Artes e Cultura > 'Factography' and Revolution. Photography avant-garde uses in the 1920s Soviet Union

Since its very first moment the Bolshevik Revolution had recognized the relevance of artistic practices in relation to the transmission of political aims. As early as 1920 the Council of People's Commissars declared that the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshop's main purpose was to 'train artists of high quality for the benefit of national economy'.

Encouraged by the critical writings of Boris Arvatov, Boris Kushner, Tarabukin and Osip Brik, constructivist artists fully engaged with 'productivist' aims. They repudiated the ability of painting to permeate everyday life and to influence the social environment; instead, they proposed a commitment to the idea of art being involved in industry with the production of real objects of everyday use. (1) In order to address a mass audience, productivist artists employed a diversity of techniques and mediums, such as cinema, photography, architecture, design and typography. New techniques of production, distribution and dissemination attempted to redefine the representational models of the new society. As Benjamin Bucholh states, the concern for a self-reflexive pictorial and sculptural production was abandoned after 1920: 'gradually at first, then abruptly, was to be replaced by factographic and productivist practices that are indicative of a more profound pragmatic change'. (2)

In response to the introduction of the Five Year Economic Plan, in 1928 artists such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, Senkin and Ignatovich committed themselves to work only for mass media publication. Their primary goal was to achieve a synthesis between socialist content and inventive form. They viewed single-frame still photographs or photomontages not as finished works of art produced to exist by themselves, but as disposable objects composed during the process of making agitational posters or magazines. (3) By 1928 a 'platform of realist genre' became common within different groups of artists, being photography the preferred media. It should be stressed that photo-reportage or photo-journalism were clearly distinguishable from these avant-garde uses of photography.

Sergei Tretyakov, at the time an editor of Novy Lef, maintained that the 'polygraphical' condition of the photographic image had 'utilitarian goals' to fulfil, for example photo information, photo-illustration, scientific photography, photo-posters etc. He mentions that the choice of subject matter (the what) and the choice of media for the design (the how) should be subordinate to the definitive purpose or function.

The use of architecture, utilitarian product design and photographic 'factography' was an attempt to transcend the historical limitations of modernism related to aesthetics and formalism. These utilitarian usages aimed to challenge the conventions of pictorial representation and find new paths to present new modes of collective reception.

Lissitzky and Senkin used Tretyakov's methods of the 'systematic analytical sequence' on the design of the Soviet Pressa Pavillion for the Cologne 1928 Exhibition. Combining different snapshots (photo-stills) they proposed a 'sensation of dramatic progress'. (4) These innovative modes of representation aimed to produce iconic documentary information, Buchloh writes in reference to this construction or 'montage' : constant alternation of camera angles, close-ups and long shots, depicted the history and importance of the publishing industry in the Soviet Union since the Revolution and its role in the education of the illiterate masses of the new industrialized state - titled officially The Tasks of the Press Is the Education of the Masses. (5)

In 1931 the Soviet Union Photo assigned a project to the photographers Shaikhet and Al'pert. Titled 'A Day in the Life of a Moscow Working-Class Family', it was meant to depict the life of the family of a red proletarian worker. In its edited version, photographs, along with captions and explanatory texts, introduce the viewer to the Fillipov family. The photographic sequence follows each of the family members as they go through their daily routines. Each photograph is a legible and complete 'photo-picture', its meaning reliant on subject content, 'describing an event in the life of this family'. (6) In their 'expression of a social whole' they reflect Georg Lukacs's theory of Realism: the fact, the individual case, depicted concretely and individually, 'makes it really come to life'. (7)

In 1932 the party abolished all individual cultural organizations, and endorsed 'socialist realism' as the official aesthetic policy. In the same year the Central Committee of Proletarian Cinematographers and Photographers stated that Filippov's photo essay was a model for the 'proletarianization' of Soviet photography.

Paulo Catrica

1 - Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924-37. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), p 2.
2 - Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, From Faktura to Factography - in The Contest of Meaning, Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), pp 49-85, p 51.
According to Buchloh, faktura corresponds to the first period of Russian avant-garde and factography, 'the primary method in the second period of Russian avant-garde practice'.A further account is given in the 'Soviet Factography, A Special Issue', ed. Devin Fore, October (Vol.118/Fall 2006).
3 - Tupsyn, The Soviet Photograph 1924-37, p 63. Tupsyn calls into attention that they fulfilled Benjamin's aphorism, that 'the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art design for reproducibility'
4 - Buchloh, 'From Faktura to Factography', p 68.
Sergei Tretyakov develop his argument in, 'From the Photo-Series to Extended Photo-Observation', October, Vol. 118, no. Fall 2006, pp 71-77.
5 - Buchloh, 'From Faktura to Factography', p 65-67.
6 - Walter Benjamin, 'The Author as a Producer', in Thinking photography. Victor Burgin (ed.) (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp 15- 31, p 89.
7 - Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, p 70.


Leituras Recomendadas:


  • BENJAMIN, Walter, 'The Author as a Producer', in Thinking photography. Victor Burgin (ed.), London: Macmillan, 1982

  • BUCHLOH, Benjamin H. D., 'From Faktura to Factography', in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning, Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, pp.49-85, 1992

  • FORE, Devin (ed.), Soviet Factography A Special Issue, 118: The MIT Press, 2006

  • GOUGH, Maria, 'Paris, Capital of the Soviet Avant-Garde', October, no101, (Summer 2002), 53-83.

  • KARASIK, Mikhail & HEITING, Manfred (eds.), The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941, Steidl, 2015

  • PHILLIPS, Christopher (ed.), Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Aperture, 1989

  • RODCHENKO, Aleksandr Mikha Dlovich & LAVRENTIEV, A. N., Aleksandr Rodchenko: experiments for the future: diaries, essays, letters, and other writings, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005

  • RODCHENKO, Aleksander, 'A Caution', in Christopher Phillips (ed.), Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Aperture), pp 264 - 66, 1989

  • SOLOMON-GODEAU, Abigail, 'The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style' in Photography at the Dock Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices, Media & Society; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991

  • TRETYAKOV, Sergei, 'Photo-Notes', in Christopher Phillips (ed.), Photography in the Modern Era, European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Aperture), pp 252-55, 1989

  • TRETYAKOV, Sergei, 'From the Photo-Series to extended Photo-Observation' in Fore, Devin (ed.), Soviet Factography A Special Issue, (Number118: The MIT Press) pp.71-78, 2006

  • TUPITSYN, Margarita, The Soviet Photograph, 1924-37, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p 2., 1996

  • WATNEY, Simon, 'Making Strange: The Shattered Mirror' in Burgin, Victor (ed.), (1982), Thinking photography, Communications and culture, London: Macmillan