Photography and the Making of Modern Russia

An issue of Niva, 1904.

By Mohinee Mukherjee

February 20, 2017.  Oxford, OH.  Oberlin College Visiting Assistant Professor of History Dr. Chris Stolarski recently delivered a lecture entitled “The Performance of Modern Life: Photography and Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia” and led a discussion with students and faculty about the transformative influence of Russian press photography to modernize the Russian population.

One of Stolarski’s key arguments was that the heightened importance of the photography studio and the growing authority of the photographer attributed to the rise of the technological age in Russia. Stolarski specifically focused on weekly magazines, such as Iskry [Sparks], Niva [Grainfield], and Ognek [Little Flame], from 1900 to 1917.

A significant aspect of press photography at the time, Stolarski said, was highlighting the industrial process of photography. Bylines of photo content not only included the names of photographers but also the technology that was used for photo processing, such as halftone.

“Publishers constantly revealed the industrial processes for consumers through the magazine,” Stolarski noted.

As the art of press photography was rising in the early 1900s, many Russians were initially apprehensive of being photographed for publishing. In response, the magazines published articles to draw importance to photography and allay the fear of being a photographer’s subject.

“Subjects [were encouraged] to feel comfortable to reveal everything, including their [physical] insecurities,” said Stolarski, who added that it was then the photographer’s prerogative to portray or hide these features as needed.

Another key argument of Stolarski’s was that the Russian illustrative press provided the “means of communicating modernity” to the subscribers in Russia while it itself faced challenges of creating a modern image of Russia.

“Weekly magazines were priced commodities,” Stolarski said. “[They] were the emporiums of the modern Russian consumer experience.”

The magazines published contemporary figure profiles, which often included middle class people. Many of these portraits were cut off at the shoulder, and men wore western-style suits and women wore hats with formal dresses.

Members of the Duma were also prominent. Many of the magazines included individual portraits and entire spreads showing politicians.  Publishers highlighting the Duma system is interesting, because during the waning days of imperial Russia, there was growing public disdain for the monarchy and these “puppet dumas.”

However, the Romanov family was rarely photographed. According to Stolarski, there was strict censorship on how members of the family would be portrayed. On rare occasions, the press published pictures of the Tsar Nicholas II with his daughters and son. Yet, anger directed at the Russian emperor was evident, as Stolarski cited an instance when a picture of the Tsar in a private’s uniform caused uproar.

A common theme for photographers and publishers was to photograph the magazines’ popularity in Russian society. There were full pages and covers showing writers, editorial meetings, photographers, and people from members of the Duma to peasants reading the magazines in public.

The reason for this publicity, Stolarski said, came because the press saw itself as a quintessentially modern institution in modern Russian life and wanted to advertise this status.

“[The magazines] were mediators of public opinion,” Stolarski said. “They were the actor in the drama of Russian modern life.”

Magazines such as Ogonek covered foreign events and culture. Iskry published photos titled “Frenchmen in Moscow” in 1910 and “Muslim Faction in the State Duma” in 1907 to illustrate the modern convergence of cultures in society and government.

While some photos were very ethnographic and depicted stereotypes of Islamic and Asian cultures, the weekly magazines were not representative of the entire Russian population at the time. Despite women being the primary readers of the magazines, women were not featured prominently until 1912.

Moreover, blurring national boundaries through photography was difficult, Stolarski said, and prominent Russian figures advocated for more uniformity of Russian national identity as depicted in photos.

“The diversity of the empire threatened uniformity that was to be portrayed in ‘Russian-ness’ visuals,” Stolarski said.

To subtly hint at a united, modern Russian culture, magazine headlines included adjectives such as русский (“Russian,” denoting ethnic Russians) to describe national armies and Duma, and наш (“Our”) to describe diplomats and sportsmen. These adjectives, Stolarski said, had a powerful effect on the Russian population, as they stressed uniformity and national belonging.

The press was interested in photographs that showed the entire social construction of Russia. A prevailing idea at the time was socialist realism, where the public was “seeing into being.” This concept was similar to suprematism, which also had the purpose of providing viewers with pure feeling after observing a piece of art.

For many subscribers of the magazines, Stolarski said, these photographs created a sense of “aspirational modernity,” which added to the overall photographer mission of creating a modern image of Russia.

Mohinee Mukherjee is a senior majoring in finance with minors in supply chain management and history.

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