Ksenia Nouril, “Production-Reproduction: Modernist Photography and its Circulation through the Lens of the Thomas Walther Collection”

Ksenia Nouril (PhD Candidate, Art History, Rutgers University; Research Assistant, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“Production-Reproduction: Modernist Photography and its Circulation through the Lens of the Thomas Walther Collection”

This presentation will share recent scholarship and programming related to the Thomas Walther Collection at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Composed of 341 photographs created between 1909 and 1949 by 148 artists from the United States and Europe, including Russia, Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia, the Walther Collection was the subject of a four-year Andrew W. Mellon-funded research initiative that brought together art historians and conservators in an intensive and in-depth study of the photographs from both contextual and material perspectives. Out of the many products of this project, my presentation will focus on the interactive digital humanities website Object:Photo and the exhibition Production-Reproduction: The Circulation of Photographic Modernism, 1900–1950, which traces the Walther photographs in printed matter from the period, highlighting the transnational networks of modernist photography.

The second half of my presentation will focus on the reproduction and reception of photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko in the periodical Sovetskoe foto. While many scholars have analyzed the infamous denunciation of Rodchenko’s photography as derivative in the article “Illustrated Letter to the Publisher: Ours and Theirs” published in Sovetskoe foto 4 (April 1928), none have considered this in relation to the artist’s rehabilitation seven years later in the pages of the same periodical. Published in Sovetskoe foto 7 (July 1935), the article “Profiles of masters: Aleksandr Rodchenko” by Petr Krasnov dramatically tells the story of Rodchenko from the “mistakes” of his misspent youth to his later embrace, albeit if only superficially, by Soviet regime. By reproducing eight full-page photographs sampled from across Rodchenko’s career, including the well-known 1924 portrait of the artist’s mother, Sovetskoe foto showcased the very works by Rodchenko as well as other modernist photographers deemed formalist that it rallied to suppress. This pivotal moment only one year after the declaration of Socialist Realism at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 reveals the subtle but crucial inconsistencies and instabilities within official Soviet discourses on photography, allowing for new alternative readings of early Stalinist visual culture.

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