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From Russia with love: long hidden from Western eyes, Russian fine art photography is making waves at photo galleries, art fairs and museums. (Russian Photography).

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, paintings by Russian artists have found their way onto the world art market and American shores. But until recently, Russian fine art photography was virtually ignored, at home and abroad.

Now, that's changing. Lately, Russian photography--from various periods in Russian history displaying differing styles--is making waves at photography galleries, art fairs and museums across the United States. Indeed, it seems that everywhere you go you hear the phrase, "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming."

Expanding Collector's Horizons

For more than 60 years, Russian art and photography was mostly hidden from Western eyes. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and through the Cold War period, the Soviet Union prevented the world from observing the evolution of fine art forms in Russia and the other Soviet states.

When the Soviet regime collapsed, art dealers from Europe and the U.S. trekked to Russia and began to bring back armloads of paintings. However, photography was considered a distant second cousin without fine art credentials to that first wave of cognoscenti. "Even in Soviet scholarship, [photography] has been relegated to a secondary position ... in relationship to the visual arts as a whole," commented John E. Bowlt, a modern Russian culture expert in the catalog, The Avant-Garde in Russia: 1910-1930. Propaganda "documentary" photographs--often fake and posed--were not considered art at all, but rather merely a part of the mass media message machine, added Steven Yates, curator of photography at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and curator of the traveling museum exhibit, "Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage and Film."

The Rodchenko show, on view through Oct. 13 at the Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego from Jan. 12 through March 23, 2003 (with other subsequent venues), is one of several important museum-level exhibits that, taken together, are introducing thousands of photography collectors, dealers and curators to the varied aspects of more than a century of Russian and Soviet photography.

Organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions of Pasadena, Calif., the Rodchenko show focuses on Modernist artist Alexander Rodchenko's ground-breaking photographic experimentations, Constructivist abstractions and everyday scenes viewed from unusual angles.

Meanwhile, at Houston's biennial month of photography, FotoFest, last March, organizers showcased a seminal exhibit on "Russian Pictorialism," bringing to the United States a collection of more than 130 images from the 1880s through the 1930s that was almost unknown both outside and inside of Russia. For many of the art dealers, critics, collectors and curators attending this year's FotoFest, this exhibit represented the first time they had been exposed to a large quantity of Russian photographs. "The Pictorial show in Houston drew much attention because they were fabulous masters who were not known at all," explained private dealer Nailya Alexander of Washington, D.C.

And in Abilene, Texas, the Grace Museum is scheduled to present "Fifty Years Inside the Kremlin: Photographs by Samariy Mikhailovitch Gurariy," some 30 photographs by the Soviet-era photojournalist including images of Khruschev, Castro and Soviet cosmonauts compiled from the collection of Houston art dealer Anya Tish.

"Baby Contest" by Marat Baltabaev, 1996 "Untitled" by Alexey Titarenko, from his "City of Shadows" series, 1992

On view from Oct. 3 to Dec. 7, this show accompanies a larger exhibit, "Censored and Sanctioned: Soviet Art of the Cold War, 1956-1986."

According to Grace Curator Charlene Rathburn, the Grace Museum exhibit was inspired, in part, by presentations at Houston's FotoFest. "I went down there specifically looking for a photography show," explained Rathburn, "and to see Russian Pictorialism." During FotoFest, nearly every art space in town is devoted to photography, and Tish was exhibiting the works by Gurariy, a Georgian native who was close to Stalin and was present at many Kremlin events.

In fact, at photo fairs throughout this year and last, attendees have been exposed to myriad examples of Russian photography. Photography dealer Alexander, for example, has shown works by 20th-century Russian, Belarussian and Lithuanian photographers at the Photography Show in New York as well as photo l.a. In January, Alexander hosted contemporary Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko at her photo l.a. booth.

She's not the only U.S. dealer expanding collectors' horizons these days. Photo-Eye, a Santa Fe, N.M., gallery, includes some Lithuanian photography in its presentations. Apex Gallery, of Los Angeles showcased Titarenko at the Absolut-L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational fair in 2001 and again in the gallery's own booth at photo l.a. this year. And Anahita Gallery, another Santa Fe art business, brought a large group of post-Cold War and contemporary photographers' images to photo l.a.; Anahita has also launched a Web site,

"In the late 1980s and early '90s, some of the Russian artists started to show in Europe," Alexander said. "In the U.S., there were, here and there, a few exhibits and a show at the Corcoran, but now there is more attention being given. There is curiosity about the work, but it is very difficult still to judge the market." Consider Andre Chezhin, a highly respected photographer from St. Petersburg. "He is admired. His work is playful and strong," said Alexander. "But it takes time to introduce new artists--not new, but new to this audience." Similarly, Titarenko's works, acclaimed in France and Russia, still are priced at $1,200 to $1,300, with some photographs fetching under $1,000.

One of the largest collections of Russian photography belongs to New York-based dealer Howard Schickler. He started dealing art in 1975. In 1989 in Prague, Schickler saw an exhibit of Russian photography and, he recalled, "I saw an opportunity, with glasnost and perestroika, to expand my collection. I had spent a very cold two weeks in Moscow, asking questions, and I got a very steady response that all the works had disappeared. I knew they were trying to throw me off track." Instead, Schickler set up a business with a partner, learned Cyrillic (Russian language and lettering) and hired a research team to locate the photographers or their surviving family members to find their archives. "I decided I wanted a comprehensive collection of Russian photographers of the period after World War I through World War II," he said.

Today, Schickler's Russian Photography Collection comprises approximately 7,000 gelatin-silver photographs by the leading photographers and photojournalists working in Soviet Russia at that time. It includes significant holdings of works by Max Alpert, Emmanuel Evzerikhin, Simon Fridland, Yevgeny Khaldei, Boris Kudiarov, Ivan Shagin and Georgi Zelma. Schickler also contacted the Rodchenko family and gained access to a considerable collection of the artists' photographs, many of which are included in the traveling museum show.

With the exception of Rodchenko, these Russian photographers are not household names and appear in few art history books. But they are not unknowns. For instance, Yevgeni Khaldei is a war photographer famed for his iconic photograph of a soldier hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. And there are others whose works and careers are now being cultivated by U.S. art dealers, including Boris Savelev, Elena Darikovich, Alexander Slyusarev, Alexander Kuznetsov, Igo Muchkin, Max Penson, Vitaly Tenenev, Sergey Voronin, Alexander Lapin, Arkady Shaikhet and Boris Vsevolodovich Ignatov, whose works were recently presented in an exhibit at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Expect to see more Russian material--and more new names, said Tim Wride, associate curator of photography at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. "Russia is opening up," he said. "There's a lot of curatorial work being done there, and so much more photography is coming out."

Wride was invited to Moscow a year ago to speak and conduct photographers' portfolio reviews at InterFoto, an annual International Festival of Professional Photography scheduled this year at the Novy Manezh exhibition hall in Moscow from Oct. 8 though 13. "InterFoto is a little bit like FotoFest, but in Russia," Wride explained. "They are trying to bring more of an awareness of what photography is and can be to Russia."

A Voice of their Own

Russia had always had strong art traditions, and indeed photography in Russia dates almost as early as it does in the United States. Even Sonia Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy's wife, was an avid shutterbug. In the 1890s, she captured images of her family with a Kodak camera and processed and developed her own negatives and prints.

During this period, the lush images of Pictorialism really came into their own. Influenced by the vast expanses of snow-covered land and its distinctive village life, Russian Pictorialism evolved differently than its counterpart movements in Europe and North America, according to the curators for the FotoFest exhibit, Evgeny Berezner, director, and Irina Tchmyreva, curator, for ROSIZO, the State Center for Museums and Exhibitions of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. And it also lasted longer, but disappeared from view in 1935, when Soviet authorities declared Pictorialism to be useless, bourgeois and even obscene. Indeed, one of the artists whose works were included in the FotoFest exhibit, Aleksandr Grinberg, was accused of pornography, imprisoned and later exiled to the northern Soviet Union. Under the weight of the hammer and sickle for 75 years, both painting and photography were created primarily in the service of the state. Photographers were pressed into service to create utopian portraits of an idealized communist future with happy, grinning farmers in the fields and beaming workers in factories. Stray from the smiling faces, and the Soviet authorities would soon frown.

"Russian photography has a lot of drama to it," said Andrew Hale, co-owner of Anahita Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. Mistakes could be tragic. "The government didn't expressly tell artists how to take a photograph, but by the 1930s, it was well understood what was required. The consequences for stepping out of line were much stronger than a bad review. They got trials. Imprisonment or disappearance and death was the likely outcome."

Hale specializes in underground and dissident photography created under the Soviet regime, particularly by a group of artists who call themselves "The Seventies" because they started working and exhibiting through amateur camera clubs during this period. According to Hale, the word amateur meant working without state support, regardless of skill level. For many artists, photography was a passion rather than a profession. Their work was often hidden or banned.

By the 1980s, however, photographers were beginning to break away from the propaganda style. "It was already in the air that the system was falling apart," remembered Alexander. "There were dubs of photography hobbyists, and they would get together to show their work. It was leading to the generation of artists I work with." When communism finally completely unraveled and the regime disintegrated, these photographers were free to show their work to the world. They also had, as many soon discovered, the freedom to starve. Under the Soviet regime, Chezhin had a job as a photographer for a St. Petersburg construction company, documenting the work at building sites. "Back then I had the facilities to produce my work. But, I was never allowed to exhibit my photographs, except in the privacy of my friends' homes," Chezhin explained. "Now, I can show my work, but I can't afford to make it."

Nonetheless, Russian photographers have persevered. As a result, they now impress the West's art and photography professionals.

"When I first traveled to Russia, in 1991, I found the photography to be a lot more inventive and inspiring and with more passion than what I was seeing in America," observed Lucian Perkins, a Washington Post staff photographer and co-founder of InterFoto. "It's rich and filled with references to history. When we bring people to the photography festival in Moscow, they are amazed at how different Russia and Russian art is from the stereotype of it."

Technically, Perkins added, "there has been such a shortage of things, during Soviet times and since, that photographers used what they did have to the utmost. They took meticulous care of their equipment and photographic materials. They may have had only one camera and one lens, but they learned how to use that one camera and one lens to develop a unique style. They would also put that much more care into the prints they would make and it shows."


* Anahita Gallery, Inc, (505) 820-2323

* Anya Tish Gallery, (713) 524-2299

* Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, (626) 577-0044

* Howard Schickler Fine Art, (212) 431-6363

* Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum, (732) 932-7237

* Nailya Alexander,(202) 234-6763

* The Grace Museum, (915) 673-4587
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Author:Meyers, Laura
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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