Alexander Abaza's 1973 photo of the stark black silhouettes of workers is a wonderful, graphically powerful image.
Alexander Abaza's 1973 photo of the stark black silhouettes of workers is a wonderful, graphically powerful image.
Courtesy of FotoFest

60 Years of Russian Photography

By most estimates, Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people; some put the number as high as 40 million or more. His purges, forced famines, executions, imprisonments, exiles and other atrocities devastated the people of the Soviet Union. Uncle Joe was an equal-opportunity murderer — whether he was starving millions of Ukrainians to death or taking out members of his inner circle, it didn't seem to make much difference to him. He exceeded Hitler's mind-numbing death toll, and it is believed he was ramping up his own campaign of genocide specifically targeted against Soviet Jews when he died in 1953.

Talking about Stalin's impact on photography can seem pretty trivial in light of horrors like these. But it's yet another example of how his iron control over Soviet society extended everywhere; photography was a useful propaganda tool for the dictator. "After Stalin, 'The Thaw,' The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice (Late 1940s-1970s)" at Williams Tower is one of three shows in FotoFest's 2012 Biennial that focus on contemporary Russian photography from the late 1940s through the present day — from the USSR and Stalin to Russia and Putin. The exhibitions were curated by Evgeny Berezner, head of the "In Support of Photography in Russia" Project of The Iris Foundation, Moscow; Natalia Tarasova, a writer and cultural affairs consultant for the same project; and Irina Chmyreva, Senior Researcher at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.

You won't see anything documenting Stalin's atrocities in "After Stalin," but what you will see are images of the USSR as he imagined it, taken in the dictator's waning days. Consult the FotoFest exhibition catalog to see examples of the glorified and retouched images of smiling collective farmers or heroically toiling factory workers, classic Stalin-era images. In looking at these sorts of images, you'd think the Russian avant-garde and its innovative approach to photography had never existed. The only vestiges of the period remaining during Stalin-era photography, as the catalog points out, are the dramatic upward camera angles. They are used to glorify the Worker — as an icon of labor, not as an individual.


FotoFest 2012 Biennial

All exhibitions run through April 29, 713-223-5522.

"After Stalin, 'The Thaw,' The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice (Late 1940s-1970s)"
Williams Tower Gallery, 2800 Post Oak.

"Perestroika: Liberalization and Experimentation The mid/late 1980s-2010s"
Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St.
Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter St.

"The Young Generation (2007-2012)"
FotoFest Headquarters at Vine Street Studios, 1113 Vine St.

The early images at Williams Tower retain similar elements of idealized illustration. Emmanuil Evzerikhin's dramatic photo of a 1950 parade celebrating the October Revolution shows the obligatory columns of soldiers lined up, about to march through Red Square in a display of military might in front of the Kremlin — and Lenin's mausoleum. In the distance are the onion domes of St. Basil's cathedral, signifying the ancient culture of Russia; the cathedral was forcibly secularized after the revolution. You see a row of factory smokestacks, partially obscured by St. Basil's, belching clouds into the sky, a visible reminder of the USSR's glorification of industrial might.

Compared with the parade scene, Igor Gavrilov's image from 20 years later, Everything Is for Sale (1970), is positively heretical — a one-way ticket to the gulag. (I'm thinking the title is a recent addition.) With Khrushchev and his denunciation of Stalin, individuals slowly began expressing themselves more and the goals of the state less. Garilov's image was shot from a vantage point high on a shelf of metal busts of Lenin and looking out over the fur hat-clad shoppers below. The rows of mass-produced Lenin statues for sale present the leader and his ideology as a cheap commodity being retailed to the masses.

At first glance, I thought Alexander Abaza's 1973 photograph was a still from Elvis Presley's 1957 Jailhouse Rock. Despite its bureaucratic title, Builders Constructing an Iron Mill, the Azov Plan, the City of Zhdanov, South of Moscow, Abaza's stark black silhouettes of workers laboring in a grid of steel posts is a wonderful, graphically powerful image. Elvis's records weren't even released in the USSR until the '80s, and one also wonders if the photo's Jailhouse similarity is a coincidence or a sly allusion to a film seen illicitly by the photographer. In any case, to American eyes, it resembles a commie-cool version of the film still, with the decadent western icon of the rock star replaced by the strength and self-possession of the ironworker.

An image like Eduard Musin's 1969 Mowers from the Vologda Region, Northern Russia is no idealized or promotional image of rural laborers. We see these very elderly people as individuals, sharpening their scythes to cut wheat in what looks like a medieval scene — albeit one captured during the Cold War. They are cutting the crops the same way Russian serfs did for centuries. In the 19th century, an estimated 50 percent of the 40 million Russian peasants were actually serfs. Serfdom was a system that bound peasants to the land, enslaved to landowners. It was ended in 1861. "The Thaw" has a wealth of strong work like this that also offers glimpses into the former USSR.

More recent photos are on view in "Perestroika: Liberalization and Experimentation — The mid/late 1980s-2010s," which is spread over two locations, Spring Street Studios and Winter Street Studios. Last week I covered several of the photographers of the New Academism movement shown at Spring Street ["Back to the Classics," April 19], but they are a minuscule part of the massive amounts of work on view.

Also of note at Spring Street are Valery Shchekoldin's poignant black-and-white photos, which mine the Soviet/Russian vein of bleakness and tragedy. His 1990 portrait of a man with a shaved head sitting at an ancient industrial sewing machine was taken in a Murmansk prison camp. The polluted city of Murmansk, with its near-arctic cold, was once characterized by a BBC reporter as "the most hellish place on earth." The man stares back at the camera with self-possession. You wonder if he's a criminal or a dissident. How did he wind up here?

Other bleak Shchekoldin images capture inmates in the dirt courtyard of what appears to be an insane asylum, and heartbreaking scenes of warehoused children with Down syndrome, leg braces and crutches. His 1981 image captures scared and miserable-looking conscripts lined up at a recruiting station for their two-year mandatory service, a universally atrocious experience that is reportedly still rife today with abuse and hazing. Conscripts would be sent as far from home as possible. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg was shipped out to serve in Sakhalin, an island just north of Japan. The theory at the time, as explained to me, was that you'd be more apt to fire on civilians if they weren't your friends and family. Today, the service is reduced to 12 months, and the connected, clever and cash-flush have more options to avoid it.

Photographer Alexander Chernogrivov offers a comparatively cheerful respite. Works from his 2004-2007 series Fairy-Tales fancifully alter images of St. Petersburg. Done in the darkroom rather than digitally, Chernogrivov's highly silhouetted photos place a giant spider hanging over a canal bridge, or the goofy outline of a plastic tyrannosaurus rex striding open-jawed over another bridge, oblivious to other pedestrians. The wobbly images look like they were shot from reflections in the canal, adding to the charmingly otherworldly feel.

There is a wealth of other work from "Perestroika" at Winter Street, and Sergey Maximishin's color photographs capture contemporary Russia. His chiaroscuro portrait of Russian leader Vladimir Putin looks just like an amalgam of every James Bond villain ever. His image of Young Pioneers (Communist boy scouts) saluting an elderly Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) veteran in Lenin's old apartment documents the Soviet nostalgia felt by some. Meanwhile the photograph shot in the St. Petersburg restaurant Illyich's Call shows a young woman in a sexy, short-skirted USSR-esque uniform polishing the head of Lenin in the Soviet-red decor. It sums up the irony and camp that marks many young Russians' view of the Soviet period.

Also at Winter Street are Russian photojournalist Yury Kozyrev's 2011 images of Libya. Their non-Russian content may feel a little off in the context of all the other work, but the images are fabulous. The dynamic images of Libyans in street clothes and random bits of camouflage powerfully convey the rag-tag chaos of the revolution and the participation of average citizens.

The most recent work by emerging artists is on at FotoFest headquarters in "The Young Generation (2007-2012)." Although it features some strong images, I found this the least interesting of the Russian exhibitions. Some of the work just came across as run-of-the mill in the larger international context of contemporary photography. Anna Skladmann's portraits of privileged young Russians — children of the wealthy New Russians — posing themselves rely too heavily on the novelty and stereotype of the oligarchs. This kind of thing has been done before and better in Daniela Rossell's "Ricas y Famosas," which tackled the same topic in Mexico with more interesting results.

Denis Tarasov's series is more interesting. Russian Cossacks Patrol photographs a summer training camp organized by a sort of paramilitary organization trying to tie itself to the Cossack tradition. The images of camo, kids, rifles and an Orthodox priest firing a handgun capture a blend of nationalism, religion and militarism with very American parallels.

Images from Ivan Mikhailov's 2009-2010 series "Playground" capture bittersweet nostalgia. Mikhailov photographs space race-era play structures from the Soviet period. Brightly colored rocket-shaped jungle gyms, slides and playhouses stand forlorn and worse for the wear in unpeopled public parks. They read as memories of, and monuments to, the faded hopes and dreams of childhood.

From Stalin and political propaganda to images of the overprivileged spawn of oligarchs, this year's FotoFest is a fast-forward through 60-plus years of Russian photography and history. It's a lot to take in, but it's worth it. The Biennial's shows close this Sunday, and with 142 artists on view in these three exhibitions, there is so much more to see. Hurry.


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