Rodchenko’s Twisted Views

A. Rodchenko – V. Stepanova Archive Moscow House of Photography Museum_Pioneer-Trumpet Player. 1930 Vintage Print Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum: Multimedia Art Museum Moscow

Alexsander Rodchenko, Pioneer with a trumpet, 1930

With multi-story buildings and high scaffoldings, rapid vehicles and airplanes, the early twentieth century urban and technological developments literally revolutionized the way we see the world. Soviet era photographer Alexander Rodchenko maintained that photography must respond to the new reality of urban life and capture images from radically “different vantage points.”[1] Rather than following the traditional belly-button or eye-level perspective (which pictorialist photographers inherited from paining) camera should capture events “from inside, from above down, and from below up.”[2] Only in this way can camera fulfill its task[3] and function as prosthesis of the eye, offering the view that is truer (more objective) than the naked eye could ever capture.[4]

A. Rodchenko – V. Stepanova Archive Moscow House of Photography Museum_Lunch, Mechanized Canteen. 1932 Vintage Print Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum: Multimedia Art Museum Moscow

Alexander Rodchenko, Lunch, Mechanized Canteen, 1932

This approach to photography is exemplified by Rodchenko’s 1932 photograph ‘Lunch, Mechanized Canteen’ which he shot from a diagonal, “above down” angle.[5] Considering Rodchenko’s theory that the image should be found and not created, captured as one sees it rather than staged,[6] we could assume that Rodchenko found himself standing above the scene and simply snapped the image with his small, portable Leica camera. Rather than an expression of his psychological relation to the event (as would be the case with a surrealist photograph) this image is a direct imprint of Rodchenko’s objective perspective at the moment of taking the photograph. In other words, rather than adjusting the image, or his own position in relation to it, he captures the scene exactly as he sees it. This moves the image away from pictorialist aesthetic to a greater descriptive quality, bringing photography closer to utilitarian record making. In fact, Rodchenko saw photographs as documents, rather than artistic works. In “The Paths of Modern Photography,” he writes: “Don’t make photo pictures, make photo-moments of documentary (not artistic) values.”[7]

Rodchenko’s approach to photography was also politically motivated. [8] He saw the stereotypical, traditional perception as deadening and, thus, dangerous. The habitual way of seeing corresponds to the habitual way of thinking,[9] by offering the new sight at ordinary things, Rodchenko attempted to literally “revolutionize our visual reasoning.”[10] At the time of profound political upheavals (i.e. rise of national socialism), Rodchenko found it important to effect public consciousness, to shake and mobilize the mind of Soviet citizens. This he hopped to achieve by capturing “familiar subjects,” (such as a lunch at Mechanized Canteen) “from completely unexpected vantage points and in completely unexpected positions.”[11] What was up to that point assumed as the only possible way of seeing was now brought into question, whilst also alerting the viewer that his sight is culturally conditioned.[12]

[Text: Ira Ferris]

REFERENCES:

[1] Alexander Rodchenko, “The Paths of Modern Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, pp256-263, edited by Christopher Phillips, translated by John E. Bowlt, (New York, 1989), p257. Rodchenko also writes: “…, the two- and three-story store windows, the streetcars, automobiles, illuminated signs and billboards, the ocean liners ad airplanes […] have redirected […] the normal psychology of visual perception,”[1] and “only he camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life.” [Rodchenko, p259.]

[2] Rodchenko, p259.

[3] Rodchenko argued that “only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life.” [Rodchenko, p259.]

[4] Rosalind Krauss notes that the “[c]amera-seeing is […] an extraordinary extension of normal vision, one that supplements the deficiencies of the naked eye. The camera […] acts as a kind of prosthesis, enlarging the capacity of the human body.” Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” in October, Vol. 19, pp3-34, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, Winter, 1981), p32-33.

[5] Rodchenko proposed that photographs should be taken “from all viewpoints except ‘from the belly button’,” and that “the most interesting viewpoints today are those from above down and from below up and their diagonals.” [Rodchenko, p262]

[6] Preparing the shot by “giving [the subject] the right pose” results in “stereotype and false realism.” Only the un-staged photographs offer “the ‘correct’ projectional perspective.” [Rodchenko, p260]

[7] Rodchenko, p261

[8] Rodchenko is, in fact, also known for his politically charged propaganda photomontages.

[9] “Behind this dangerous stereotype” of old perspective, writes Rodchenko, “lies the biased, conventional routine that educates man’s visual perception, the one-sided approach that distorts the process of visual reason.” [Rodchenko, p257.]

[10] “We must revolutionize our visual reasoning,” stated Rodchenko in The Paths of Modern Photography.
 [Rodchenko, p262.]

[11] “[I]n order to accustom people to seeing from new viewpoints,” notes Rodchenko, “it is essential to take photographs of everyday, familiar subjects from completely unexpected vantage points and in completely unexpected positions.” [Rodchenko, p261]

[12] The viewer is “brought up on the laws of correct perspective,” notes Rodchenko. [Rodchenko, 262]

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