On the Museum’s third floor, Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Dive (1934), a gelatin silver print roughly 12 inches high and 10 inches wide, is on display in the exhibition Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949. On the related Object:Photo website, the same photograph is shown reproduced in the July 1935 issue of Sovetskoe foto (Soviet photo), a state-sanctioned, Moscow-based journal founded in 1926 dedicated to photography and photographic techniques.
Investigating the context in which this photograph and others like it circulated was a key component of the intensive, four-year study of the Thomas Walther Collection by MoMA’s photography and conservation departments. The Thomas Walther Collection, which was acquired by the Museum in 2001, comprises 341 photographs created between 1909 and 1949 by almost 150 photographers from North America and Europe. It includes works by better-known photographers, such as László Moholy-Nagy, Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston, and André Kertész, as well as lesser-known ones, like Willi Ruge, Gertrude LeRoy Brown, Max Penson, and Karl Grill. Tracking the dissemination of these photographs through historical publications, such as photo books, exhibition catalogues, and the illustrated press, was a major part of the project’s research.
Between the two world wars, publications—especially illustrated magazines and journals like the French Vu, the American Vogue, and the German Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ)—were a key means to discover and discuss modern photography. Handheld cameras, sophisticated lenses, and sensitive film made photography mobile and fast. Press agencies emerged that organized staff photographers and freelancers into an efficient collection and distribution system. The maturation of global transport and communication systems enabled these images to travel farther and faster, while developments in printing technology enabled the mass production of image-rich, low-cost dailies and weeklies. These developments met the popular demand for images, whether documentary, commercial, or propagandistic. Photographers also met this challenge by cultivating new approaches to photography that reflected modern life.In the Soviet Union, Sovetskoe foto was an agent in the government’s effort to mobilize art and design in service of the revolution, integrating new technologies with ideology. Were one to thumb through the volumes of this illustrated monthly, you could read the articles on the latest photographic techniques and processes; peruse the ads for photographic papers, chemicals, and equipment; and enter into current debates about photography. For more on this topic, check out the essays by Christina Lodder and Margarita Tupitsyn on Object:Photo, in addition to Lee Ann Daffner’s groundbreaking study “Dive: A Materialist History of the Photographic Industry in Germany and the Soviet Union between the Wars” in the catalogue.
Reading between the lines of Sovetskoe foto, one comes to understand that the Soviet political climate in the 1930s was as precarious and disorienting as a diver in mid-air. Although Rodchenko, along with other artists seeking to align avant-garde aesthetics with utopian socialist ideals, founded the journal in 1926, he was denounced in its pages just two years later. In a letter published in April 1928, an anonymous author accused Rodchenko of plagiarizing the subject matter and compositions of Western European photographers László Moholy-Nagy and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Condemned as an imitator of Western bourgeois imperialist photography—specifically that of the Bauhaus in Germany, which would later be shut down by the Nazi regime for being too leftist—Rodchenko sought refuge in Novyi Lef (New left), an illustrated journal for alternative art and culture also based in Moscow. Nevertheless, in the early 1930s, Rodchenko made attempts to secure official work by composing photo essays, such as his feature on the building of the White Sea Canal published in the magazine SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction) in 1933, and photographing public events, as seen in The Walther Collection photographs Demonstration (1932) and the two entitled Dive (both 1934). Such later efforts, in which Rodchenko at least appeared to have abandoned many of the avant-garde principles that guided his early work in favor of ideology, allowed the artist to be rehabilitated in the eyes of official Soviet culture. This culminated in an extended feature on Rodchenko published in the July 1935 issue of Sovetskoe foto, naming him a “master” of Soviet photography. With a circulation of 11,500 copies, this specialty magazine reprints for a relatively large audience The Walther Collection diver, along with both early and later photographs by the artist, giving readers one perspective on the trajectory of Rodchenko’s career.
To see more examples of photographs from The Thomas Walther Collection as they appeared in print publications from the period, check out the companion exhibition Production-Reproduction: The Circulation of Photographic Modernism, 1900–1950 in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, on view through March 30. This exhibition is motivated by the strong links between photography and printed matter from the first decades of the 20th century, highlighting the ways in which photographs were and continue to be circulated and consumed. The examples shown are from MoMA’s Library collection, which you can thumb through yourself once the volumes are back on the shelves!