Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Propaganda books at Christie's Photobook Auction

Most of you who are immersed in the world of photo books know about the upcoming auction at Christie's that is scheduled for Thursday, April 10. The preview has been on since last Friday and I've spent two afternoons since looking through the treasures and I wanted to share some of what I've seen since many of these titles are the rarest of the rare and 99.9% of my readership will probably never in their lifetimes get a chance to see their contents.

My concentration on this auction has been with the variety of Russian material since they are probably the least common especially in the fine condition in which these particular items are found.

The first item I asked to see was SSSR Stroit Sotzialism (The USSR Builds for Socialism) which was one of the first books that El Lissitzky designed for the State Publishing House IZOGIZ in 1933. It is a visual celebration of the success of Stalin's first five-year plan and Lissitzky employs a range of cut and paste montage, great use of typography, and fantastic graphs that as expected make much use of red.

Compared to others that I would go on to see later in the afternoon, this book was a bit restrained but still a joy to see. The estimate is set at $4,000 - $6,000.

The next book 10 Let Uzbekistana SSR (Ten Years of the Uzbekistan SSR) was designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. This book celebrates the joining of Uzbekistan to the USSR in the mid twenties through the use of numerous photographs printed in various tints, die cuts, acetate overlays, maps, and diagrams.

This book became illegal literature a few years after its production as during one of Stalin's purges many of the local party commissars had been killed or sent to labor camps. The owners of these books were subsequently required to either destroy the book entirely or go page by page and either ink over the faces or cut out the heads of the officials that Stalin wanted erased from history.

This copy is unique in that none of the pages have been altered and none of the officials "purged." It is also a rare deluxe issue as the endpapers are actual gelatin silver prints of cotton plants. The endpapers are attached to white plastic coated boards instead of the usual silk hardcovers.

It is an extremely beautiful book to look through but more so than the photography -- it is all of the physical design tricks through cutouts and the acetates that seduced me.

The estimate is set at $15,000 - $20,000

The next book Geroicheskaya Epopeya (Heroic Epic) was interesting to me partly because I just watched a documentary on Shackleton and the plight of the Endurance. Seems that in the mid-1930s a Russian icebreaker ship, the Chelyuskin, became stuck in ice during an Arctic voyage in Siberia. The crew was forced to live out the rest of the winter on a large ice floe until they were rescued by Soviet flyers.

Upon return to Moscow they were met with a heroes' welcome and were quickly dubbed 'Heroes of the Soviet Union.'

Heroic Epic retells the story most likely with a certain amount of imaginative fabrication but nonetheless with beautiful results. It includes numerous monochrome and hand colored photographs and a few fold outs as well as a flag shaped place mark made of cloth.

Because the story and locale is so similar to the Shackleton expedition, much of the photography is reminiscent of Frank Hurley's work except for the fact that at no point does the situation seem desperate -- the message is always one of 'we shall prevail.' This book also has a different subtext that 20/20 hindsight provides in that this was an adventure where a group of men barely escaped death and were celebrated for it in a time when Stalin kept a psychological threat of death close to not only the officials but the general population.

The estimate is set at $7,000 - $10,000.

I have saved my favorite of the Russian books for last. Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya (Red Army of Workers and Peasants) is an unrelenting show of the military might of the red army. Designed by El Lissitzky and featuring some of his boldest collage and photomontage, no spread in this 200 page book fails to grab your attention. Lissitzky carries the party line that all of the military units, equipment, and leadership work like a well oiled machine and makes use of many typical constructivist compositional elements such as dynamic diagonals and shifting perspectives throughout a single photomontage. It is the last of these, through shifting perspectives that at times create a sense of vertigo in the viewer, leaving them on unsteady ground in the face of such an immensely powerful advance.

Entire sections of this book shift in tonality as the photographs are subjected to various color tints. Towards the beginning of photographs have a monochromatic brown tone which gives way to greens and blues until settling towards the back of the book in purple. This achieves a celebratory tone to his subject which in straight blacks and grays would probably solely to appear frightening and overwhelmingly intimidating.

The estimate is set at $10,000 - $15,000.

The next book No Pasaran! Isoania, Tom II (They Shall Not Pass! Spain, Volume II) was also designed by El Lissitzky and published in Moscow but it is about the Spanish Civil War.

This is the second of two volumes and it contains 98 black-and-white photographs from Robert Capa, David Seymour, Kassos and Mayo, and by Ilya Ehrenburg the author of the classic Moi Parizh (My Paris) and the person responsible for compiling this volume. Committed to the propagandistic fight against fascism through the photography and text it also starts each chapter with a propaganda poster illustration.

Although this is probably one of the better books on Spanish Civil War for its photography and design, I found it a little on the lack luster side. Of course keep in mind that the books that I viewed preceding this one set the bar at a very high level for propaganda books so my sense of judgment is probably a little askew.

The estimate is set at $1,200-$1,800.

The last book I am going to mention was also one of the most impressive but this time from Japan. Nippon (Japan) is according to Parr/Badger is "arguably the high point of both the Japanese propaganda and the modernist photo book."

This book was designed as a series of accordion folded pages strung together like a typical Japanese 'pillow book.' Each page features a photomontage intricately stitched together by individual photographs by staff photographers of Nippon magazine, a Japanese version of USSR in Construction. The result is a celebration of both military and cultural achievements set upon pictorial lessons from traditional Japanese wood block prints.

This book was interesting to me because of the way the viewer operates the material. Since it is an accordion folded book, when one gets to the 'end' of the first set of 16 photomontages the book is then flipped and the viewer continues through the other 16. In essence the book is cyclical with no end.

This book is not come up for auction in over 30 years. The estimate is set at $20,000 - $30,000

Bidding commences at 10:00 am Thursday morning. Bueno Suerte!