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MBW in Soviet Union  

 

Patrick Rössler
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 19
 

Many thanks for a great talk, dear Josie -

a thorough analysis of MBWs magazine work on a truly interesting topic. When looking at the stunning detail from Lissitzky's famous montage, I was wondering whether you have knowledge if MBW left her negatives in Moscow (probably not), and if not, Lissitzky must have worked with an existing print of her cranes.

Another question: MBWs pictures are not individually credited on the "USSR in construction" pages, right? I just looked at the original magazines and did not find those credits. So, if you have tracked her work in this magazine, can you provide us with a brief list of which photos are by MBW in the different issues of the magazine?

Many thanks in advance, and again my congratulations for an interesting presentation
Patrick


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Josie Johnson
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 12
 

Dear Patrick,

Thank you so much for your comments and questions. Bourke-White actually did leave her negatives in Moscow with a few different parties. Some stayed back originally (after her first departure in 1930), and some were sent later on as glossy prints for reproduction. So there are quite a few places where Lissitzky could have come across her work, but most likely he found them right at the USSR in Construction offices.

It turns out that she was credited in one issue of USSR in Construction: vol. 2, no 1-2 (1931), page 30. But you are correct that the first issue where her photographs appear (vol. 1, no. 10-11 (1930), page 32, 34) does not include a credit for any photographers in the issue. The Lissitzky photomontage issue (vol 3. no 10 (1932) n.p.) does not credit Bourke-White either, of course. This raises the possibility that there could be other Bourke-White photographs we have not yet recognized in other issues because they are uncredited.

That's all I have found so far, but I would not be surprised if a couple more turn up. I finally managed to see all the USSR in Construction issues (in various language editions) from 1930 to 1935 not long ago, but I am still missing quite a few from later years. Further work remains!

Thanks again,

Josie


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Giulia Pra Floriani
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 6
 

Dear Josie, thank you for the interesting presentation.

Connecting with Prof. Rössler's question, I was wondering why her works in the magazine USSR in construction are not credited, while other magazines clearly state her authorship. 

Thank you!


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Josie Johnson
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 12
 

Dear Giulia,

I would love to know the exact answer to this question myself, but the best I can do is point to a few conjectures. As I mentioned above, the first issue to publish her work does not credit any photographers--not below the photographs, and not in the colophon. This is unusual, but not unheard of for USSR in Construction and contemporary Soviet magazines, and it may have been simply an oversight or the result of an under-resourced staff working on a deadline. A slightly more interesting possibility is that the editors did not want to include her name, and there are many potential reasons for this (competition among Soviet photographers, xenophobia or anti-American sentiment, anti-Bourke-White sentiment...). I really don't know. But I'm leaning toward the more prosaic explanation that it was a fairly meaningless omission. After tracking down countless examples of Bourke-White's magazine publications from the period, it's safe to say that she was one of the best-credited photographers out there, but even she missed out on a credit line now and then in magazines that had no obvious reason not to include it. I hope that helps!

Josie


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Emma West
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 13
 

Dear Josie,

Thanks so much for a wonderful talk - I really loved your focus on a single contributor across a range of magazines. It chimes with what Melissa Miles was calling for in her talk in Panel 4 - highly recommended if you haven't seen it already. 

I was really intrigued by what you said about MBW in relation to USSR in Construction. Am I right in thinking that MBW was able to take these photographs because of a connection to/commission from the magazine? I'd be interested to hear more about this commissioning process, if records survive. It sounds from your presentation that (at least some) correspondence survives which is very useful! 

Emma


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Josie Johnson
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 12
 

Dear Emma,

Thank you so much for your kind comments. Yes, MBW did have an arrangement to send her photographs to USSR in Construction, and I believe this was a key reason why she was permitted to photograph in the USSR in the first place. There is a bit of correspondence to indicate this, but unfortunately I think the details were worked out in person, verbally. This was also not an exclusive arrangement: MBW also sent her photos to the state publishing house, which funded her travel around the USSR. A third set went to the Soviet photo agency Press-Cliche, but apparently they got their set last and complained that they couldn’t use the photos because USSR in Construction got them first! Unfortunately the USSR in Construction archives appear to be lost, but hopefully they will turn up some day and provide more information. 

Josie


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Antonella Pelizzari
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 10
 

Hi Josie, wonderful research across magazines and mediation of MBW photographs. Would it be conceivable to find more US and European photographs in the pages of USSR in Construction? Additionally, you prove that the distinction between documentary/commercial/avant-garde are not applicable to MBW photographs and I am wondering if these considerations can be extended to other US modernist photographers such as Ralph Steiner, for ex., and many others, across magazines pages.

Thank you, Antonella


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Josie Johnson
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 12
 

@apelizza

Dear Antonella,

Thank you for your questions! To your first, about other foreign photographers in USSR in Construction, the answer is yes, but overall these are rare exceptions. The most prominent example is John Heartfield, who was invited to Moscow and exhibited his work there. Maria Gough published a great article about this history in October. The second key example is James Abbe, a fellow American photographer who was also working in Moscow in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He managed to photograph a portrait of Stalin, which was reproduced very widely in American and Soviet media, including in USSR in Construction (the same issue designed by Lissitzky, (vol 3. no 10 (1932)), makes use of this portrait, for example. For this history, see Shooting Stalin, edited by Bodo von Dewitz.

But, like I said, these are exceptions. Beyond this, in Soviet media generally, you might find the occasional photo of poor conditions in the USA to provide a contrast with conditions in the USSR, for example, but these are more anonymous press photographs than works of art. 

Your second question is spot on: I do believe that many other modernist photographers could similarly be described as operating across and between photographic genres. This especially applies to fellow students of Clarence H. White, including Ralph Steiner, but also Paul Outerbridge, Margaret Watkins (who also photographed in the USSR), Karl Struss, and others. The same could be said of many Soviet photographers at the time, as well, who were adapting to shifting conditions and wearing different hats as art photographers and press photographers at different times. However, I would argue that Bourke-White pushed these practices further than the others. It's not necessarily that she or anyone else was hiding the mixed nature of their work at the time, but I believe our practices of writing histories have tended to place photographers into categories to make things simpler. Bourke-White herself was involved in re-shaping the history of her early career when she published her autobiography later in life. 

Thanks again!

Josie

 


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Margaret Innes
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 8
 

Dear Josie, thank you for this excellent presentation, and apologies for my belated response!

It was fantastic to see the variety of publications that featured this work (and I had no idea about the Lissitzky montage--what a find!). Like Antonella, I also appreciated the way your talk blurred categorical distinctions, between the pictorial/commercial/documentary but also between the idea of "capitalist" vs "Soviet" photographic aesthetics (especially given the more profound enthusiasm these camps shared for industrialization). But I am still hung up on what I still see as a major ideological contradiction in MBW's work, which is that somehow the most celebrated photographer of 20th century industry also became an icon for the American left (her work appears in The Working Woman as you point out, but I'm thinking more specifically of her super enthusiastic reception among the Workers Film and Photo League). It is still baffling to me, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on this front?

On a related note, which is perhaps more directly linked to the argument that you present, I was interested in the way you mobilized captions and text as context for MBW's published images, and it made me wonder what role you see MBW's own writing on the USSR from this period playing in shaping or delimiting the available meanings and interpretations of her published photographs. I'm thinking of instances where she steps into the role of author directly, as in Eyes on Russia and her series of articles on the USSR for the New York Times in 1932.

Thank you again! 


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Josie Johnson
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 12
 

Dear Margaret,

Thank you so much for your feedback! I also appreciate the example your presentation offers of an alternative ideological standpoint within the interwar leftist press, and I think that kind of thinking partially helps explain the million-dollar question of how on earth MBW happened to win over so many people from all kinds of political standpoints and walks of life. As with any big question like this, I think there are multiple answers.

If we closely read her correspondence from the early 1930s, Bourke-White starts out rather blissfully unaware of any big contradiction in her work. She used to say that Henry Ford was popular in Russia, so why shouldn't she be too? I think she sincerely believed that she could have her cake and eat it too, and said "yes" to just about any opportunity that came her way. She thus gave leftists ample reason to think she was on their side, even without making any serious commitments. People that knew her best knew she was unlikely to fully support socialism, but they were happy to use her photographs and her growing celebrity to their advantage. Letters between her close friends Joseph Freeman and Louis Fischer (two journalists with their own complicated relationship to leftist politics) state this plainly, and not without a distinct tone of sexism. Those who did not know her as well made the false assumption that she was fully on board, or attempted to court her to join their cause. When it came to costume balls and charity benefits and exhibitions, like those organized by the Film and Photo League, she was more than happy to join. But, MBW slowly starts to wisen up as the decade progresses. This happens in response to increasing demands from voices on either side of the ideological spectrum for her to pick a side or stay out of politics altogether.

As for your excellent question about texts, I see MBW's own writing as (attempting to be) distinctly apolitical, much like the photographs. The captions and anecdotes in these texts tend to be amusing and light-hearted and focus on her personal experiences more than the experiences of others. Again, like the photographs, the "apolitical" writing is then used as fodder for all kinds of political arguments, as readers picked up on small details and made assumptions about what MBW was really trying to say about the big picture of capitalism vs. communism. I have a lot more I could say about this but I'll leave it at that for now!

Thanks again,

Josie


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