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13 July 2018

Exploring photography magazine Sovetskoe Foto, 1926–1991

  • Montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published between 1926 and 1991. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich. Scroll down to see a full-size image in Figure 1.

  • Close-up detail of a montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published between 1926 and 1991. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

Published in Moscow, Russia, from 1926 to 1991, Sovetskoe Foto (Soviet Photography) was the only specialized photography magazine in the Soviet Union, aimed at a broad audience of professional photojournalists and amateur photographers. As such, it is unequaled in representing the official photographic culture of the USSR throughout the history of this country. We explore the digital archive of Sovetskoe Foto to find out what it can tell us about the history of this remarkable magazine and the twentieth-century photography in general.

Authors

Agustin Indaco, Lev Manovich, and Alise Tifentale. 2018.

Article

Alise Tifentale, “Seeing a Century Through the Lens of Sovetskoe Foto,” 2018. Read the full-text article below, or download a pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Seeing a Century Through the Lens of Sovetskoe Foto

Alise Tifentale

Avant-garde artist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s mother, Stalin, and a semi-nude female model do not have much else in common apart from the fact that they all have appeared on the covers of the magazine Sovetskoe Foto (Soviet Photography) at different times. Published in Moscow, Russia, from 1926 to 1991, Sovetskoe Foto was the only specialized photography magazine in the Soviet Union, aimed at a broad audience of professional photojournalists and amateur photographers. As such, it is unequaled in representing the official photographic culture of the USSR throughout the history of this country.

Regardless of the cultural isolation of the Soviet Union on an official level, the magazine demonstrates that this photographic culture often overlapped with the leading paradigms of photography evolving in other countries at the same time. Thus, for example, depictions of families, children, workers, and popular festivities in the 1960s are reminiscent of the visual language of humanist photography which we are accustomed to associate with the American illustrated magazine Life and photography exhibition The Family of Man, opened in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Portraits, sports reportages, and cityscapes as well as experiments with color or optical distortions from the 1970s and 1980s, meanwhile, can be mistaken for the images in the leading Western photography magazines of the time such as Camera, published in Switzerland. The covers of Sovetskoe Foto demonstrate that photographers in this country often employed the same visual devices that their peers abroad who were working in different political regimes, cultural contexts, and economic circumstances.

Despite its immense cultural significance, the magazine is still largely understudied. Art historians such as Benjamin Buchloh, Leah Dickerman, Christina Lodder, Margarita Tupitsyn, and Erika Wolf have written about Soviet avant-garde photography of the 1920s and early 1930s. Few other historians have discussed photography in Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Konstantin Akinsha, Elena Barkhatova, Susan Emily Reid, Valery Stigneev, and Jessica Werneke (see the Bibliography section at the end of the post for references). Complete history of the magazine, however, is yet to be written.

Thus, when the digitalized issues of this magazine became available on Archive.org in spring 2017, we were excited to explore the dataset and see what it can tell us about the history of this remarkable magazine and the twentieth-century photography in general. The team working on the project included Lev Manovich, the Director of the Cultural Analytics Lab, and two research fellows at the Lab, Agustin Indaco and Alise Tifentale. We downloaded the available data in April 2017. Then we conducted analysis and visualizations in two stages, the first in May 2017 and second in June 2018. In this article, I summarize some of our observations about the dataset and present examples of the visualizations I made.

Dataset

First, a note about the dataset. The magazine issues were shared on Archive.org in pdf format, each pdf file containing one issue. Agustin Indaco used the popular free R project software to scrape all the pages from the archive of Sovetskoe Foto issues from Archive.org (available on GitHub). Then he used Mac Automator tool to extract the cover from each issue and then convert them into jpg format. The resulting output was a dataset with 455 magazine covers. He also prepared a metadata file containing the filenames of all converted images.

While working on this, we discovered that some magazine covers in the dataset are duplicates, some appeared to be scanned only partially, and the quality of the scanned images was inconsistent—all that can be expected from a recently digitalized historical material. In order to explore the dataset and start making visualizations, first I made my own working version of the metadata file. I cleaned up the data—identified duplicates, removed those filenames which referred to images that were not covers or were not fully scanned covers, etc. To the already existing metadata I manually added a column with a date of publication for each issue, so it is possible to arrange and visualize the magazine covers in chronological order of their publication. This initial clean-up left us with a dataset of total of 401 good images—valid full magazine covers with no duplicates or partial scans. This number reflects only the number of cover images in this particular dataset, not the number of all issues of Sovetskoe Foto ever published.

Sovetskoe Foto was published monthly with some exceptions. For example, in 1929 and 1930, it was published twice a month, and in 1934—once in two months. The magazine’s publication was suspended between 1942 and 1956 because of the Second World War and the subsequent slow recovery of the country’s economy. Furthermore, several years had a double issue among the regular, monthly issues. Besides these irregularities in publication, the dataset is not a complete set of all issues ever published. The availability of the magazine issues is the spottiest in the 1960s. For example, the dataset contains only one issue from 1962, two from 1963 and 1964, and three from 1966. The availability improves in the 1970s and 1980s, and for most years in these decades the dataset contains all eleven or twelve issues per year that were published.

Visualizations

The life of Sovetskoe Foto spans all the major episodes of the region’s cultural and political history. These episodes include the post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s and the following onset of the Stalin’s dictatorship in the 1930s. The magazine also covers the postwar years and the Khrushchev’s Thaw of the 1960s. It marches through the stagnation and downslide of the Soviet economy in the 1970s. Finally, it witnesses the gradual changes that took place in the 1980s leading to the final collapse of the USSR in 1991, which was also the year when the last issue of Sovetskoe Foto was published. The magazine covers reflected the historical specificity of each of these moments. This article offers one way of exploring this history through a series of visualizations that begin with a more distant overview of all magazine covers and gradually zoom in until we are looking at a single cover.

1. Montage of all magazine covers in dataset

  • Figure 1. Detail of a montage of all available Sovetskoe Foto covers published between 1926 and 1991. Click on the image to see full-size image (opens in a new tab). Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

The montage in Figure 1 displays the magazine covers in chronological order, starting from top left (1926) and ending at the bottom right (1991). This view lets us notice changes over time in the magazine cover design. As this montage reveals, the basic elements of the cover design remained relatively unchanged despite the different political and socioeconomic circumstances throughout the century. Starting from its first year, the dominant feature of the cover was a single photograph. Meanwhile, the position and typeface of the magazine’s title goes through several transformations, from the bold duplication of the title on top and bottom of the cover in 1926 (see the top row of the visualization) to the much subtler and smaller rendition of its name on the top of the cover in 1991 (see the bottom row of the visualization).

Figure 1 reveals an interesting dynamic in the use of color. In the 1920s and 1930s (approximately the upper third of the montage), color was added to some black and white photographs by printing the whole cover in monotone in color other than black—for example, green or red. To some other covers with black and white photographs, color was introduced in the form of rectangular blocks in single, bold additional colors such as red, yellow, or green on top, bottom, or sides of the cover. In the 1970s (approximately the middle section of the montage), the magazine developed a distinctly monochromatic, black and white look—its title was printed in black on plain white background close to the top of the cover, while a photograph was reproduced below. Finally, some color returns again in the 1980s (approximately the lower third of the montage), when Sovetskoe Foto covers start featuring color photographs whose visual impact, however, is diminished by the smaller size of the images and the surrounding black or light grey area.

2. Montages of magazine covers published before and after the Second World War

  • Figure 2.1. Montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published before the Second World War. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

  • Figure 2.2. Montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published after the Second World War. Visualization by Alise Tifentale.

These two montages represent a slightly more close-up view that can point to some major stylistic shifts in the types of cover photographs as well as the design. The montage in Figure 2.1 shows all the covers of Sovetskoe Foto from the dataset published before the Second World War, while Figure 2.2—all covers of the magazine published after the war. Covers in these montages are arranged chronologically, starting from the earliest on the upper left corner and ending with the latest on the lower right corner. It was interesting to make these montages because the Second World War marks an extremely significant historical shift in the history of the Soviet Union. The montages, however, point also to similarities and certain continuity in the visual language of these two distinct historical periods. In this distant view, the magazine covers published before the Second World War look quite similar. The images selected for the cover are visually striking and are based on strong contrasts between the object and background, one dominant expressive shape, and geometric, strong compositions. Many of these images are close-up portraits or human figures in movement—athletes, workers, and revolutionary leaders.

Postwar covers, in comparison, look more varied, but we can observe some larger trends. The covers published in the 1960s and early 1970s (the upper half of the montage) seem to continue the editorial approach of the prewar Sovetskoe Foto: the photograph takes up all or almost all cover, and features a bold, visually captivating main object such as a portrait or human figure that stands out on a more neutral background. Covers from the late 1970s and 1980s (the lower half of the montage), however, display a more varied approach to selecting cover image. Although portraits and depictions of human figure often reoccur, there are numerous images featuring large amount of small details that differs from the visual clarity and simplicity of the prewar covers.

3. Magazine covers visualized by decade

  • Figure 3.1. Montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published in the 1920s. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

  • Figure 3.2. Montage of available Sovetskoe Foto covers published in the 1930s. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

These two montages offer even more detailed, close-up view of individual magazine covers, at the same time emphasizing their continuity. The montage in Figure 3.1 displays the covers of Sovetskoe Foto: published in the 1920s, the Figure 3.2—in the 1930s. Covers in these montages are arranged chronologically, starting from the earliest on the upper left corner and ending with the latest on the lower right corner. The 1920s and 1930s are the decades in Soviet art history that art historians have studied the most, therefore it was interesting for us to make these montages and see how the covers of Sovetskoe Foto: reflect the historical developments of these years.

The montage of the Sovetskoe Foto: covers from the 1920s in Figure 3.1 reveal an experimental and adventurous approach to photography as well as design and typeface. The lettering on the cover evolves from the visually strong block letters that repeat the magazine’s name on the top and bottom of the cover in 1926 (top rows of the first montage) to more delicate and smaller lettering on the top of the cover in 1929 (bottom row of the first montage). The cover images are dynamic and emphasize movement either in composition or the pose of depicted figures.

Although it is not visible in such a distant view as this montage, between 1931 and 1933 the magazine came out under the name of Proletarskoe Foto (Proletarian Photography). The intended stronger emphasis on worker photography, however, cannot be detected from this distant view. Most of the magazine covers from the 1930s in the second montage seem to continue the modernist trend of the 1920s. Extreme close-ups of faces appear interchangeably with figures in movement as well as photographs evoking repetitive patterns or exploring dynamic geometric compositions.

Although Sovetskoe Foto: represented the best of Russian avant-garde photography and design in its early years, it gradually became more and more conservative and the Soviet political propaganda on its cover—more and more simplistic. The last images in the montage in Figure 3.2 are from 1934 and signal the oppression of creativity and experimental arts under Stalin’s rule—the cover is designed in a classicizing manner, leaving lots of empty space around a centered image that often was an official portrait of Stalin or some other important figure of the regime.

4. Close-up of individual magazine covers

  • Figure 4. Sovetskoe Foto covers: October 1927 (left), January 1934 (middle), August–September 1991 (right).

Only the study of individual magazine issues can fully reveal the profound differences in the magazine’s design and layout as well as the choice of cover images. For example, the October 1927 issue of Sovetskoe Fotoprominently features Russian avant-garde artist and photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko’s iconic photograph Mother (1924). Meanwhile, starting from the early 1930s, instead of creative and experimental photographic images, the depictions of Lenin and Stalin appear more often on the magazine covers. For example, one of Stalin’s portraits is on the cover of January 1934 issue. Art historian Ksenia Nouril notes: “It was in the pages of Sovetskoe Foto that the works of avant-garde photographers, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style), even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union, in 1934. In a letter published in April 1928, an anonymous author accused Rodchenko of plagiarizing the subject matter and compositions of Western European photographers László Moholy-Nagy and Albert Renger-Patzsch.” (Ksenia Nouril, “Sovetskoe Foto. About the Publication,” in Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg, Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949 at The Museum of Modern Art. December 8, 2014.)

Another kind of change can be observed in the last years of the magazine’s publication. This change is best embodied by the cover of August–September 1991 issue of Sovetskoe Foto that features a semi-nude female model photographed from the back in an interior filled with books, flowers, and various objects such as the prominently displayed label on a bottle of Gordon’s London dry gin (Actress by Russian photographer Valery Plotnikov). At that time, such images were perceived by many photographers as a liberating alternative to the gender-neutral official Soviet press imagery of the previous decades.

Our first analysis confirms that the digitalized magazine issues can serve as a useful tool in more detailed mapping of the developments in Soviet photography throughout the twentieth century and contextualizing them as part of new, more inclusive and global photography history.

Bibliography

  • Akinsha, Konstantin. “Painting versus Photography. A Battle of Mediums in Twentieth-Century Russian Culture.” In Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2004): 31–45.

  • Barkhatova, Elena. “Soviet Policy on Photography.” In Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2004): 47–65.

  • Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. “From Faktura to Factography.” October 30 (1984): 83–119. DOI: 10.2307/778300

  • Dickerman, Leah. “The Fact and the Photograph.” October 118 (2006): 132–152. DOI: 10.1162/octo.2006.118.1.132

  • Lodder, Christina. “Revolutionary Photography.” In Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg, eds. Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949 . New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Download pdf.

  • Nouril, Ksenia. “Sovetskoe Foto. About the Publication,” in Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg, Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949 at The Museum of Modern Art. December 8, 2014. Read online.

  • Reid, Susan Emily. “Photography in the Thaw.” Art Journal 53, no. 2 (1994): 33–39. DOI: 10.1080/00043249.1994.10791623

  • Stigneev, Valery. “The Force of the Medium. The Soviet Amateur Photography Movement.” In Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2004): 67–73.

  • Tupitsyn, Margarita. The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

  • Werneke, Jessica. “Reimagining the History of the Avant-garde: Photography and the Journal Sovetskoe Foto in the 1950s and Early 1960s.” The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 44, no. 3 (2017): 264–291. Link to the article.

  • Wolf, Erika. “The Soviet Union: From Worker to Proletarian Photography.” In Jorge Ribalta, ed., The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939: Essays and Documents (Madrid: Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2011): 32–46.