Book Review: Goodman & Hoffmann’s The Power of Pictures

Early Soviet photography was an explosive and short-lived burst of creativity released by the sudden removal of czarist restrictions and the violence of the revolution. That the early years of the Soviet Union coincided with the rise of 35mm photography was mere happenstance, but the availability of these new, compact cameras allowed their users to capture the rise of the new communist state and society in ways that provided as clear a visual break with the traditional artistic perspective as the Bolsheviks had with traditional government.

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The 1920s saw tremendous experimentation, influenced by the surrealist movement then active in the West. Armed with their Leicas, Soviet photographers set out not only to document the new state, but to try to shape its vision of a Socialist future with their work. Radical angles skewed reality, extreme close-ups filled the frame, and photo montages filled with energy seemed ready to spring off the pages of new magazines dedicated to Soviet photography. This level of dynamism was nothing short of remarkable for a nation so recently considered one of the most traditional and conservative in Europe.

It was not to last. With Lenin’s death in 1924 and the rise of Stalin, every aspect of life in the Soviet Union began to fall under ever-closer state supervision. By the mid-1930s the avant-garde photographers were increasingly forcefully pushed to work in the sole officially acceptable style – Socialist realism – to promote the accomplishments of the state. Failure to do so in the eyes of powers that be would result in severe sanctions. Several were executed. Even though some stylistic elements of the earlier period had been integrated into the mainstream, the time for experimentation was at an end.

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Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffmann’s The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film provides a useful set of examples of work from this era in a nicely printed cloth-bound volume. The photos are organized in small sets representing the various officially-sanctioned themes, as well as examples of film stills and magazine covers. Essays by the authors, and another by Alexander Lavrentiev, provide helpful explanation and context; all are properly and thoroughly cited, which is particularly useful for those seeking further information on this not particularly well-documented subject.

One thing compromises the overall presentation of the book. The sections pertaining to film, both the essay and the stills, are very brief and feel distinctly out of place. This is not to say that Soviet film does not deserve to be mentioned; certainly the influence of people like Sergei Eisenstein was wide-ranging and important. But in this volume, one that dedicates a mere twenty out of two hundred and forty pages to film, the discussion feels like an afterthought, something stuck in at the last minute. The space would have been better used expanding the selection of photographs.

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Taken as a whole, in spite of the perhaps ill-advised inclusion of the film sections, this is a good book for those unfamiliar with this important era of Soviet photography. It is a high quality volume with a variety of photos from the period, and certainly worth adding to a collection of photo books.

 


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