23 April 2008


Pioneer Girl, Alexander Rodchenko, 1930.
Photograph: © DACS 2008 / © Rodchenko archives

For some reason I have resisted posting on the Rodchenko exhibition that will end later this week in London. There was considerable coverage in The Guardian [1] [2] [3] [4] and I figured that nearly everyone would've seen that. But this evening I came across this review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books which helps, I think, to focus on the nature of propaganda. It does so in two ways. First it calls attention to formal details of photographs to which I generally pay little attention:
"He was particularly intrigued by views from high up looking down and from low down looking up. ... Rodchenko must have been crouching when, in 1930, he made close-up, foreshortened portraits of young Pioneers. In the repertory of poses photographers have invented or borrowed, heads seen from below against the sky tend to stand for things like ‘hope’, ‘striving’ and ‘looking to a new horizon’. Photographs taken from above, on the other hand, make patterns out of human activity and embed individuals in groups: crowds weave past each other, bands march, workers eat in the factory kitchen. Looking up at a modern building or fire escape led the eye towards a distant vanishing point; hold the camera at an angle and the stolid horizon becomes an active diagonal.

Stairs, Alexander Rodchenko, 1930.
Photograph: © DACS 2008/© Rodchenko archive

Such observations may seem banal when stated so bluntly. But it is a useful reminder, I think, that in the analysis of all sorts of images, it is important to attend to the nuts-and-bolts of how a picture works. The second way the review helps focus on the character of propaganda is more provocative. and it is more in line with the sorts of things I've discussed here.

"This concentration on pattern-making suggests that the accusation of ‘bourgeois formalism’ leveled at Rodchenko by those who wanted socially uplifting imagery was – as far as ‘formalism’ went – fair enough. In other countries photographers have angered their contemporaries more often by pointing their cameras at the wrong people and places than by abstraction. From August Sander’s portraits of German types, labelled degenerate by the Nazis, to Robert Frank’s photographs of a sadder, rougher USA than the picture magazines showed, to Richard Avedon’s pictures of Westerners who were odder and stranger physically, and maybe mentally, than local pride allowed to be possible, and Diane Arbus’s freakish finds in the park, the complaints have been ‘too cruel’ or ‘we’ (who ‘we’ might be is not clear) ‘don’t look like that’. Rodchenko’s situation was such that even had he wished to uncover the truth about rural poverty, say, or human misery in the Gulag, it would have been impossible. The closest he came to it was with a commission to produce a picture story on the making of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. The photographs he took were edited by the authorities and he wasn’t allowed to take away with him any that hadn’t been approved. Once you know that the crowds of navvies digging and carting clay are made up of forced labourers and political prisoners, something of the misery of their situation comes home to you. Rodchenko said that he had ‘photographed in a simple way, not thinking about formalism’.

The results, widely published, were propaganda, but American contemporaries were making propaganda too – photographs of dams built by the TVA, for example. Walker Evans’s photographs for the Farm Security Administration – in their way, quite as formal as Rodchenko’s – also carried messages that are now subject to sceptical scrutiny. Rodchenko’s work was made with more editorial oversight than that of his American contemporaries but he had more control over its presentation than they did.
P.S.: Next morning. Thinking about propaganda campaigns is especially timely at the moment. While the media may seem more sophisticated, the process are essentially the same as they were in the 1930s.



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