Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Dawn of Colour: Early Russian Photography

As a new exhibition opens at The Photographers' Gallery, AnOther takes a look at the dawn of Russia’s history in colour

Dmitri Baltermants, Stalin funeral, 1953, The Photographers'
Dmitri Baltermants, Stalin funeral, 1953, The Photographers'

Who? Russia and Eastern Europe have born some of the 20th century’s greatest photographers – Robert Capa, Philipe Halsman, László Moholy-Nagy, to name a few. Whether through portraits, photo-journalism or avant-garde artistic movements, their work was experimental and pushed the boundaries of photographic development for a century. And as a new exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery illuminates, one hundred years of experimental colour photography is impossible to disentangle from a complex social history of industrial revolution and conflict within the Soviet Union.

What? The exhibition takes its title from the primrose, the first and fullest of the flowers in the spring, its name translating from Russian as ‘first dawn’. With over 140 works spanning from 1860 to 1980, the show features work from Dmitri Baltermants, Alexander Rodchenko and Boris Mikhailov.

Beginning with tinted prints – when photographs were hand-coloured with watercolours or oil paints – the exhibition charts the history of Russian photography. Tsar Nicholas II was a patron of the medium, dispatching Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky to create a photographic documentation of everyday life in Russia. Using a tricolour palette system, Prokudin-Gorsky travelled the country and captured its diversity and magnitude, from portraits of its people to architectural, landscape and industrial subject matter.

Why? The exhibition examines the more turbulent periods in the history of Russian colour photography; its role in photomontage and propaganda as commanded by Vladimir Lenin, then leader of the Soviet government, through to its repression and manipulation during the Stalinist era.

As photography gradually emerged back into the light, the production of Soviet-made colour film in 1946 – permitted to only a handful of photographers – created intriguing experimental work. But it was only after Khrushchev succeeded Stalin in 1953 that the repression of the medium was halted and photography was allowed to return to being part of everyday life in Russia.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is at The Photographers' Gallery until October 19.

Text by Harriet Baker