REVIEW: Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

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Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, currently at the Photographers’ Gallery is curated by Olga Sviblova, founder-director of the Moscow House of Photography and probably the most forceful champion of the art of photography in Russia now. Back in the day (2010-2012) I went to many impressive exhibitions, international and local, curated by Olga at Dom Fotografiya. But this is the first one I’ve been to in Europe. Russian visions don’t always translate across cultures – even when politics is not involved – so this was going to be interesting…

“Early” colour photography in this case starts in the 19th century and extends right up to the 1970s. According to the blurb, “The exhibition is arranged in chronological order and shows the development of photographic colour technology and the social transformations which altered the role of photography in Russian society.”

Well, sort of.

It’s not all strictly colour photography. Artworks by Rodchenko and his missus Varvara Stepanova, for starters, are very definitely black-and-white, with red type and collage elements. There is a lot of hand-tinting of the early 20th century works. The great landscape photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, whose amazing travels through Tsarist Russia were exhibited in Paris earlier this year (I blogged the exhibition here), is represented only by a portrait of Tolstoy from 1908.

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There are a number of startlingly modern portraits of immaculately turned-out families in crinolines and boaters which could easily serve as advertisements for Le Petit Bateau or a pre-Bolshevik Downton Abbey. There are marvellously hand-painted prints of people dressed as marionettes or soldiers. But many of the most exciting shots – like the galloping Red Cavalry riders by Lev Borodulin from 1967, and the 1950s schoolgirl by Elizaveta Ignatovich, are actually only on a small iPad exhibition off to one side of the main show.

And then there is Boris Mikhailov.

A slideshow of his series Suzi et Cetera is presented at the end of the exhibition, and the effect – as always with Mikhailov – is of a some nutter off his head on vodka crashing the party. There are lots of naked girls – some pretty, some not so much, all wearing unmistakable bad 1970s makeup – and the odd surreal still life composed of a wig and three dried mackerel. (As someone who lived in Moscow in 1995, I can honestly say that this was not done for effect. I took photographs back then of department store windows on the main drag, Ulitsa Tverskaya, which incorporated tins of tuna into fashionable window displays.)

Mikhailov represents – and presents – the worst/best/most honest (delete according to taste) late Soviet social realism. By the time Mikhailov (a Ukrainian) was taking up his camera, the infrastructure of the USSR – at one time obviously shiny and impressive – was falling into disrepair (accelerated by winters with temperatures of -30ºC and summers of +30ºC.) The Soviet experiment had entered its period of stagnation, headed by Brezhnev’s ageing Politburo. Soviet citizens had had inklings of protest and social change in the West and they were restless.

Cheap Kodak film became available, and Boris Mikhailov went at it with  the zeal and energy of a missionary (or an alcoholic – both equally applicable in Russia).

It is interesting that for this exhibition Olga Sviblova has not chosen Mikhailov’s better-known and more hard-hitting Bezdomny/Homeless works – I’m not sure that Suzi et Cetera captures “social transformations” – guys have always tried to get naughty pictures of  girls flashing their tits.  But the images are worth seeing, and they certainly give a twist to the tail of the show.

In the end, when you are putting together a photographic survey of a place as huge as the former USSR, with a time-frame of over a century, all you can do is cherry-pick. This exhibition is a good edited collection of photographic moments, and it leaves you keen to see more.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (until October 19)

© Fiona Hayes 2014

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