Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Revolution in print

My slowly expanding photobook collection, arranged by year of publication.

When I first saw this book and noticed that it only considered titles to 1941 I thought there must be a second volume but having read the introduction it seems that the best Soviet photobooks are in the twenties and thirties. Though it doesn't say so books from the early forties onwards relied on social realism for the photos and the layouts had completely lost the revolutionary and Constructivist design fervour that is on display in so many of these photobooks.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 swept away traditional ways of producing print media and European artists and designers were experimenting with Futurism and Constructivism (and probably other isms, too) especially in the use of photographs. With print this was the ideal medium to put across a message in the new Soviet Union. Chapter three: The lessons of Constructivism shows some amazing spreads from photobooks published in 1929-1932 with photos angled, butted together, overlapping and bold use of headlines and page graphics, especially solid blocks of black and red. These books look so different and exciting compared to the traditional illustrated European titles of the period.

Several designers developed the photomontage as a clever and convincing graphic technique and they appear in so many books here. There are several dramatic montages in The industry of socialism from 1935 and the introduction says that this publication was perhaps the finest example of Stalinist picture propaganda. Designed by El Lissitzky with 312 pages (plus lots of inserts and fold-outs) spread over seven books in a slipcase. Fifty-seven pages from these books are shown so you can see just how impressive it looked. Other publication designers like Valentina Kulagina, Varvara Stepanova, Solomon Telingater and Nikolai Troshin morphed photos from Vladimir Griuntal, Yeleazar Langman, Alexander Rodchenko (the husband of Stepanova) and Georgy Petrusov to great effect (and all before Photoshop).

I mentioned that Soviet photobooks (and publications in general) after 1941were probably rather dull looking compared to those from the previous two decades but by the late thirties the visual lies took ever greater proportions, Stalin's purges and mass starvation clearly were not things the average citizen should know about, agricultural and industrial statistics became state secrets and an official myth of plenty was developed with help of photobooks. Chapter fifteen: Socialism's film set -- The All-Union agricultural exhibition in Moscow 1939-1940 features fourteen books which look at food and farms (which by this time had been a collective failure). The revolutionary photomontages had by now given way to one photo spreads and fold-outs showing vistas of cornfields and livestock tended by smiling females. Books on pig and sheep breeding, grain, cotton, sub-tropical crops, fruit all had titles available at the exhibition. Photographers were instructed to capture the countryside in the best possible light.

The intro makes a relevant point. The writers, photographers and designers threw their creative efforts into producing these extraordinary books in the early years of the Soviet Union believing in the new world order but near the end of the thirties this enthusiasm had evaporated in so many of them.

The book's production is as heroic and monumental as the contents. Designer Mikhail Karasik has created an impressive 636 page publication with 1860 illustrations (all with a slight drop-shadow to make them stand out on the page) and nicely used some design motifs throughout the book from these historical books. One hundred and sixty are considered, each with technical details, a long essay about the book's intentions and how the photos, graphics and printing put it across. This is followed by a very generous helping of spreads from each book which are big enough to appreciate the photos and graphics. Mikhail Karasik also contributes a first class illustrated introduction and the back pages have a twenty-two page biography section of all the writers, designers and artists, followed by a comprehensive index.

I was struck by how much better this book looks when compared to Badger and Parr's three volume History of photobooks published by Phaidon. These have rather small text types and an excessive amount of white page space which really should have been filled with pages from the photobooks.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in mass persuasion and the importance of photography during the early years of the Soviet Union.

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