Alexander Rodchenko

by Tom Reaume November. 01, 2017 756 views

I would love to review a book on abstract photography, but I have yet to find one in the local library. Still photography seems to be an unending norm. Why is that? Is the medium so insecure it cannot expand its horizon just a little. Does it only want the status quo with no innovation? Can photography only do one thing well; document the world? Is a lens-based photographer not allowed to play with light? Why so confined and serious? If my readers know of any book on abstract photography give me some details and I will try to get it through an interlibrary loan (ILL). Thanks.

This next book of still photography is filled with 159 b&w images by the Russian, Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956). The nine introductory pages of text by Alexander Lavrentjev, his grandson, are briefly described on the inside book jacket His [Rodchenko] work reflects an obsession with movement which came about with his involvement in the Soviet cinema, machinery, modernization and technology. The photos are filled with startling perspectives, angles and proportions, his portraits capture his colleagues in the avant-garde in a unique manner. The images were taken from 1924–1933. The book was published in Germany and New York in 1982 with the original text in German.

Rodchenko was always alert for new developments in photography. Eric Mendelsohn and Moholy-Nagy often used extreme perspectives in their photographs of the man-made world, and their approach fascinated Rodchenko mainly because they were not professional photographers but architects, designers or artists who used the camera as one tool among others....

The greatest advantage of on-the-spot photography, in his eyes, was its documentary character. I wonder why photographers [and curators] have to keep reminding us a camera takes documentary photographs. Do we not know this to be at least somewhat truthful? You point, frame, shoot, and develop a still photograph of what you and your camera were pointing at. Am I missing something?

Rodchenko's first serious works, in 1924, were portraits of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian poet, playwright, artist, and actor. He looks more like a gangster, perhaps a hit man. The 6 staged photographs are printed in quite severe dark grays, even on his face. VM is on the front cover, standing with feet apart for balance and attitude, dressed in a dark overcoat, holding a cluster of very white paper, which hides his left hand. One edge of the paper has angular folds like those at the base of his grey pants and the angle of his wide-brimmed hat atop his head. His hair is very short. On page 25 is a close-up portrait of his mother holding her reading glasses in her left hand.

The first 10 pages of the book display angular shots of brick buildings with outside ladders attached. A full book of such angular perspectives would become quite irritating visually. Painters usually don’t depict buildings in this fashion. With a camera, moving body and hands, it is fairly easy to take unusual angles of buildings or any object. Rodchenko also used aerial shots of people in the city and individuals from above and often quite close quite close. Today the digital photographers are taking aerial still photographs of very distant people, often at beaches or other landscapes. This style and perspective is back in fashion after less than 100 years. Planes make aerial photography rather obvious. And from the air, many landforms take on a form and texture veneer, which resembles some abstract paintings. Perhaps the aerial people and their dealers describe the images as abstract when selling them to gullible collectors. They present only a sense of abstraction in my definition of abstraction relating to still photography. Two pictures of young boys fishing add a gentle touch. Several photos of woman and lots of machinery up close, all printed with high contrast, complete the book. A few photos are double exposures giving the face a frontal and side view in the same frame. An idea from painters no doubt.

On pages 37 and 38 are aerial views of a small treed courtyard surrounded by a road. The first shows the leafy deciduous trees and their shadows of summer. Several horse-drawn wagons fill the lower border of the summery picture. The second photograph taken from a slightly different angle shows bare branches with snow on the ground, and 3 or 4 small people walking. When I was in New York City several years ago, I stopped into a prominent art gallery. On a wall side-by-side were two still 16 x 20 inch photographs of identical landscape scenes shot in summer and winter, with deciduous trees of course so the visual change is dramatic. They were certainly overpriced for this high school idea which most photographers in the temperate zone have thought of doing or have done. I did it while in Winnipeg, Manitoba for an online botanical project. I don’t consider them worthy of hanging on the white walls of an art gallery in New York City. But we all know NYC is a snapshot town. Where else could such a simple idea be hanging on a wall with an over priced tag.

I don’t know if Rodchenko got ideas for these photographic angles of buildings, people and machinery from other photographer’s images at the time, or how many were his own imaginative doing. Obviously missing were images taken with a camera sitting on the ground independent of the eye-level status quo. I wonder why? I took a portfolio of ground-based images, but threw them away as being another foolish, simple idea which anyone could accomplish.

Overall, I liked the images by Rodchenko in this book, some never before published. They are an angular relief from the normal, still images filling galleries and books today. I wouldn’t attempt such work myself, but perhaps it is time for another still photographer to create such a portfolio of today’s modern buildings and workers, blue and white collar. It would be revealing to see still pictures of suits taken at ground level and hung in a gallery. Since each day is full of possibilities, one could strap a camera, used to capture wildlife passing along a woodsy trail, to the base of a street light along Park Avenue. Set it to take a picture every minute of morning rush hour for pedestrians. Now that would be a dramatic and revealing still photographic portfolio. Just do it.

Online – Hastings pier wins the Stirling architecture prize. Nicknamed The Plank, De Rijke Marsh Morgan’s stark large wooden wonder – using timber reclaimed from previous fires – was praised for changing the idea of what architecture is. I create anti-still photographs to change the idea of what a photograph can look like and be and I get derision, rejection and anger from the photographic community. Why is that? Could someone enlighten me? Today, I November 2017, I hung 12 of my anti-still photographs at the main library in London, Ontario, Canada. The show lasts 4 weeks.

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Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at

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