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Book Review: The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941


Book Review The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941 Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik Reviewed by Colin Pantall The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941 is a comprehensive heavyweight affair that gives a history of the greatest period of photobook production ever undertaken. It’s a serious book with serious texts on a serious subject. And it’s astonishingly illustrated with spreads taken from publications few of us ever knew even existed.
The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. 
Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik.
Steidl, 2015.
 
The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941 
Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik
Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2016. In English. 636 pp., 10½x11¼".


The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941 is a comprehensive heavyweight affair that gives a history of the greatest period of photobook production ever undertaken. It’s a serious book with serious texts on a serious subject. And it’s astonishingly illustrated with spreads taken from publications few of us ever knew even existed.

The book is divided into 17 chapters that run more or less chronologically from 1921 to 1941. Right from the first chapter (Photography and the New Religion), we’re into revolutionary design, images constructed in the name of the revolution.

We rattle through the chapters with Rodchenko putting in an early appearance in chapter two, The Word and the Photograph. But as well as seeing the cover of Mayakovsky’s famous About This: To Her and to Me, we see the 8 photomontages inside, with dinosaurs, peanuts and parakeets, all fair game for Rodchenko’s scissors.

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik. Steidl, 2015.

There’s the propaganda of The Lessons of Constructivism chapter and then we’re onto Industrialization and the epic layouts of El Lissitzky’s first propaganda album, The USSR is Building Socialism, a photobook where double-page montages are "printed in two colors, black and red. The introduction of short slogan-like texts into the photomontages make these pages look like posters."

The army, the navy, trains, dams, steel mills, farming; it’s a trawl through an idealized and thoroughly happy Communist past. But it never gets repetitive or boring. Take the book New Rail Transport Technology; this was the first book about Soviet rail transport and it's relatively restrained, its mix of sober shots of bridges, tracks and signals are cut with a full-bleed picture of a live platform, station clock in the foreground, life going on in the most relaxed and casual manner imaginable.

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik. Steidl, 2015.

The chapter on Photography and Pictographs is a revelation in how "Dry statistics and tedious topography were converted… into a work of art; they are treated as geometrical abstract pictures." The writer, Mikhail Karasik, is talking about Moscow is Being Reconstructed here but the same also applies to The USSR’s Five-Year Plan, which glories in a series of pictographs because "Pictorial statistics provided the simplest and most readily available means of presenting information in a country whose citizens were mastering the basics of economics at the same time as they were learning to read and write."

There are the glorious books celebrating 10 years of the Soviet Union (including the Parr and Badger featured Uzbekistan volume with its Stalin shaped window) and then it’s the Red Army where the full cult of the militarized individual finds fettered reign in a whole series of staged portraits, panoramas and battle scenes. The final chapters look at Soviet Cinema, the books of the Soviet Pavillion at The World’s Fair in New York 1939-1940, and the masters of Soviet photography.

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik. Steidl, 2015.

The most tender chapters are Soviet Women Soviet Youngsters and The Land of Happiness; in the former there’s Protection of Mother and Child in the Land of Soviet, a book that ends with "a bronze Lenin apparently waggling his hand at a laughing child." In the latter we get to go to Transcaucasia and enjoy The Soviet Subtropics, a region where "creative work was already in full swing aimed at producing the wonderful multi-coloured vegetable carpet of the Soviet Florida."

The book spreads are accompanied by detailed and informative text that provides the background context for the photographers, designers and publishing houses behind this wealth of printed material. Connections are briefly (sometimes very briefly — it’s a book written with a ‘Motherland’ perspective) made to broader social movements and the main political events that were taking place in the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1941. There is also the narrative of how design and photobooks developed between these years, with montage and constructivism passing to photojournalism and reportage before ending up at the end game of fully fledged social realism complete with its heavy handed retouching of both faces and facts.

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik. Steidl, 2015.

Informative though this is, the density of the information is sometimes hard to digest for readers (like me) who are unversed in how the intricacies of Marxist, Stalinist, and Leninist thought played out in publishing. At times assumptions are made about the background knowledge the reader has both of book publishing and political history, and it becomes difficult to see the big picture due to the mass of detail. The Soviet Photobook is also a history book, and this idea is compounded by the list of photographers, artists, and writers to be found at the back. But it would have been good to add a simplified timeline of key political and publishing events. Though it’s made for easy viewing, it’s not made for easy reading.

An additional frustration (and the major irony of a book that has propaganda and the easy dissemination of information as its major theme) is that the text is laid out in great un-paragraphed and untitled blocks that make it difficult to navigate. And in this sense the book is under-designed and could have taken some lessons from the chapters on infographics in how to make information as accessible as possible.

The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. Edited by Manfred Heiting and Mikhail Karasik. Steidl, 2015.

That is a minor quibble though, because dig deep and focus hard and you will find whatever it is you are looking for, both in the text and in the images. And it’s the images that matter here. They are stunning, and well balanced with no over-emphasis on a particular era or theme. This is a book you can return to again and again (both to the words and the pictures) and you will always find something new. It doesn’t quite have the easy page-by-page referencing style of The Photobook: A History, but it more than makes up for that in the generosity of the spreads. It is simply gorgeous to look at with an authority to match.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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