Photo book collectors with deep pockets may not know what to do with the increasing volume of door-stopping, spine-cracking, back-breaking surveys of photographic history. Steidl’s survey The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941 is divided into thematic chapters, each of which tackles a handful of photobooks and reproduces representative page-spreads with a page-long description. Simple enough, but this huge undertaking weighs in at nearly nine pounds. It at least has this excuse: it’s formidable heft mirrors some of the very books it surveys. The Soviet propaganda photobook ranged from modest softcover brochures to brass-bound tomes that open up to over three feet wide and are only suitable for perusing on a dictionary stand. Delicate readers may find the weight and cost of such an object a vote in favor of electronic books; but as someone who has examined this material in both PDF and printed form, I can only conclude that size does matter.

The history of the Soviet photobook is the kind of history in which The Little Engine That Could becomes The Self-Financing Steam Engine, the title of a 1931 book designed by legendary avant-garde photographer Alexander Rodchenko. His name comes up frequently in The Soviet Photobook as one of a handful of designers whose works from the ’20s and ’30s still look modern today. The Soviet Photobook has its share of kitschy, heavily retouched photographs, but it is also full of photomontages with startling, angular layouts, big block fonts and statistical diagrams that look as if they could have been taken out of an American textbook from the ’50s or a celebrity gossip rag of the ’80s. In fact, looking at the history of Soviet propaganda, with its lionization of industry and gold-tinted view of the collective farms that starved millions, one wonders if someday a study of capitalist propaganda will take a look at design strategies from People magazine and MTV.

As propaganda championed the mother country’s strengths, there are a lot of photobooks in this volume that look at the nation’s industry and farming. Occasionally, telling slices of ordinary life appear. In the 1931 bookFor Exemplary Public Catering—The Canteens of Moscow, Rodchenko, who again designed as well as photographed, looks at a food service industry that fed thousands of workers at a time. While officially meant to bolster the state’s power and efficiency, a photomontage of stern-looking canteen workers paints a picture not of strength but of weariness.

While that book is more human—albeit exhausted-factory-worker human—more typical of the Soviet photobook was something like The First State Ball Bearing Works named after L. Kaganovich, a 48-page hagiography of a factory. Despite subject matter that would seem comically boring, designer-photographer Vladimir Gruntal somehow turns efficiency and uniformity into a cold abstraction that has a surprising visual spark.

For all his forward-thinking design sense, Rodchenko “operated with the fact, a concrete document,” which is more than can be said for state-hired photographers and designers who stage-managed photographs. There is a chilling undercurrent to many of the photobooks surveyed, one that is spelled out explicitly for We Work Honestly, a look at collective farming from 1934. The editorial descriptions in The Soviet Photobook are frequently quite dry, discussing the printing minutiae and Soviet figures in a tone so dry that even design and history geeks might find their eyes glazing over. But as the book progresses, the editor’s personal horror comes through: “…let us come back to the title —’to work honestly’ for people on a collective farm meant to die of starvation, looking after public property without having a single potato, or a cob of maize or a handful of grain in your own home.” The editor notes Stalin’s “Law of Three Spikelets,” which required the death penalty for theft of collective property—as little as “three unripe spikelets of grain cut by a peasant from a collective or state farm field or a few potatoes purloined to save the starving children at home.”

The editor in fact makes the claim that, “the more dreadful and mindless the orgy of terror, the more joyful and poster-like Soviet art became.” The faceless millions who died of starvation were not the only victims of this terror; the very subjects of these propaganda books were no less expendable. Writing about the 1933 book 10 Years of Uzbekistan, note that “our album shared the fate of millions of repressed people. It was withdrawn from circulation two years after the Uzbek-language edition came out in 1935, and after that the names of 16 of its heroes disappeared from history.” A young girl became famous when Stalin picked her up at a reception. The subsequent photo of Stalin holding the child, her arms cradled around his neck, would be carried throughout the streets like an icon. A year later, the girl’s father was arrested and shot, the mother disappeared and the girl was sent to a boarding school saved for children of those considered enemies of the people.

A picture is worth a thousand words. The Soviet Photobook reminds us how many of those words can be lies, handsomely delivered. Students of history will find it a fascinating and heartbreaking reminder of yesterday. Students of photography and design will find it a sobering and provocative look at the kind of visual communication that is still with us today.

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