Friday, August 13, 2010

Soviet Aviation by Rodchenko and Stepanova

The book that won Best Photography Book of the Year at PhotoEspana is Editorial Lampreave's facsimile of Alexander Rodchenko and Vavara Stepanova's Soviet Aviation originally published in 1939. This was one of the famed "World's Fair" publications (along with a series of small booklets) created to show off the Soviet Union's advances in science, technology, and all great affairs of the State structure. Rodchenko and Stepanova were assigned the task of designing three which also included Moscow and A Pageant of Youth which featured sports and athleticism as its subject. With seemingly endless amount of money flowing from the State into such publications the design and craftsmanship that went into some of these propaganda books is now known to be extravagant. Often with die-cuts, gatefolds, use of different paper stock and fine art printing, the results can be breathtaking.

The genesis of Soviet Aviation apparently happened at breakneck speed. According to the dates and terms of the original publishing contract, Rodchenko and Stepanova had only eleven days after signing onto the project to show a complete mock-up of the final book and had less than one month to fully realize and present final art work to the printer - much of it requiring heavy retouching to the original photos.

Rodchenko was in charge of design and Stepanova handled the "object" and "story," but Point 8 of their publishing contract terms effectively erased public knowledge of their authorship by stating "the artist will not declare any right to intellectual property." In all three books, neither Rodchenko's nor Stepanova's name can be found but rather a credit that these books were simply, "printed in the Soviet Union."

Soviet Aviation is a beautiful book with many page spreads that show Rodchenko's brilliance towards dynamic layouts. Some pages have stand alone images which are perceived as simply pictures in an album while other spreads form incredible photomontage and graphics we have come to be familiar with in other Rodchenko and Stepanova collaborations like Moscow Under Construction, First Cavalry, and Ten Years of Uzebekistan.

That said, Soviet Aviation is also one of the simpler books in terms of it bells and whistles. There are no die-cuts or gatefolds and unlike several other publications that employed the use of different toned inks in their printing, this one is printed in a uniform monochrome blue making it in comparison much less dynamic. Of course, this makes it a curious choice of all of the Rodchenko and Stepanova books to reprint but ultimately the most practical. The cost to a modern publisher (surely not working with State monies) to reproduce all of the extravagances of those other titles would be certain to strain the budget to the breaking point.

Soviet Aviation present the entire original book in full scale - standing 15" high. Included are two contemporary essays in the back - one written by Rodchenko's nephew Alexander Lavrentiev - that discuss the history of the book and the Soviet Union's advances in flight. Both are well written and vastly informative.

Printed over seventy years ago, the original was meant to be a celebration of flight and innovation created by the anonymous hands of a collective society. That voice, carefully crafted by two geniuses of book objects and design, may have wanted to appear to be spoken from a unified nation but the nuance of language belongs to just Stepanvova and Rodchenko.