Duty to Experiment: The Photography of Alexander Rodchenko

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“Our duty is to Experiment.”
Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

Even if you haven’t heard of the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko – who created his iconic photography during the first decades of the 20th century – there’s a chance you’ve come across his photographs. You may also be familiar with the artistic look he helped create as part of the early Avant Garde movement in Soviet Union. To this day, Rodchenko’s art has not lost any of its freshness and power, and it can still inspire us to look beyond the ordinary and find new ways of seeing the world.

Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko (Алекса́ндр Миха́йлович Ро́дченко) was born on 5 December 1891 in Saint Petersburg, and died on December 3, 1956 in Moscow. He lived through the stormy years of the communist revolution in 1917 and was a supporter of its ideals. Before venturing into photography, Rodchenko worked as a graphic designer, painter and sculptor. He was involved in founding the artistic and architectural movement called constructivism, which emphasised the function of art as a social ‘construct’ and wanted to use it to instigate social change. Rodchenko married another constructivist artist, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), whom he met at the Kazan Art School in Odessa. The couple later lived in Moscow in an apartment owned by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).

Graphic Artist and Photographer

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Alexander Rodchenko’s illustration for Pro eto, a poem by Vladimir Mayakovski

Alexander Rodchenko was among the top avant-garde artists of Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. He was heavily influenced by futurism and cubism. Subsequent to his studies at the Kazan Art School, he enrolled at the Stroganoff Institute in Moscow. Rodchenko stumbled into photography via his work with photomontages which he created using photography taken by other people. When he realised that he couldn’t find suitable photographs for the montages, he started to photograph his own material in 1924.

Like the French artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), Rochenko’s energetic, youthful artworks blending graphic and textual elements were used to advertise businesses, movie theatres, factories and other establishments.

The graphic look created by Rodchenko has had a strong influence on the popular visual language in the western world. A recreation of Rodchenko’s poster “Knigi” (books) – with a closeup photograph of the Russian Jewish writer and socialite Lilya Yuryevna Brik (1891-1978), donning a stylish bandana and calling out into the distance – was featured on the cover of the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand second album You Could Have It So Much Better from 2005.

As a side note, the cover girl of the Knigi poster, Lili Brik, was married to the Russian avant garde writer and literary critic Osip Brik (1888-1945) while also having a relationship with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). Her relationship with Mayakovsky lasted from 1917 to 1923. Brik was famous at the time for her beauty, having her portrait done by such luminaries as the Russian painter Alexander Tyshler (1898-1980) and Ukrainian artists David Shterenberg (1881-1948) and David Burlyuk (1882-1967).

She was also immortalised in the works of French artists Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Her reputation is marred, however, by the close ties she later had with the Soviet secret police. According to the poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), the Brik residence was “a saloon where writers met with chekists” – the chekists referring to the spies of Cheka, The bolshevik secret police established in 1917.

Alexander Rodchenko’s Photography Style and What We Can Learn from It

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Alexander Rodchenko’s photograph of Lili Brik for a poster advertising a state-owned book publisher.

Rodchenko’s approach to photography was unique, and went against the artistic fashions of his time. The first thing that strikes you in his photographic work are the unusual perspectives that he uses. The photos are taken at sharp angles from above or from below, known as Rodchenko angles. His photography uses ‘extreme foreshortenings’ and diagonal viewpoints. Often, he also photographs his subjects from a close distance. The effect is exhilarating, interesting and instantly recognisable. In the constructivist parlance, the technique was called ostranenie, or making strange.

Behind all the odd angles and viewpoints was an intention to document people, objects and places in an analytical manner. According to Rodchenko, “one has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.”

What Rodchenko is telling us is that the world consists of individuals and details that cannot be reduced to one perspective. Everyone and everything can be seen from many angles and interpreted in multiple ways. In short, the truth has a tendency to confound us by being much more complex than we thought. And of course, photography can only reach the surface of things. But it points to the inner reality which is even more intricate. No wonder the communists rejected Rodchenko’s experimentalism as ideologically subversive. That’s exactly what it was.

What we can also learn from Rodchenko’s style of photography is that we shouldn’t be afraid to be different. We all know that being completely unique is impossible. Everything has been done before. Despite this, it’s important to try to think of options and alternatives when you’re photographing. The main considerations in photography are always practical. You have a choice of the subject, the point of view, distance and the focal length, among other things.

Thirdly, to photograph like Rodchenko, we need to be physically fit. I feel that this is an important point. As much as photography is an artistic, mental and even a spiritual endeavour, it cannot be done without the physical element. The angles that Rodchenko used can’t be attained without getting into awkward physical positions. Looking at his work, you can tell Rodchenko was an athletic person and that he refused to be lazy when photographing his subjects.

The following photographs are some of the most famous photos taken by Alexander Rodchenko. I’ve introduced each one shortly and added my thoughts on what I think the photo can teach us and how it can inspire us to become better photographers.

Famous photographs by Alexander Rodchenko

Girl with a Leica (Eugenia Lemberg), 1934

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Titled the Girl with a Leica, this photograph is a portrait of a young woman sitting on a long bench. She is dressed in a white dress wearing a white beret on her head. There’s a black strap that comes down from her right shoulder onto her lap. On her lap is, presumably, the Leica camera that the photo has been named after. The woman in the photograph is covered in a grid pattern of light and shade. It looks like she is sitting in front of a garden lattice, perhaps in a public park or on a boardwalk.

Rodchenko has taken the photo at a diagonal angle with the bench stretching from the left corner of the photograph all the way to the top right corner. The woman is positioned in the opposite direction diagonally and, together with the dark bench, forms a black and white cross in the top left corner of the picture. The overall impression is of an abstract scene and, although the shot features a human subject, its point seems to be in the structure of the photo, in other words the dynamic patterns that it features.

The takeaway message from this photo, to me, is that it’s sometimes good to think in abstract terms. When you’re learning the art of photo composition, it’s useful to try to look at the lines, patterns and shapes and see the underlying structure of a scene. It might help to squinch your eyes and see if you can ignore the actual view and detect the edges of things that create the form in what you’re looking at. It’s this concealed structure of objects that makes or breaks your photograph in terms of composition.

White Sea Canal Photos, 1933

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Rodchenko’s photos of the White Sea Canal were published in Stalin’s propaganda magazine, USSR in Construction, No. 12, 1933, with the whole issue being photographed and Designed by Alexander Rodchenko. The photos depict soviet workers building the canal between the Baltic Sea and the White Sea. In many of the pictures, the workers are seen almost in a romantic light. They are a heroic army invading a hostile country for the communist motherland. In reality, the project was a humanitarian catastrophe, and the work done by slave labour consisting of political prisoners and other undesirables. According to some estimates, about 25,000 people of the 126,000 used in the construction, perished.

With these photos, Rodchenko has clearly aimed to reproduce classic war and battle paintings. Rodchenko had studied art in two different institutions and was well aware of the artistic tradition. Just like Rodchenko, we can also use famous artwork as inspiration for our photography. This obviously requires that we learn what’s been done before, not just in photography but also in art generally.

Pioneer with Trumpet, 1930

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The Pioneer with Trumpet from 1930 shows a young pioneer blowing into his trumpet. The photo was taken by Rodchenko on a pioneer camp near Moscow in 1930. It is an extreme closeup, taken from a very low angle. The player in the shot is completely absorbed in playing his instrument. We can see the top portion of his shirt in the photo. Above his head, there’s what seems to be the Soviet flag.

In the typical totalitarian fashion of the era, the artistic expression was tightly controlled by the state. Rodchenko’s way of depicting the communist youth didn’t make him any friends in the communist party and he was banned from the constructivist artist group October, which he had joined only a couple of years earlier. The party aestheticians decided to now favour Socialist Realism, an artistic style developed in the Soviet Union and endorsed by the state from 1932 to 1988. As a result, Rodchenko began photographing sports events and parades and finally gave up photography altogether in 1942.

To me, the Pioneer with Trumpet was among the first photos I saw from Rodchenko. It caught my attention with the unique way it depicted its subject. I had never seen anything like it, and immediately wanted to find out more about the photographer.

The photo of the trumpet playing boy is a great example of one of the basic rules in photography coined by Robert Capa: If your photographs are not good enough, you’re not close enough. In this case, you couldn’t get any closer, and the result is an intimate masterpiece, capturing not only a slice of history but also a human being. We know nothing of the person playing the trumpet but somehow we feel that we are seeing his personality and into his soul. There are no distracting elements in the photo. The player seems to be all alone in his own world. Only the precense of the trumpet and the flag in the background tie the picture into a historical context.

What the Pioneer with the trumpet photo can teach us is that less is sometimes more. Rodchenko has managed to pinpoint the most important elements from the thousands available to represent the event. The photo is indeed formalist in that it manages to strip down reality into a few lines and shapes that have been chosen to stand for something much more complex.

The same applies to all photography, no matter how complicated your subject seems to be. Composition starts from elimination: you must decide what the important elements are in any particular view before you take your photo. The thought process and the energy you put into planning your shot is what determines the impact your photograph has on the viewer.

Mother, 1924

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Alexander Rodchenko took the portrait of his mother in 1924. In the picture, an old woman is concentrated on reading something in front of her. We don’t see the text but we know that she is reading because the photo is a crop of a wider scene, in which there’s a table and a folded magazine on it. Now, only the face of the woman remains – and her hand holding a side a pair of eyeglasses in front of her right eye. The woman is wearing a kerchief wrapped around her head, in the old russian grandmother-style. There is dirt under her fingernails, and her forehead is furrowed from the effort of reading: Rodchenko’s mother didn’t learn to read until after she’d turned fifty.

The style of this photograph is uncharacteristic of Rodchenko in that it was taken head-on without utilising any of the Rodchenko angles. Rodchenko was testing his new camera and had his mother as a subject. There is a charming intimacy in the scene; you can almost imagine Rodchenko not trying to create revolutionary avant garde art, for once. He was now home and just wanted to record what he saw.

And that’s just what makes the portrait of Mother so special. There are no artistic tricks, no esoteric viewpoints or diagonals. In this photo, the subject truly is as close as she seems. She seems a remarkably unpretentious individual with a strong spirit. The photo conveys “a heroic character without trading in sentimentality.”

We can view Rodchenkos “Mother” as an ordinary portrait of an old woman. We can also learn from this photograph that sometimes the simplest approach is the best. Adapt the style of your photography to the subject and the situation. You may have a tried and tested method of working, and that’s great. But don’t be inflexible. Be ready to change your approach to photography when the situation seems to demand it. And don’t be afraid to be ordinary. Think of it as photo zen.

The Stairs, 1930

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Finally, we have the Stairs, photographed in and around the year 1930. I haven’t been able to find out where this photo was taken. I’d guess, in Moscow. If you have better information, let us know in the comments.

The photo features a wide set of stairs on a public thoroughfare. The stairs are empty except for a woman who’s climbing up them holding a child against her right shoulder and toting a handbag on her left arm. The woman is seen from behind and the steps, in typical Rodchenko fashion, are positioned diagonally.

This photograph is remarkable for its use of the empty space. Unlike some other photos by Rodchenko – where the subject fills the view and the surroundings can only be deduced from the few details that we are given – The Stairs shows a human figure as part of her environment. Here, the abstract lines of the man-made world are juxtaposed with two concrete human beings with the figure of the woman forming a cross with the lines of the steps. The effect is the same which Rodchenko achieved in his photo A Girl with a Leica.

The lesson here is to look for stories in the artificial, built environment. As Rodchenko has done in The Stairs, we can also find meaning in the interaction of humans with their milieu. That is, in effect, what all good street photography is about.


Sources:

Alexander Rodchenko on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Rodchenko
Rodchenko’s Revolution In Photography At The Hayward Gallery: https://utopiadystopiawwi.wordpress.com/constructivism/alexandr-rodchenko/shukhov-transmission-tower/
Making strange: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/26/photography
Varvara Stepanova on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varvara_Stepanova
USSR in Construction no. 12: The Baltic-White Sea Canal. Photographed and Designed by Alexander Rodchenko: http://davidcampany.com/ussr-construction-no-12-baltic-white-sea-canal-1933-alexander-rodchenko/
The 18 Greatest War and Battle Paintings of All Time: https://explorethearchive.com/the-18-greatest-war-and-battle-paintings-of-all-time
At the Hayward: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n08/peter-campbell/at-the-hayward
Past Exhibitions: http://pastexhibitions.guggenheim.org/buhl/highlights11.html


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