Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Commissar Vanishes by David King

Photographs show you what a group of facts looked like at a particular moment. Actually to be specific, photographs show you what the light looked like reflecting off a group of facts at a particular moment. In historical photographs, the ‘record’ that the photograph serves is perceived to be not only factual but we tend to ‘believe’ those photos more than others because it can be compared to written history and therefore it is ‘provable.’ It is a reciprocal relationship, words prove the photograph and the photograph proves the words. A flawed but never the less, perfectly understandable conclusion drawn by many.

We tend to think of photographic prints or images in books as being static and relatively unchanging. The image on paper might be retouched to rid the image of dust particles that appeared during the enlargement or the unsightly wrinkles around a supermodels mouth may be airbrushed or photo-shopped out of existence, but generally once the final image gets published, it has become part of the public record and further change or alteration is usually minimal; mostly that may come in the form of alternate cropping. Usually the changes are made to present the material in a reduced form for easier consumption but the intended meaning is left alone.

Throughout history, people have recognized the power of persuasion that photography holds over the masses and many have exploited those effects. In trying to think of early examples of figures sculpting their cult of personality through photography, the biggest may have been Joseph Stalin. At least he was perhaps the first to use photography to constantly reinvigorate his image while at the same time using it to cover up the reality that he was one of history’s more accomplished mass murderers.

The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia examines Stalin’s manipulation of images in order to not only obtain power but in his attempt at holding on to it.

It may have been Stalin’s vanity that led him to first critique and alter images. When he was appointed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party by Lenin and his image was first drawn by Nikolai Andreyev on April 1, 1922, his reaction to the rendering of his ear led Stalin to scrawl over the image: “This ear says that the artist is not well schooled in anatomy. J.Stalin.” He later added as if his temper was mounting: “The ear screams and shouts against anatomy. J.S.” Hundreds of images of Stalin’s pockmarked face were probably enough to keep retouchers busy, let alone the doctoring of photos that held ghosts of victims from the Great Purges.

As David King, the book’s author describes: "At the same time, a parallel industry came into full swing, glorifying Stalin as the “great leader and teacher of the Soviet people” through socialist realist paintings, monumental sculpture, and falsified photographs representing him as the only true friend, comrade, and successor to Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the USSR. The whole country was subjected to this charade of Stalin-worship.”

“Soviet citizens, fearful of the consequences of being caught in possession of material considered “anti-Soviet” or “counter-revolutionary,” were forced to deface their own copies of books and photographs, often savagely attacking them with scissors or disfiguring them with India ink. There is hardly a publication from the Stalinist period that does not bear the scars of this political vandalism…”

One humorous application of photography towards a portrait of Lenin and his sister-in-law relaxing in Gorki unintentionally reveals an apropos moment of foreshadowing for the fate of hundreds of other Party loyalists. Lenin’s sister, Maria Ulyanova, was an aspiring photographer and she made a portrait of her brother and sister-in-law in late 1922. What Ulyanova failed to see through her viewfinder was that the end of a telescope was pointing directly at the sister-in-law’s head; looking eerily like a rifle barrel. Stalin’s ‘when in doubt, have them arrested and shot’ approach to holding power casts a long shadow over this photo. The photo exists in four versions where the telescope/gun barrel is retouched to the point of nonexistence. Oddly the second version after retouching looks even more like a gun and even more threatening than the original version.

Although this book concentrates on the most egregious period of photographic falsification, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the post Stalin leadership prepared a secret instruction to outlaw future falsification. This apparently didn’t last long (if at all) as examples of further falsification appear up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is a fascinating subject and this book includes hundreds of examples of how to rewrite photographic history. There is one problem though that is hard to overlook. The design and presentation of the material is just short of awful. The Commissar Vanishes has a Time-Life Books approach and feel to its making that turns this wonderful material into book that is cheap and soulless. I had seen this book back in 1997 when it was initially released and for the life of me I could not remember why I hadn’t picked it up. With my renewed interest in Russian photography and design I recently ordered a copy. As soon as I unwrapped it from its envelope, I remembered why I didn’t buy it ten years ago. The quality of paper is cheap. The reproductions are mediocre at best. The more frustrating aspect is that copies are becoming more expensive so I would recommend staying away except for the fact that the information and material are so rich. It was published by Metropolitan Books which is an imprint of Henry Holt.

Someone really needs to rework this subject but with care. This book should not be the final say; this is an important part of photographic history that needs to be re-written.

Book Available Here (The Commissar Vanishes)