Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia #nofilters

Primrose cleverly exhibits the development of colour in Russian photography from 1870s to 1970s, narrating both the history of Russia and Russian photography.

The exhibition itself plays host to generous collections from Alexander Rodchenko, Pyotr Pavlov and Dmitry Baltermants.

The exhibition is chronologically ordered over two floors of The Photographers Gallery. Beginning with detailed hand tinted photographs of the 1870s to the 1970s inexpensive colour film.

To begin with I was greeted with several detailed tinted photographs. P.T Ivanov First Year of Military Service, Saint Petersburg is a prime example of photography of that time. A combination of print and paint. The miniscule detail used to express colour is extremely impressive to say the least. Similar detail can be seen in the collection of photographs Memory of Soldiers. The hand tinted detail in these photographs is used consciously on the colour red. A colour which is seen to take a lead amongst many photographs at the exhibition.


P.T Ivanov First Year of Military Service, Saint Petersburg (1911)

By the time you reach the second floor of the exhibition, photomontage has developed in Russia. Its the 1920s and ultimately it is being used as a weapon of propaganda by the Bolsheviks. Photographs taken by Rodchenko are used by Varvara Stepanova to form a photomontage that expresses power and the colour red. The photomontage which reads ‘БУДЬ ГОТОВ’ translated to ‘Be Ready’ I like to think can be seen as the Russian equivalent of the iconic Uncle Sam poster for the US Army which reads ‘I want you for the US army!’


Be Ready! Varvana Stephanova using photos by A.Rodchenko (1932)

The 1920s also saw the death of Lenin. Stepanova illustrates by photomontage the funeral of Lenin. The piece empocasses not only Lenin but also the crowds who mourned his passing. On it own the piece is interesting, however put closely next to Baltermants photo of Stalin’s Funeral, a clever juxtaposition is created. The photograph of Stalin’s funeral is from 1953 so photography has greatly developed by this point. Regardless of that a great comparison can be acknowledged between these two pieces.


Lenin’s Funeral, Photomontage by Stepanova using Rodchenko photos, 1924 (Right) Stalin’s Funeral, Baltermans, 1953 (Left) 

It is important to establish that although Kodak colour film appeared around the late 1930s they were not widely used in Russia. Until the mid 1970s colour negative film was somewhat of a luxury used by only a select few who can be regarded as the classic of Soviet Photography. These include, Dmitry Baltermants, Vladishav Mikosha, Gregory Petrusov and Vsevolod Tarasevich. Although these photographers had the luxury of colour film they remained restraint to the rules of socialist realism, followings its ideological narrative. Nevertheless by the end of the 1950s and the dethroning of Stalin’s cult, the rules of socialist realism began to soften allowing photography and photographers to enjoy a sense of freedom. Humanistic photography appeared at this time, this can be seen in Baltermants, Arbat Square, 1958.


Arbat Square, Baltermants (1958)

The Photographers Gallery offers not only an instagram free range of photos, hard to find in our day and age, but an education experience of Russian history. Head down if you’re around Oxford Circus.