The Photographers’ Gallery presents Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, a retrospective of colour experiments and developments in Russian photography over the course of a century. In tracing these advancements the exhibition also moves through the social history of Russia itself.
Primrose will feature over 140 works, many never before seen in the UK, spanning the 1860s through to the 1980s. These will be arranged in five chronological sections, each looking at different periods and their prevailing photographic aesthetics. The exhibition will include works by Dmitri Baltermants, Sergei Mikhailovich, Prokudin-Gorsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Ivan Shagin, and Boris Mikhailov among others.
‘Primrose’ in Russian literally translates as ‘first colour’ and is one of the earliest and most colourful flowers to bloom in spring; its use in the title refers to the exhibition’s focus on the progressive use of colour in early Soviet photography.
The exhibition opens with photographs from the 1860s when tinting of prints with watercolour and oil paints was undertaken by hand. Initially used for portraits, this technique was later extended to architectural, landscape and industrial subject matter.
In the early 20th century under the patronage of Tsar Nicholas II the photographic documentation of life in Russia became a priority of the Empire. Using a tricolor plate system he adapted from Prof. Adolf Miethe, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin- Gorsky was trusted with the task of travelling the country to capture its vastness and diversity. His output from those years is presented in the second section of the exhibition alongside the autochromes of nobleman Pyotr Vedenisov, whose autobiographical focus provided valuable insights into the lifestyle of the Russian elite.
The third section will examine the period following WWI when the Soviet government, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, supported photography as an important propaganda tool. Photomontage became central to their agenda, allowing for the communication of new Soviet myths to a largely illiterate population. Also included are the later works of Alexander Rodchenko, featuring pictures of sporting and art events taken in a pictorial style. These provided Rodchenko with a form of escapism and a way to express his disillusionment with the notion of a Soviet utopia.
The production of Soviet-made colour film did not appear until 1946 and was accessible to only a handful of official photographers. The Khrushchev Thaw in the mid-1950s saw much of Stalin’s repression reversed, allowing photography to move closer to everyday reality as seen in Dmitri Baltermants’ pictures in section four. At the same time hand-tinted portraits began appearing on the market again. These were taken anonymously as private photo studios were still forbidden.
Referencing these anonymous studio portraits is Boris Mikhailov’s celebrated series Luriki (1971 - 1985). Comprising the fifth section, the series looks to expose Soviet ideology through humour and stereotypical imagery. The use of handcolouring techniques represents Russia’s stalled progress as well as nostalgic sentimentality for old craft. This section also presents Mikhailov’s slideshow Suzi et Cetera (1960s - 1970s). The piece with its focus on the individual is meant as a political act, challenging the dominant 'we' of the Soviet nation. It was impossible to show the work publicly; such exhibitions took place in underground clubs, artist studios and apartments synonymous with the Soviet nonconformist art of the time.
Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is part of Russia Visualised, a year-long presentation of visual arts and culture programming across London marking the UK Russia Year of Culture in 2014. The exhibition is curated by Olga Sviblova, Director, Moscow House of Photography Museum / Multimedia Art Museum. The exhibition is supported by The Science Museum.