Photographers' Gallery traces development of Russian colour photography

By Christian Engel | 31 July 2014

Exhibition review: Primrose: Early Colour Photography In Russia, The Photographers' Gallery, London, August 1 - October 19 2014

Click on the picture to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition

Tracing the advancement of colour photography in Russia over more than a century, this exhibition - part of the UK Russia Year of Culture, curated by Olga Sviblova, the Director of the Moscow House of Photography Museum - features more than 140 works by photographers such as Dmitri Baltermants, Alexander Rodchenko, and Sergei Mikhailovich.
By covering the time period between the 1860s and the 1980s, the exhibition guides the viewer through the social history of Russia. The flower, primrose, means “first colour” in Russian and refers to the exhibition’s focus on the use of colour in early Russian photography which is astonishing.

Hand-colorized pictures of Orthodox churches, taken at the end of the 19th century, mark the dawn of colour photography in Russia.

These rather amateurish first attempts were soon to be overshadowed by the work of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, who invented a method of making colour photographs at the beginning of the 20th century.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s self-built camera rapidly took three images of its subjects – one in red, one in blue and one in green. Combined on a screen, the pictures melted into a single-colour photograph.

Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to portray Russia, Prokudin-Gorsky took pictures of its landscape and people.

The exhibition shows his famous photograph of literary grandmaster Lev Tolstoy, sitting white-bearded and in a blue shirt on a chair in the countryside and glancing intensely at the spectator.

Other colour photographs show toddlers in sailor suits holding the hands of their mums, awe-inspiring landscapes and aerial views of Yalta.

While some of the pictures look like the precedents of modern colour photography, others are obviously reworked.

The images of soldiers, whose dresses were colorized while their heads and the background were left black and white, exude an almost ghostly air.

Other photographs, like the portrait of a girl in a Russian costume, by Yelena Mrozovskaya, could easily be confused with great oil paintings.

On the other hand, the Autochrome series of Piotr Vedenisov, taken between 1909 and 1914, has cinematic qualities, depicting a Russian gentleman in a carriage and children surrounding a tree in emphatic colours.

The October Revolution in 1917 marked the end of the artistic freedom of photographers in Russia.

In a country where 70 percent of the population was illiterate, the Soviets soon discovered that photography was an enormously powerful propaganda weapon.

Collages of marching Red Army men and Lenin’s laid-out corpse, both against red backdrop, bear witness to this development.

With Stalin’s takeover of power, the techniques of photographic propaganda become more advanced.

After socialist realism had become the only allowed way of making art in 1932, all photographs were supposed to show the greatness of the USSR and its people.
The photographs of this time show happy men and women in radiant colours, marching in sunshine or lying at the beach.

Even photographs of fruits for cookbooks fulfilled a propagandistic purpose – to conceal the fact that large parts of the population were starving.

While a number of photographers ended up in labour camps, Alexander Rodchenko expressed his tragic disappointment with the regime silently, taking black and white photographs of athletes and opera and hand-colorizing them.

After Stalin’s funeral, in 1953, a famous picture of which is also part of the exhibition, the repression reversed and photography became freer.

This was also the time when hand-tinted kitsch portraits began to appear on the market again, although private photo studios were still prohibited.

These photographs were later cited in Boris Mikhailov’s series, Luriki, created between 1971 and 1985, which dissects and parodies Soviet ideology.

The Khrushchev Thaw also resulted in fascinating pictures such as a wrinkled old woman smoking a cigarette or Olympic champion Yury Vlasov with glasses in front of his weights.

During the 1960s and 1970s, colour diapositive film appeared on the market, allowing photographers to develop their pictures at home.

This was also the time in which Dmitri Baltermants worked on Suzi et Cetera, a 9 minutes and 50 seconds slideshow is entirely devoted to the individual, contrasting the colour of everyday life with the rotten façade of the Soviet regime.

Suffused with vitality, it shows nude women in natural surroundings and couples in tiny flats right alongside pictures of the bruised feet of worker, Soviet statues in decay, a fight in the street and spoiled food.

The photographs of a naked man climbing a cliff, a pregnant woman in blossoming fields or lips pursed into the camera, display a joy in living.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 11.30am-6pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @TPGallery.

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