Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two Soviet books from the 1939 New York World's Fair

This past weekend was the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair at PS 3 in NYC. I do not usually find much in the way of bargains at these events since they are full of book dealers who mostly price according to ABE listings but a friend of mine did find a shrink-wrapped copy of Robert Adams Our Lives and Our Children published by Aperture in 1984 for a mere $25.00. Seems there are some very good prices still to be found even through the dealers.

My only find was a small booklet that appealed to my love of design. It is called Parachute-Jumping and Gliding: Popular Soviet Sports. Upon seeing the cover, I was hoping that this 32 page booklet would be like a mini-version of the now famous USSR in Construction parachute issue (SSSR na stroike, 1935 Issue #12) but it is nothing in comparison.

Parachute-Jumping and Gliding: Popular Soviet Sports was a part of a 30 booklet series aimed at revealing the great achievements of the Soviet Union. Published in English these booklets were distributed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The topics cover everything from collective farming to youth sports, livestock to leisure activities in the Soviet Union. Each is approximately 5 by 4 inches and mostly comprised of text interspersed with a few illustrations.

This one in particular drew my attention because it contains two illustrations that combine photography and design into graphs meant to show records held in both gliding and parachuting by Soviets. (Since there are so few illustrations in this booklet I have shown all of them in my composite above). The other enticing features are the two color cover graphic and the letterpress interior.

The other booklets in this series might be tempting to pick up if found for under $5.00 but for purposes of the photography, they are skimpy and would probably be uninteresting for the average photobook enthusiast. I paid $15 for this copy and I see many others listed online starting around $20. If anyone has the complete set and could recommend another title that is equally as enjoyable as this parachute booklet, please let me know via the comments section.

Staying within the topic of Russian photobooks, I found an interesting title several months back in a junk warehouse here in Brooklyn called Soviet Photography 1939. I do not know much about this book as with extensive research I have only found one other reference online through a dealer of Russian books.

Soviet Photography 1939 contains 66 photographs and has beautiful burgundy hard covers with gold colored, debossed titles and a decorative-edged spine. The cover is very reminiscent of high school yearbook designs common from the 1930’s here in the United States. The printing was accomplished through letterpress so the reproductions have a nice presence on the crème-colored paper. It was published by the State Publishing House for Cinematographical Literature in Moscow.

After a three page introduction touting the greatness of Soviet photography (and ideology) the book proceeds with photos typical of the Soviet State image controlling machine. A photo of Lenin from 1919 starts off the book and of course is followed by one of Stalin looking calm and confident while casually lighting a pipe; the sequence keeps with Stalin's desire to creating the impression that he and Lenin were the only notable characters in the creation of the Soviet Union. Most of what follows are examples of photographs that have been so extensively retouched that they tend to look more like paintings than anything meant to represent reality. That being said, there is something to the infectious idealism portrayed with all Soviet propaganda that makes this another enjoyable fantasyland of harmonious relationships between Soviet peoples, their great accomplishments, and their clean stewardship of the land.

There are a few clues with this book that would indicate that is was published as a souvenir from the New York World’s Fair like the small booklet on parachuting I described above. The first being the publication date of 1939 but also the introduction is in English instead of Russian. The last and most tenuous being that I found it in Brooklyn within 7 miles from Corona Park where the fair took place. As for the issue of scarcity, this is not a precious book by any stretch, so I could imagine that most copies wound up either being thrown out or sold off in yard sales for spare change.

Accounting for inflation of the cost of living over the past 70 years, I am not complaining that these gems set me back $20.00 in total.