Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 10, 2024
Aglaya K. Glebova Aleksandr Rodchenko: Photography in the Time of Stalin New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023. 256 pp.; 55 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth (9780300254037)

You would be forgiven for thinking that the image on the back cover of Aleksandr Rodchenko: Photography in the Time of Stalin was included there by mistake. The photograph—a 1933 snapshot of two logs floating in a stagnant pool of water—is not what we associate with Rodchenko’s camerawork. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rodchenko was, by both his own assertions and scholarly consensus, a photographer committed to capturing Soviet technocracy in all its fast-paced, forward-looking dynamism. There must have been a mix-up in the design studio, then, for this monograph to emerge emblazoned with an image of pond life on the dust jacket.

And yet, as Aglaya Glebova demonstrates in this insightful study, this “seemingly unmodern” (106) image was not an outlier of Rodchenko’s oeuvre, but emblematic of it. This book proves that the artist was far more eclectic than he has historically been credited for. For all his images that reinforce canonical visual modes of revolutionary modernism, there were just as many that deviated from them. The photograph of floating logs is one of dozens of examples of what Glebova terms Rodchenko’s “shadow oeuvre” (2)—works long sidelined by scholarship because they fit neither the aims outlined in artistic manifestos nor the master narratives of Stalinist culture. These works are, as Glebova shows, ripe for reappraisal, because, in refusing to meet our expectations about Soviet photography in the 1930s, they compel us to rethink them.

Aleksandr Rodchenko presents a refreshingly new take on an artist who is too often pigeonholed into preconceived notions of Soviet art. Rather than imposing a framework on Rodchenko’s work from above, Glebova works inductively, beginning with expansive, archival analysis to catalog an often, unruly, inconsistent oeuvre. From here, a new narrative emerges of a photographer whose work was rich with contradiction. Rodchenko is revealed to be a versatile figure adept at working in myriad modes: a “quasi-Romantic” landscape photographer (105), a skilled studio portraitist, and a sophisticated chronicler of time.

The sheer variety of Rodchenko’s camerawork is, in itself, telling. Stalinist visual culture has proved historically easy to silo off to align with seemingly clear-cut ideological directives of the period. Glebova’s detailed analysis of Rodchenko’s exchanges with his partner, Varvara Stepanova, proves that the experience on the ground was very different. Rather than following stable directives, the artists were adrift in a confusing, fluctuating world of changing assumptions and instructions, struggling to make sense of what was required of them. This is particularly evident in chapters three and four, which focus on Rodchenko’s infamous “White Sea-Baltic Canal” commission, a photojournalistic project undertaken on a penal colony from 1933–34. The results—staged photographs, colored montages, and glossy magazine spreads celebrating the fruits of Soviet slave labor—have been widely dismissed as pure Stalinist propaganda. Glebova does not dispute this categorization but rethinks the relationship between medium and message. Her analysis reveals that few of these images function as straightforward propaganda. Rather, they are rife with compositional ambiguity and strangely contrasting symbolic registers that fail “to supply a single meaning” (103).

Glebova extracts some of her most compelling insights from some of the most unlikely motifs, notably a substantive analysis of Rodchenko’s photographs of logs and lumber. This topic has been hitherto overlooked by Rodchenko’s English-language scholarship. And yet, as the “White Sea-Baltic Canal” route cut through Karelia, an expansive archipelago of forestry on the Russo-Finnish borderlands, it offers rich potential for an ecocritical reading. Glebova situates Rodchenko’s photographs not just against aesthetic and artistic debates, but the broader context of “Soviet ecological thinking” to reveal divergent philosophies of “how landscape can naturalize ideology” (105). The common theme is contradiction; Rodchenko’s photographs of forestry depict nature as both raw material readily harnessed into productive energy, and simultaneously as an “obdurate class enemy” (140) to be overpowered. Moreover, albeit commissioned to depict industrial progress plowing forward at a “rapid, breakneck tempo” (171), Glebova reveals that the dominant temporal register of these photographs is often stillness and stagnancy. This is conveyed in myriad ways: the subjects themselves, ancient forests “that seems resistant to change” (122); and in the mode of their image capture—long-exposure times and patient hand-coloring. Both the twisting logs in the lake and the rising pines around them exhibit short-term potential for “reforging” and an ungovernable, elemental deep time. The latter is enhanced by the artist’s portrayal of human interactions with the environment, as evidenced by a particularly innovative reading of a secret police officer pictured in the domain of the romantic Rückenfigur. Ultimately, Rodchenko’s photographs of woodlands and woodwork are built upon an internalized series of aesthetic and ideological U-turns, the camera lens lurching from a “constructivist vision of nature” (112) to a “contemplative approach to nature” (132), layered contradictions which coexist without canceling each other out.

A recurrent theme threaded through the book’s chapters is the question of how “different realities that are cotemporal" can be “embedded in the same moment” (15). Glebova has a delightfully light touch as an expository writer, she intimates rather than expounds, such that, rather than a singular argumentative through-line, each chapter is experienced as a new layer of significance successively revealing itself. The book’s title, for example, transforms in meaning as one reads. Initially, Aleksandr Rodchenko seems straightforwardly descriptive, but with each chapter, the valence of “time” as a noun shifts and stretches, we gradually sense that the title phrase “the time of Stalin” alludes to more than a mere orientation in the 1930s, it is about the conceptual experience of time under Stalin: what did it mean to be contemporary? What did it mean to be spontaneous? How did Rodchenko’s camera lens mediate these categories?

Answering these questions requires addressing multiple misinterpretations of the historic record. In past studies, the specifically Stalinist experience of time has too readily been bifurcated into a dialectic division between the “bourgeois past versus the socialist future” (24). Glebova proposes an alternate model, demonstrating Rodchenko to be someone who manipulated his camera lens, not just to make time-based imagery, but to interrogate the meaning of these categories, rethinking past and future as “mutually imbricated and equally a part of the Soviet present” (24).

This focus on temporality offers new readings into familiar photographs. These range from microanalysis borne from close looking —(how, in intimate portraits, surface textures such as “scratches on the wall” and “dust prints on the lacquer box” (82) operate as indices of time passing)—to macro commentary (the “White Sea-Baltic Canal” series is revealed to document not just a major infrastructure project but an ambition animated by grand scale, the metaphysical motivation of “turning time backwards” (142)). Glebova also complicates narratives of Rodchenko’s career development (which is often presented as a linear evolution), into a tangled hesitancy. As we see, his shadow oeuvre was stylistically inconsistent, surging forward, stepping backwards, regressing and progressing in sometimes manic, parabolic swerves of contradiction. This trajectory embodies a recurrent theme in this book: ambivalence.

The all-too-human and seemingly un-Soviet emotion of uncertainty may have been obliterated from the sloganeering of the period (and, all too often, from literature on the artist), but Glebova reinstates it as the most apt adjective for Rodchenko. The artist was ambivalent about a lot: his work, his politics, the Soviet state, and the state of modernity itself. Thus, even though his photography could be “backward-looking” and “seemingly unmodern” (106), it was this very quality that made it a reflection and a product of the equivocal times from which it arose and not an outlier to his era.

Kamila Kociałkowska
Leonard A. Lauder Postdoctoral Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art