for the artist-photographer due to technical reasons.”[66] That is, montage’s expansive and embellished presence is simply necessary where the photograph fails to convey meaning. For the author Prishvin, the limited scope of the camera itself posed a problem in the capture of meaning. In 1930, the author wrote that “with photography (svetopis’)” he, quite actively, wanted “to prove [his] views of the real world.”[67] He contrasted his own work as an author-photographer to that of the general run of photographers:

I have . . . become convinced that ordinary photographic-work has “photographicality” but not artistic realism, because photographers have made themselves subservient to the will of the camera-machine, and do not use it as an author uses his pen or a painter his brush. If one understands photography as a technical means for realizing artistic perception, then one can achieve extraordinary expressiveness in photographs.[68]

If the monteur’s task is to “clarify” the message of the photograph through its juxtaposition or suture with other photographs, the role of the author-photographer is to master his camera. And while acknowledging photography’s mimetic realism as a fact, Prishvin insists that his role as photographer does not end with the development of the photograph. Essentially, Prishvin connects his view of the objective material of photography with a distinctly nineteenth-century (Tolstoyan) view of realism and authorial subjectivity. In contrast to Sergei Tret’iakov’s well-known rejection of the old Tolstoyan model of the “teacher of life,” Prishvin sees the space of the ocherk, formed in both text and image, as continuing an artistically engaged realist tradition.

However, Prishvin’s own ruminations on montage might be described as, at best, ambivalent. Following a brief mention of a meeting with the layout artist Nikolai Kriukov about Prishvin’s issue of USSR in Construction, Prishvin recounts a conversation he had with his close friend and illustrator Vladimir Favorskii—one of the guest artistic editors for Prishvin’s issue:[69]

There are people who have no life, just montage . . . There are people for whom life is not experienced, but is assembled [montiruetsia] . . . To struggle to get close to a fact, in order to feel it—that is what it means to become a modern person. The more complex a person, the harder it is for him to struggle through to the fact.[70]

While it is unclear what kind of montage Prishvin had in mind in his diary—be it simply assemblage, or a filmic, photographic, literary form, a reference to the assembly of people and material that were needed to produce the issue, or Prishvin’s own feelings of marginalization in the face of a large editorial and artistic board at journal meetings—this statement should be read as a critique of the forced juxtaposition of images which derives from the inorganic nature of a rapid and externally imposed transformation. As photographs and notebooks collect pictures from the life around him, his artfully shaped narrative transforms this objective material through a distinct authorial perspective, uniting it with a personal “expressiveness” that transcends everyday reality and experience.[71] His works (photographically and textually formed) do not serve to transform the world, rather, his “montages,” in their filmic organization in the pages of the editorially-driven journal, bridge gaps between the past and a rapidly changing present, and slow down and make visible the too-fast change underway in a new and transformed Soviet landscape through their focus on a single subject: the sable or the spiderweb.

Drawing on his enigmatic reflections, one might conclude that for Prishvin the most problematic conception of montage is the one in which ideology prefigures material and fact, artificially shaping the final presentation of the chosen subject. Most simply, montage moves away from the fact of his photographs—the basis of the ocherk. But so too does the increasing incursion of technology and ideology—the state apparatus—into his subjectivity threaten Prishvin’s own organic unity of self as author. While the full implications of montage for Prishvin begin to unfold with his issue of USSR in Construction, the Stalin Constitution issue is the pinnacle of such montage, in which the realization of the totalizing montage for ideology’s sake is rendered complete. This is a space in which an author for whom narrative bridging is primary can play no role. Rather, the monteur assembles the illusion of a natural relationship between man, nature, and production. For Prishvin, an image constructed for the sole sake of a dogmatic message— like the montaged man of his diary entry—cannot fully reflect the organic field of coexistence of life (on the micro- and macro-scales), but rather becomes increasingly distant from it.[72]

This is not to say that all notions of montage in this period were strictly bound to notions of ideological transmission, nor even that the production of the Stalinist Constitution issue was negatively perceived. Prishvin’s friend, Vladimir Favorskii, was a teacher at VKhUKTEMAS from the early 1920s until its dissolution in 1930. He developed a theory of image and illustration which might best be described as synthetic, a doctrine which often put him at odds with his more radical colleagues (including Rodchenko).[73] However, he did incorporate notions of montage in his theories of drawing as well as of the synthetic wholeness of image space and the illustrated book: 

The motion form of wholeness can be called “constructive”; the visual-wholeness form can be called strictly “compositional.” The graphic material being forced to move integrally in the work of art is a construction. The visual image brought to integrity is a composition. The extreme form of a constructive image is the movie or a photographic montage, where the camera’s rhythmical movement can model a figure, can draw space. Here we have several independent instants integrated in movement and perceived in time. The time-movement rhythmics are basic in this type of image.[74] 

This formulation of “wholeness” in synthetic vision might also recall the distinctly prerevolutionary Symbolist consciousness (a consciousness which certainly informed Prishvin as a young author), as articulated by Vladimir Solov’ev. As summed up by Sergei Bulgakov in 1903, creatively formed “wholeness” is contrasted to the distortions of modern life: “Soloviev’s ideal—wholeness in knowledge, wholeness in life, wholeness in creativity [ideal tsel’nogo znaniia, tsel’noi zhizni, tsel’nogo tvorchestva]—is inherent in every cultivated mind. Nevertheless, despite a great wealth of information and the progress of science, modern thought presents a picture of inner disintegration and weakness.”[75] The camera, the instrumentality of photomontage, would certainly present itself as a disintegrative force. As Favorskii states: “A snapshot of a running horse or a walking man . . . is almost always ridiculous and never really expresses movement. The artist is well aware of the fact that only by uniting several instances into a single image can he really express movement” (Favorsky, “Temporal Problem,” 53; Favorskii, “O kompozitsii,” 211).  Prishvin’s time-lapse photo-textual montages come nearer to Favorskii’s idea of a whole composition (his totalizing montage), punctuated as they are with artistically rendered movement and rhythm, which might give an image of reality that is in itself a “wholeness of visual form” (“O kompozitsii,” 212–13). Prefiguring Moholy-Nagy’s comments on photographic montage, Favorskii identifies the best compositions as those which “are built on the basis of our binocular ability, that which gives us an exclusive, movement-saturated, point-of-view experience,” upsetting the static quality of the objects pictured, while retaining an organic unity (Favorsky, “Temporal Problem,” 56; Favorskii, “O kompozitsii,” 214.). But if the photomontages from the Stalin Constitution issue provide a synthetic wholeness, they contain none of the movement of Favorskii’s organic unity; they remain solely “construction.” And as I have noted, the montage effect in and around Prishvin’s editorially determined photographic layouts and re-deployed texts is made whole only when “read,” rather than seen. These disparate parts are realized as a single image only through readerly action.

The Stalin Constitution issue is not the end of the story of USSR in Construction. In fact, in the years leading up to World War II, the journal’s pages present a hybrid of the techniques under discussion here: photo-narrative and totalizing photo-montage. Take for example the “Soviet Food Industry” issue (No. 8, 1938), where the “realities” of Soviet food production are tangibly shown from their key vantage points: sites of production and consumption. Photographs sourced from a small team of photographers and the All-Soviet Agricultural Exhibition are orchestrated by artistic editors Sergei Sen’kin and Dmitrii Moor to compose a set of images that are perfect illustrations of what Evgeny Dobrenko describes as the Socialist Realist ethos: “the production of virtual abundance.”[76] One page documents cheese and butter as they are transformed from curds in a dairy plant to packaged commodities, punctuated by a final cut-out close-up of a sliced wheel of cheese (fig. 12)—a close-up reminiscent of Griuntal’ and Iablonvoskii’s “defamiliarized” photographs from What Is This?—a question, however, that is never required in this mini-production narrative. In the same issue, along with soap, cigarette, and meat processing, tea production in western Georgia (fig. 13) is picturesquely rendered in an almost full-page montage (albeit rather modest by the standards of the Stalin Constitution issue), anchored by two women calculating the harvest totals. It is captioned with a laconic summary of tea production from the tsarist period to the present day, which “on the initiative of Stalin [has grown] by 5000 hectares annually.” The following page transports the viewer to a new Moscow tea shop (as noted in the caption), without entirely leaving behind the space of the periphery: the large painted mural displayed behind the counter affects its own mini-montage, rhythmically repeating the composition and themes of the images on the preceding page. The Stalin doppelganger on the left panel, holding bushels of tea, oversees not only tea production in his homeland but also the sale of that tea in this bourgeois Moscow shop. The final photograph in the narrative sequence requires no caption. A shot captured from a sitter’s point of view in the most familiar of settings—the home—provides a fitting conclusion to the story of tea in the Soviet Union. The cup of tea awaiting the reader has now been imbued with meaning through the tools of ideological and narrative montage. The viewer is never left to question what she is viewing, nor is she invited to ponder who the figures are in the images, nor who the author of such images might be, but rather, having read the story and participated by proxy in its production, she is invited to partake of the (virtual) abundance of Stalinist montage. And that, in its most subjectively threatening reading, might be to enter the image as its subject—to become Prishvin’s montaged man—a subject of the virtual plane of ideology.

Fig. 12. D. Moor and S. Senkin, USSR in Construction, no. 8 (1938). Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
Fig. 13. D. Moor and S. Senkin, USSR in Construction, no. 8 (1938). Image courtesy of Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

In USSR in Construction’s remaining years, signaling the end of the stand-alone, formal modernist experiments, the formulas for the journal became more or less concretized, and the techniques of production ossified. Time-lapse narrative structure and the totalizing montage are synthesized to create movement and repetition from cover to cover to simulate the construction of the positive changes assumed to be already in place across Soviet space—the photographic embodiment of Socialist Realism. But, as we have seen, the progression of this complex visual process can be traced through the project of photographic literacy. As undertaken by the photographers of the October group, photographic literacy was at once a project of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, both avant-garde and pedagogical. In order to train a photographically literate viewing public, members of the vanguard, bolstered by the official sanction of Lunacharskii, framed their projects in the language of textual literacy. The rhetoric and practice which was produced aimed first to slow perception down to retrain the habits of the eye, and then to speed it up, as minds and cameras rapidly read, appropriated, and finally became subjects of their new landscapes. It was in the unlikely space of this dialectic, between the defamiliarization of modernist technique and the refamiliarization of pedagogy that the not so avant-garde author-photographer, Mikhail Prishvin adapted his pencil and the tool of photographic literacy to slow an all-too-rapidly changing 1930s Soviet landscape. Here the author, becoming a potentially co-opted subject, assembles “little by little” the growing picture of the Soviet Union in its revolutionary development. These micro-geographies, as easily overlooked as the author himself, are swept up into the editorially-driven and monumental plane of familiarized Stalinist ideology. Forgetting her primer in photographic literacy, the reader need not ask, “What is this?” or “Who is this?” or even “Where is this?,” for this is clearly the USSR in Construction.


[1] Mikhail Prishvin wrote many screenplays throughout the 1930s. Old Luven’s Hut (Khizhina starogo Luvena), based on Prishvin’s novel Ginseng: The Root of Life (1933), was released in 1935. The film has been lost.

[2] The publication of Prishvin’s diaries, documenting the years 1905-1951, has been undertaken by various publishing houses between 1991-2016 under the editorship L. A. Riazanova and Ia. Z. Grishina. Recent scholarship addressing these texts includes Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) and Irina Paperno’s Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

[3] The new museum (Mul’timedia Art Muzei) also features exhibitions under the name Moscow House of Photography (Moskovskii Dom Fotografii). It houses the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia, founded in 2006 “to train artists and photographers working in the spheres of contemporary art and mass media with documentary, art and project photography, as well as video and new media.” (“The Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia,” Mul’timedia Art Muzei. A small selection of photos from the exhibition and overview of the exhibition remains posted to the site.) “Mikhail Prishvin: Fotografii i dnevniki 1929–1936,” Mul’timedia Art Muzei.

[4] Anatolii Lunacharskii, “Nasha kul’tura i fotografiia,” Sovetskoe foto 1 (1926): 2, my translation. The photograph juxtaposed on the following page, by Arkady Shaikhet, features two eager pioneers looking through the lens of a camera.

[5] On the worker photography movement see Erika Wolf, “The Soviet Union: From Worker to Proletarian Photography,” in The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939: Essays and Documents, ed. Jorge Ribalta and Erica Witschey (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arta Reina Sofia, 2011), 32–46; Erika Wolf, “SSSR na stroike: Constructivist Visions to Construction Sites,” in USSR in Construction: An Illustrated Exhibition Magazine, ed. Petter Õsterlund. (Sundsvall, Sweden: Fotomuseet Sundsvall, 2006), n.p.

[6] These dialogues are paralleled in the literary sphere by groups such as RAPP and Sergei Tret’iakov’s LEF group. While there were certainly points of exchange and continuity, artistic factions curated a voice in their respective journals: ROPF in Sovetskoe foto (begun in 1926; Proletarskoe foto, 1931–33) and Oktiabr’ on the pages of LEF (1923–25) and Novyi LEF (1927–29).

[7] Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Protiv summirovannogo portreta za momentalnyi,” Novyi LEF 4 (1928): 14–16.

[8] As the opening essay of Il’ia Erenburg and El Lissitzky’s short-lived Constructivist journal Veshch’/Objet/Gegenstand reads: “Veshch’ will champion constructive art, whose mission is not, after all, to embellish life but to organize it” (Il’ia Erenburg and El Lissitzky, “Blokada Rossii konchaetsia: poiavlenie Veshchi,” Veshch’ 1–2 [1922]: 1).

[9] Rodchenko was a professor at VKhUTEMAS (briefly VKhUTEIN [Higher Art and Technical Institute]) from 1920–1930, including serving as head of the Metfak (Metalwork Faculty). See “The VKhUTEMAS Professor” in Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters, and Other Writings, trans. Jamey Gambrell (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 187–99.

[10] The “navel level” point of view was determined by early camera technology and the fact that cameras would also be placed on tripods at that level; but, as Rodchenko shows in the course of his “Paths of Contemporary Photography” (1928) the practice of shooting “from the navel” continues as a stylistic practice, representative of a traditional, painterly viewpoint (“Puti sovremennoi fotografii” in Rakursy Rodchenko, ed. A. N. Lavrent’ev [Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1991], 205–08; and Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future, 207–212).

[11] Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Krupnaia bezgramotnost’ ili melkaia gadost’ (otkrytoe pis’mo),” Novyi LEF  6 (1928), 42–44. Reprinted in Lavrent’ev, Rakursy Rodchenko, 203–05.

[12] Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Zapisnaia knizhka Lefa (1927)” in Lavrent’ev, 209; repeated in “Puti sovremennoi fotografii” (1928) in Lavrent’ev, Rakursy Rodchenko, 205.

[13] This sentiment is also echoed by Sergei Tret’iakov in Novyi LEF (Sergei Tret’iakov, “Fotozametki,” Novyi LEF 8 [1928]: 40–43).

[14] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, ed. Paul Theobald (Milwaukee, WI: Wisconsin Cuneo Press, 1946), 208, emphasis in original. See also László Moholy-Nagy, “Photography Is Creation in Light,” in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth, trans. Mátyás Esterházy (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 302–05.

[15] Vladimir Griuntal’ and Grigorii Iablonovksii, Chto eto takoe? (OGIZ, 1932); see also “What’s That?” in The Soviet Photobook 1920–1941, ed. Mikhail Karasik (Göttingen: Steidl, 2015), 580–83.

[16] This game is like the “simplification” tasks designed by Rodchenko for his students at VKhUTEMAS. See “The Material Design of the Object” in Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future, 194–96.

[17] Griuntal’ and Iablonovksii, Chto eto takoe? n.p., my translation.

[18] Sergei Morozov, “‘Chto eto takoe’: O detskoi fotoknige V. Griuntalia i G. Iablonovskogo,” Proletarskoe foto 10 (1932): 18, emphasis in the original, my translation. This language of “sensation” further recalls the central avant-garde tenet of faktura. See Maria Gough, “Faktura: The Making of the Russian Avant-garde,” RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 36 (1999): 32–59.

[19] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher [Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990], 1–14, 10). Margarita Tupitsyn also identifies an affinity between Shklovskii’s notion of the very purpose of art (that is, to make the familiar unfamiliar) and the early photographic avant-garde. (Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937 [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996], 5–6).

[20] Sara Pankenier Weld, Voiceless Vanguard: The Infantilist Aesthetic of the Russian Avant-Garde (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), 108.

[21] See also Weld, Voiceless Vanguard, 108.

[22] Sergei Morozov would go on to pen several Soviet histories of photography in Russia in the coming decades including, Pervye russkie fotografy-khudozhniki (Moscow: Goskinoizdat, 1952) and Sovetskaia khudozhestvennaia fotografiia: 1917–1957 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1958).

[23] Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Puti sovremennoi fotografii,” in Lavrent’ev, Rakursy Rodchenko 208; see also Rodchenko, Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future, 212.

[24] Griuntal’ was a frequent contributor of such photographs to the children’s journal Znanie-sila in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

[25] See also the cover of Novyi LEF 1 (1927). One of Vladimir Griuntal’s most well-known photographs is formally very similar (his “Balkon,” published in 1931 and 1935 in Proletarskoe foto and Sovetskoe foto respectively). 

[26] “Foto-vopros,” Pioner 13 (1933): 4, my translation.

[27] See Weld, Voiceless Vanguard, 108.

[28] See also an excerpt in Karasik, The Soviet Photobook, 580–81.

[29] These criticisms follow on the heels of earlier and larger attacks against the formalism of the October Group. See the editorial attack on Elizar Langman for the photograph “In the Dormitory at the Dinamo Youth Commune” in “Gruppa ‘Oktriabr’ dolzhna nemedlenno perestroit’sia, esli ona ne khochet postavit’ sebia vne riadov proletarskoi fotografii,” Proletarskoe foto 32 (1931): 12.

[30] The term ocherk could be used to describe various types of short writing, blending the documentary and literary modes, ranging from scientific articles to philosophical and literary sketches. See also Elizabeth Astrid Papazian’s work on the ocherk in Manufacturing Truth: The Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).

[31] On factography, see October 118 (2006); Devin Fore, “Introduction,” October 118 (Fall 2006): 3–10; and Literatura fakta: pervyi sbornik materialov rabotnikov Lefa, ed. Nikolai Chuzhak (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1929).

[32] First published in the German leftist journal A-I-Z and reprinted in Russian in Proletarskoe foto in 1931 along with Tret’iakov’s article.

[33] Sergei Tret’iakov, “From the Photo-Series to the Extended Photo-Observation,” trans. Devin Fore, October 118 (2006): 71–77, 77; for original, see Sergei Tret’iakov, “Ot fotoserii – k dlitel’nomu fotonabliudeniiu,” Proletarskoe foto 4 (1931): 20, 45.

[34] Sergei Tret’iakov, “Moi zritel’nyi dnevnik,” Sovetskoe foto (March–April, 1934): 25.

[35] Ivan Romanov, “Nezabyvaemoe proshloe,” in Lichnoe delo: Prishvin Mikhail Mikhailovich (Saint Petersburg: Rostok), 87, my translation.

[36] The work established his literary reputation within the Symbolist religious-philosophical circle, including Andrei Belyi, Aleksandr Blok, and Viacheslav Ivanov.

[37] Andrei Khailov, “Put’ k ‘drugu-chitateliu’” Russkaia literatura 4 (1958): 165–66, my translation. See also Ia. Z. Grishina and N. G. Poltavtseva in Mikhail Prishvin, Dnevniki: 1923–1925 (Saint Petersburg: Rostok, 2009), 505.

[38] Mikhail Prishvin, “Okhota s fotoapparatom,” Pioner 13 (1933): 8, my translation.

[39] Other remarkable pieces include a collection of ocherki, Moi ocherk (1933), the book-length Zolotoi rog (1933) on animal husbandry in the Far East, and V kraiu nepuganykh ptits (1934) on his first-hand observations at the Belomor Canal site.

[40] See Margarita Tupitsyn in The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937 and Erika Wolf in “USSR in Construction: From Avant-garde to Socialist Realist Practice,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1999) and “When Photographs Speak, to Whom Do They Talk? The Origins and Audience of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction)” Left History 6, no. 2 (2000): 53–82.

[41] Sovetskoe foto, 1 (1935): 5. Radek’s extended comments on photographic naturalism as antithetical to Socialist Realism are captured in the stenographic report of the Congress (Karl Radek, “Zakliuchitel’noe slovo Karla Radeka,” Pervyi vsesoiuznyi s”ezd sovetskikh pisatelei, 1934: stenograficheskii ochet [Moscow: Gosizdat, 1934], 373).

[42] We also see a “growing rift” between art photographers and photojournalists, made particularly clear in the responses to the 10 Years of Soviet Photography exhibition in 1928 (Erika Wolf, “The Context of Early Soviet Photojournalism, 1923–32,” Zimmerli Journal 2 [2004]: 106–17, 110).

[43] Erika Wolf shows the limited circulation of the journal, and its high cost in “When Photographs Speak, to Whom Do They Talk?” The VOKS archive also reveals repeated requests for more issues for distribution abroad, speaking to a demand for the journal, but in extremely limited numbers (GARF f. 5283 op. 2 d. 63).

[44] USSR in Construction was initially conceived as an illustrated supplement to Maksim Gor’kii’s Nashi dostizheniia (Our Achievements) before its success as a visual showcase overshadowed its origins in simple illustration. Nashi dostizheniia would feature small photographic illustrations but made text-based articles its focus.

[45] USSR in Construction, No. 10 (1935), n.p. The English provided is from the English issues of the journal.

[46] Mikhail Prishvin, “Mountain Sheep,” USSR in Construction, No. 10 (1935), n.p.

[47] “Caracul” refers to the loose, almost curled fur of juvenile mountain sheep. 

[48] Emma Widdis, Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 103.

[49] On the interest in a “new geography” of spaces and production at the end of the First Five-Year Plan, see Evgeny Dobrenko, “The Art of Social Navigation: The Cultural Topography of the Stalin Era,” in The Landscape of Stalinism, eds. Evgeny Dobrenko and Eric Naiman (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 189.

[50] On the subjects of documentary and creative geography, see Papazian, Manufacturing Truth and Widdis, Visions of a New Land.

[51] In particular see the scenes of squirrel and sable hunting, mountain sheep markets and sale, montaged with dynamic factory scenes—including a thematically disconnected scene of oil drilling and refining—with wool sorting (both by the mechanized arm of the factory and by hand). It was these “hard to read” juxtapositions in Vertov’s montage that also provoked criticism of the film. See Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983); Yuri Tsivian, ed., Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[52] Prishvin’s archive reveals that that this approach was characteristic of his photographic process: he often took several images of the same subject from many different angles (housed at the personal archive of M. M. Prishvin at the Dom-muzei M. M. Prishvina, Dunino).

[53] Sam Rohdie, Montage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 3–4. Rohdie begins his compendium on montage by describing the term most simply as “the joining together of different elements of film in a variety of ways, between shots, within them, between sequences, within these” (1).

[54] See Tom Gunning on Muybridge’s time-lapse photography as montage in “Never Seen This Picture Before: Muybridge in Multiplicity,” in Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement, ed. Phillip Podger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 222–57.

[55] Vladimir Shmerling, “Zametki o dvukh zhurnalakh,” Sovetskoe foto, No. 2 (1936): 9, my translation. It was also in this year that Prishvin adapted his Ginseng (1933) into yet another screenplay (housed at Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, RGALI, f. 1125, op. 2, d. 284).

[56] The photographers included: M. Prekhner (Oratia), D. Debabov (West Siberia), G. Shashalski (Central Asia), N. Shestakov (Pushkino and Saltikovka), S. Bamuner (Leningrad), N. Shekutyev (Kazan, Kirov and Moscow). All “other photos” are credited to Prishvin. The cover photograph is probably not Prishvin’s, but is like many “textural” photographs (of ploughed earth, for example) located in his archive at his house museum in Dunino.

[57] John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 288-289. This notion of montage would also resonate with Deleuze’s time-image as it is beyond the “empirical progression of time.” (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989], xii). 

[58] Over its publication history, the journal frequently featured guest art editors, which regularly included the likes of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, El and Es Lissitzky, Nikolai Troshin, and Vladimir Favorskii.

[59] Authorially driven exceptions include Rodchenko’s dynamic Parachuters issue (No. 12, 1935) and his Belomor Canal issue (No. 12, 1933). Both, we should note, are the last issues of the year. These issues are later lauded, along with Prishvin’s issue, in the pages of Sovetskoe foto as those which had their own “point of view.” (Shmerling, “Zametki,” 9).

[60] It is possible, given El Lissitzky’s declining health, that Lissitzky-Küppers (Es Lissitzky) played a significant role in the final construction of these montages. See Margarita Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, and Ulrich Pohlmann, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 43–44.

[61] See Erika Wolf, “When Photographs Speak,” 54.

[62] Boris Agapov, “The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic,” USSR in Construction, No. 12 (1937), n.p.

[63] Emma Widdis makes a similar observation about an earlier Rodchenko photomontage in USSR in Construction (No. 1, 1930). While Rodchenko’s earlier work was characterized by the fluidity of a present moment, the process of construction, “emphasizing unusual perspectives and transient glimpses of a mobile world,” in USSR in Construction the world is ossified, “pictured as static and eternal” (Widdis, Visions of a New Land, 160).

[64] Dziga Vertov, “Artistic Drama and Kino-Eye,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 47–49, 47.

[65] As Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers notes, her husband’s own understanding of the artistic/editorial process of photomontage and journal and book design was developed under the influence of Vertov’s documentary newsreels. See Tupitsyn, Durtt, and Pohlmann, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet, 43–44.

[66] Vik. Afanas’ev, “Foto i fotomontazh,” Sovetskoe foto 11 (1935): 18, my translation.

[67] Mikhail Prishvin in Iana Grinshina’s commentary, Dnevniki:1928–1929 (Moscow: Russkaia kniga, 2004), 513.The author’s choice of the Russian word svetopis’ rather than the Greek-based fotografiia hints at the role that nature, and specifically light (svet), might have in shaping his photographs; in such a statement, Prishvin becomes the transformative channel for the natural world.

[68] Mikhail Prishvin, “November 8, 1930,” Dnevniki: 1930–1931 (Saint Petersburg: Rostok, 2006), 275, my translation.

[69] Favorskii was not only a friend, but also illustrated Prishvin’s beloved Ginseng: The Root of Life (Zhen’shen’: koren’ zhizni, 1933) with woodcuts. Favorskii was a guest artistic editor for another issue, No. 3 (1936), which follows a similar layout and form.

[70] Mikhail Prishvin, “Entry from July 29, 1935,” Dnevniki: 1932–1935 (Saint Petersburg: Rostok, 2009), 759, my translation.

[71] See Sergei Tret’iakov, “The New Leo Tolstoy,” October 118 (2006), 45–50. Through the early 1930s, Prishvin devotes several passages in his diary to his musings on the works, diaries, and image of Tolstoy. In the 1930s he also reads Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries, which become the subject for several passages on a feminine and domestic ideal.

[72] There could also be an undercurrent here against Stalin’s formulation of authors as “engineers of human souls.” The infamous adage is drawn from a toast made to writers gathered at Maxim Gorky’s house in 1932. See Cynthia Ruder, Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 44; Papazian, Manufacturing Truth, 3–4. See more on its origin: Omry Ronen, “‘Inzhenery chelovecheskikh dush’: K istorii izrecheniia,” Lotmanovskii sbornik, vol. 2 (Moscow: O.G.I, Izd-vo RGGU, 1997), 393–400.

[73] Favorskii, in his period of polemic discourse with the Constructivists, was quoted as stating: “No more engineers at VKhUTEMAS! IF we do need engineers (and there is such a need), then we should go and find them at MVTU [Moscow Higher Technical Institute],” quoted in Pavel Florensky, Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art (London: Reaktion, 2002), 82.

[74] Vladimir Favorsky, “Temporal Problem,” in Poetics of Space: A Critical Photographic Anthology, ed. Steve Yates (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 51–56, 54; Vladimir Favorskii, “O kompozitsii,” Literaturno-teoreticheskoe nasledie (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1988), 210–223, 213.

[75] Sergei Bulgakov, quoted in Paul Valliere, “Theology of Culture in Late Imperial Russia,” in Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007), 383.

[76] Evgeny Dobrenko. Political Economy of Socialist Realism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 280. In fact, the concluding line of the “Soviet Food Industry” issue of USSR in Construction reads: “The Soviet Union is becoming a land of socialist abundance” (USSR in Construction, No. 8, 1938).