Primrose: Early Russian Color Photography

This review of a group show at Moscow’s MAMM, appeared in Camera Austria magazine:

Yakov Khalip. Sea cadets. 1951. Сolour print. MAMM collection
Yakov Khalip, Sea Cadets (1951), Сolor print. Courtesy of MAMM collection

Primrose, pervotsvet in Russian (literally meaning “first color”), gives its name to this expansive exhibition spanning over a century of experimentation with color photography, which in Russia—as in the rest of Europe—really took off in the 1860s. The curators Elena Misalandi and Olga Sviblova, who wrote an insightful essay for the eponymous catalogue accompanying the show, published for one of its prior incarnations, were spoilt for choice. Drawn from the MAMM’s rich collection of some eight hundred color photographs from the period, a fraction of which had previously been showcased at the Photobiennale 2008 in Moscow, the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (Foam) in 2013, and The Photographers’ Gallery in London the following year, the 248 items currently on view—not counting the slideshow of Boris Mikhailov’s series Suzie et Cetera (1960s–1970s)—are the largest number yet to have been shown together.

Despite the sheer volume of the selected photographs, their presentation in neat rows or salon style against the pale-blue background of the exhibition walls feels surprisingly airy. Eschewing a strictly chronological order, the exhibition lures visitors through its threshold with a blown-up color print from 1961 depicting the Olympic Games high jump champion Valery Brumel, whose seemingly giant stature dwarfs everything surrounding the image, including a Social Realist statue mounted on a pedestal. The work of Dmitri Baltermants (1912–1990), one of the most versatile photographers in the show, is strategically positioned at the bottom of the main staircase next to the exhibition entrance. Flanking it is the photo reporter’s alluring Arbat Square series of 1960, portraying women basking in the sun on a bench, people gathered around a bookseller’s stand, and children walking on a fountain’s edge or wearing their Sunday best in a city teeming with life.

The earliest experiments in color photography are, more often than not, somewhat stilted family photographs and portraits of military men, hand-painted in gouache and watercolor, or else postcard-style landscapes and cityscapes faded around the edges, inevitably pale in comparison. And yet they are still compelling, if only as a record of the different techniques deployed by the pioneers of color photography, ranging from albumen printing and aristotypes—called thus because they used the best kind of paper and gold, platinum, or selenium to fix the print—to salted paper, bromoil, photochrome, and autochrome.

The latter is a technique using color transparencies on glass, involving starch granules in primary and secondary colors acting as light filters. It was patented at the dawn of the twentieth century by the Lumière brothers, who began to industrially produce glass plates that could be viewed against light with the help of a specially designed projector. Slightly set back into the wall, copies of autochrome originals made in the 1910s by Pyotr Vedenisov (1866–1937), a Russian nobleman who settled in Yalta, Crimea, stand out due to their mode of presentation and the vividness of the autochrome colors. They notably present the occupations of the leisurely classes that Vedenisov captured in his delightful portraits of various members of the Kozakov family, above all Vera Kozakova sporting an elaborate Crimean costume and Kolya with his dog Gipsy.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944) is a contemporary of Vedenisov’s who went on to work with the Lumière brothers after he left the Soviet Union following the October Revolution. He studied color photography at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg before inventing his own camera and a projector fitted with three lenses designed to combine as many shots—taken in rapid succession using red, blue, and green filters—into a full-blown color image. Emperor Nicholas II, who was an amateur photographer himself, was apparently so taken with this invention that he facilitated Prokudin-Gorsky expeditions by steamship, motorboat, and automobile to far-flung regions of the country for the latter’s “Collection of Sights of the Russian Empire” (ca. 1904–15). Unlike Vedenisov, Prokudin-Gorsky photographed people from all walks of life and belonging to different ethnic groups; one of the phototypes on view is a portrait of an aged Leo Tolstoy taken in May 1908.

Red, the color of the revolution and communism, crops up everywhere: in the innumerable Soviet Union flags fluttering in the wind; in the glossy fruits and vegetables heaped up in the still lifes shot by Ivan Shagin or Vasily Ulitin; in the clothing items worn by sportsmen and women, most strikingly perhaps in the case of Lev Borodulin’s 1964 color print of the strawberry-blonde Olympic Games speed-skating medalist Lidiya Skoblikova; or in Yuri Levyant’s playfully naive but beautifully composed car advertisements from the early 1960s. The founder of Constructivism, Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), used it to powerful effect his dynamic photomontages, as did his wife and collaborator Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958), namely, in a 1930 print made together with the photographer Boris Ignatovich, in which Red Army soldiers holding up rifles appear against a gouache-painted crimson backdrop.

Stepanova is one of two women to have been included in a show that brings together forty-five known photographers (many of the earlier photographic works are anonymous). As Rodchenko’s work and life partner, this “Amazon of the Russian avant-garde” does not even get her own section in the otherwise informative biographical entries compiled for the show. Elena Mrozovskaya (? –1941), who hailed from Montenegro, fares little better; she was a member of the St. Petersburg’s Ladies’ Photographic Society as of 1897 and studied photography in Paris with the likes of Félix Nadar prior to opening her own studio in St. Petersburg. Although her biography heralds Mrozovskaya as the “first Russian woman photographer,” all we have to go on—in guessing at what must have been a substantial body of work, given that her studio was active from 1883 to 1920—is a hand-colored portrait dating to 1909 which represents a little girl in Russian costume.

One thread that connects the photographs spanning over a century of creative use of the medium is the hand-coloring technique widespread in the nineteenth century and periodically revisited by photographers of a conceptual stripe. Rodchenko used it in his gelatin-silver prints from the late 1920s and mid-1930s depicting sports events or his muse Regina Lemberg, as did Boris Mikhailov in his tongue-in-cheek series Luriki (Lyrics, late 1970s to early 1980s) consisting of kitschy keepsake portraits in a restricted palette of blue, red, and yellow. Alexander Sliussarev’s work, in turn, displays a more spare and formal use of color in his mostly black-and-white photographs of window panes, curtains, domestic interiors, and house facades. These contrasting approaches from artists working at the tail end of the period covered by the show (and beyond) resolutely hark back to the early days of color photography.