Taroutina on Reischl, 'Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors'

Katherine M. H. Reischl
Maria Taroutina

Katherine M. H. Reischl. Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. 320 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-2436-7

Reviewed by Maria Taroutina (Yale-NUS College) Published on H-SHERA (July, 2020) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54688

Katherine Reischl’s eloquent new monograph examines the complex and multivalent ways in which some of Russia’s leading authors understood and engaged with the novel medium of photography. The book begins with the 1860s and runs roughly through to the late 1930s, with the conclusion focusing on the post-World War II works of Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Reischl traces the chronological evolution of photography as a technological, cultural, and visual medium, while simultaneously analyzing a diverse set of authorial word-image strategies that were employed by key literary figures at specific historical junctures. Each discrete case study is contextualized within a dense network of political, ideological, cultural, and theoretical concerns surrounding questions of modern subjectivity, authorial authenticity, and visual and literary representation, all of which evolved with and responded to the continuously shifting environment of late imperial and early Soviet Russia. Throughout the course of the book, Reischl attends to the numerous connections and continuities between individual authors and projects, carefully scrutinizing their cross-temporal dialogues across several decades.

The book opens with the late nineteenth century and a consideration of Lev Tolstoy’s exponentially growing authorial celebrity and the manner in which it was further augmented by the proliferation of the photographic medium, so much so that the writer’s frequently reproduced image became an important visual emblem for his entire epoch. The chapter also investigates the subtle and pervasive influence that photography exerted on Tolstoy’s writing and highlights several instances of the author’s “camera eye” at work in his various novels, such as The Cossacks (1863) and Anna Karenina (1878). It culminates with a discussion of Tolstoy’s “crisis of authorship” and the intense dispute that broke out over his copyright and literary legacy between his wife, Sofia, and his chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, with the latter prevailing so that Tolstoy’s image ultimately became “the property of the public sphere” (p. 51) at the same time that photography was recognized in Russia as an artistic medium in its own right.

The second chapter similarly interrogates the photographic and literary experimentations of the novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Leonid Andreev and, to a lesser degree of Silver Age authors Vasilii Rozanov and Maksimilian Voloshin. Here Reischl emphasizes the idiosyncratic and generative intersections between Andreev’s public persona and the intimate images of his domestic life, which he photographed himself and strategically deployed as visual extensions of his fictional, literary worlds, whose esoteric, demonic themes mirrored photography’s liminal ability to connect the realms of the living and the dead. Reischl contends that through the active fusion of “life writing and light writing as method” (pp. 15-16) writers like Andreev, Rozanov, and Voloshin embraced a novel form of creative modernist intermediality that became integral to the very “formation of [their] literary imagination[s]” (p. 17).  

The ensuing two chapters shift their attention to the Soviet era and survey the different ways the regime harnessed photographic processes and documentary writing toward forging a new Soviet citizenry and socialist state. Photography was employed on a large scale as both a pedagogical and agitational tool, with many “author-photographers” rising to the task at hand throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The third chapter specifically bridges the pre- and postrevolutionary epochs by exploring the documentary writing and photography of the Symbolist ethnographer and diarist Mikhail Prishvin, who strove to renegotiate and rebrand his authorial subjectivity in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the novel demands of Soviet society. Mikhail Prishvin advanced the hybrid new genre of the ocherk, which united text and image in a mutually generative dialectical relationship. Comparing his prerevolutionary publication The Land of Unfrightened Birds (1907), with the later 1934 edition by the same title, as well as the infamous History of the Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (1934), Reischl demonstrates how Prishvin’s project aimed to fuse the self with nature and actively resisted the materialist aesthetics of Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov, and Sergei Tretiakov, while nonetheless dynamically reflecting the transformations in Russia both in the natural and constructed realms.

The fourth chapter considers Soviet representations of the capitalist West. More precisely, it analyzes Ilya Ehrenburg’s experimentations with oblique urban views created using a lateral viewfinder in his seminal publication My Paris (1933) and Ilya Ilf’s striking invention of a novel hybrid genre of the “photo-story,” or fotoraskaz, in his 1936 American Photographs series. As with previous chapters, the fourth one lingers on the complex interrelations between text and image and their ability to dialectically encode Soviet alterity—and by extension implied superiority—to the West with its many societal and political ills that these “photo-stories” sought to expose. Lastly, the conclusion examines the memoirs of émigré writers Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose transgressive, revisionist reclamations of history “unwrite” the official photographic, political, and ideological accounts of the Soviet regime.

Overall, the book is clearly and lucidly written and incorporates a wealth of rich archival detail that gives real texture and historical palpability to the narrative. It is also replete with sensitive and astute visual analyses of individual images and objects, as well as compelling formal readings of entire photo series. For example, in the second chapter, Reischl masterfully foregrounds the materiality of Andreev’s and Rozanov’s family photo albums, emphasizing the handwritten pencil notations on the photographs’ grainy surfaces and the traces of glue still visible on their reverse sides, testifying to their discrete existence as tangible, unique objects. Indeed, Reischl powerfully and persuasively interweaves the multiple thematic and conceptual strands of the book with the real historical conditions and lived realities of the individual “author-photographers” under discussion, adroitly moving between their micro and macro settings. In addition to her insightful explications of the particular conditions of the photographs’ and photo series’ creation, display, and dissemination, Reischl also devotes considerable attention to their reception and theorization in relation to new technologies and contemporary media theory, providing a robust conceptual and methodological framework through which to read and understand these layered composite works.

While Photographic Literacy undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to the fields of literary and Slavic studies, it also has important implications for a number of other subject areas, such as art history, visual culture, and media theory. In fact, one of the book’s most salient features is its impressive interdisciplinarity and the manner in which it tells a sophisticated “interart” story that combines the textual and the visual, literature and art history, technology and aesthetics, documentation and design, and fact and fiction—an approach which is gaining increasing momentum in Russian and Slavic studies and which builds on important precedents, such as Molly Brunson’s Russian Realisms: Literature and Painting, 1840–1890 (2016), Michael Kunichika’s “Our Native Antiquity”: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Culture of Russian Modernism (2015), and Colleen McQuillen’s The Modernist Masquerade: Stylizing Life, Literature, and Costumes in Russia (2013).[1] Akin to these studies, Photographic Literacy challenges the entrenched logocentricity of Russian culture and the continued privileging of its literary tradition above the visual, musical, and performing arts. On the contrary, it shows how the literary was deeply imbricated and imbued with the visual (and especially the photographic), determining and fashioning “the authorial self.” It thus further develops many of the key issues raised by Brunson in Russian Realisms, but does so from the unusual and fascinating perspective of the photographic pursuits of the writers themselves.

Moreover, by including figures whom we do not typically associate either with nineteenth-century discoveries and technological advances in photography or with twentieth-century breakthroughs in avant-garde aesthetics, Photographic Literacy dramatically expands the familiar field of inquiry. It juxtaposes celebrated literary and artistic figures, such as Lev Tolstoy, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Dziga Vertov, with lesser-known actors, such as Mikhail Privshin and Vladimir Griuntal. In doing so, the book engenders numerous discursive matrices within which to understand and engage with the “author-photographer” phenomenon and provocatively postulates fresh and defamiliarized modes of thinking about well-trodden avant-garde territory and canonical cultural practitioners. For instance, in her third chapter Reischl examines how artists and writers from a range of backgrounds and of different stylistic and philosophical persuasions collectively worked on the USSR in Construction project, thus nuancing the persistent notion of a single, monolithic totalitarian vision that we habitually attribute to the Stalinist 1930s. Rather than rehash the same set of arguments and interpretations around pioneering individuals and movements, Reischl’s textured account offers a refreshing alternative and important corrective to the established histories of Soviet photography. She provides a broader birds-eye view on the multiple and pervasive ways documentary photography penetrated and shaped everyday life and public consciousness in the first two decades of the Soviet state, influencing both the outlook and subjectivity of regular people as much as those of prominent writers and art practitioners. Additionally, the book adopts a wide-ranging territorial reach and incorporates a series of disparate locales and “microgeographies” such as Yasnaya Polyana, Karelia, and Tashkent, not to mention Finland, France, and the United States, further refracting and “decentering” any notion of a consistent, homogenous, or dominant representational modality of imperial and Soviet space.

Lastly, Reischl challenges the established periodization and chronological divides typically associated with the modern period in Russia by discussing the various continuities—and not only ruptures—between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the tsarist and Soviet periods. She cogently shows how turn-of-the-century figures such as Prishvin continued to work well into the 1930s and identifies striking visual parallels between his images of the White Sea Canal in the second, 1934 edition of The Land of Unfrightened Birds and Dziga Vertov’s film stills, demonstrating how certain formal and thematic developments of the Silver Age continued to reverberate well into the Stalinist period. Such a compelling revision of the chronological, geographical, conceptual, and material frames of reference in debates on Russian and Soviet modernity and its textual and pictorial representation has been gaining increasing traction in the field as evidenced by a series of recent publications such as New Narratives of Russian and East European Art: Between Traditions and Revolutions, edited by Galina Mardilovich and Maria Taroutina (2020), Rethinking the Russian Revolution as Historical Divide, edited by Matthais Neumann and Andy Willimott (2018), and Across the Revolutionary Divide, 1861–1945, by Theodore Weeks (2011). Photographic Literacy makes an important and original contribution to this ongoing scholarly dialogue and will likely be of equal interest to specialists of Russian literature, visual culture, and intellectual history, as well as those more generally curious about the complex and multivalent intermedial connections between texts and images in modernity.  


[1]. For a discussion of the “interart” concept and intellectual history, see Molly Brunson, Russian Realisms: Literature and Painting, 1840–1890 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016), 3-25; Ulla Britta Lagerroth, Hans Lund, and Erik Hedling, eds., Interart Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997); and W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986).


Citation: Maria Taroutina. Review of Reischl, Katherine M. H., Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54688

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