“Objective Authorship” in 20th-Century Russian Writing and Photography


A review of Objective Authorship: Photography and Writing in Russia, 1905-1975, by Katherine Hill Reischl.

Katherine Hill Reischl’s Objective Authorship: Photography and Writing in Russia, 1905-1975 presents compelling new research on shifting notions of authorship as seen through joint study of photographic and written texts by a number of twentieth-century author-photographers, including Lev Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev, Vasilii Rosanov, Mikhail Prishvin, Il’ia Il’f, Il’ia Ehrenburg, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The astutely conceived title plays on the Russian word for camera lens, ob”ektiv, while also problematizing the tension in both photography and literary realism between objectivity and subjectivity, in these distinct but interrelated modes of representation. The author argues that these writers’ use of the camera operated in tandem with the written word as part of a hybrid authorial practice and played a significant role in shaping the nature of authorial subjectivity across a variety of literary, ethnographic, and documentary writing projects. Through deep and sustained engagement with archival materials, Reischl reveals the extent to which these writers grappled—in public and private space—with shifting doctrine concerning how literature was to be produced, and what role the authorial subject was to have in the shifting socio-political landscape. The project moves from the realm of late high realism, through responses to the factographic movement of the 1930s, to the challenges of text-image production within the framework of socialist realism, and concludes with representations of the GULag experience in official and unofficial spheres. In each case, the author demonstrates a common struggle of each writer-photographer to find modes of expression—visual and verbal—that would “assert his distinct authorial perspective within the Soviet system” by adapting the principles of “objective” photography in service of new modes of authorial subjectivity and self-expression (6).

The first chapter of the dissertation centers on an exploration of the late period of Tolstoy’s life and work as a way of framing the question of shifting notions of both literary and photographic authorship at the turn of the twentieth century. Reischl briefly outlines the trajectory of photography’s emergence in Russia beginning in 1840 and introduces the central conflicts and debates surrounding the way that the invention fundamentally intervened in and altered both artistic and literary modes of representation. The chapter focuses in particular on the chronological coincidence of the fierce debates (peaking in the 1870s) over whether photography could be considered art with Lev Tolstoy’s own personal “crisis of authorship” and his relinquishing of copyright protections over his literary production. At the same time, Reischl traces the role of photographic portraits and candid shots of Tolstoy which contributed to his literary celebrity and which were co-opted late in his life to serve in abstracting and mythologizing his authorial persona to readers and the general public. Indeed, as the author demonstrates convincingly, the rise of the mass-produced portrait coincided with the commodification of literature as well as a new cultural value placed on both the image and the intellectual property of the author-figure. The chapter’s far-ranging discussion touches not only on photography in Tolstoy’s life and art, but also on debates about copyright law reforms vis-à-vis photography and literature, and the legacy of photographs of Tolstoy taken by his wife, Sophia, by his personal secretary Chertkov, and by famous photographers such as Sergei Levitskii and Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. The chapter gives special attention to the conflicts between Chertkov and Sophia Tolstoy surrounding Tolstoy’s authorial rights and the subsequent manipulation and commodification of his image in the broader public domain. This fascinating exploration of Tolstoy’s legacy in life and art provides a fitting backdrop for the chapters that follow.

Building on the problem of photography’s role in shaping public and private lives as seen in the example of Tolstoy’s literary celebrity, the second chapter considers further the way that photography’s extension into private space influenced the creative undertakings of early twentieth-century writers Leonid Andreev and Vasilii Rozanov. A brief section on Rozanov’s blending of public authorship and the domestic sphere in his photo-illustrated Fallen Leaves offers a fine counterpoint to the discussion of Andreev, and complicates the issue of how these writers shape their authorial voice through the process of selecting, captioning, and publishing photographic images from private space. But it is Andreev’s negotiation of his image in public and private space that is the central focus of this chapter, and Reischl elucidates a provocative contrast between the writer’s reputation as a master of horror stories depicting the dark, shadowy underside of human nature and what appears to be a search for lightness in his photographic studies of his family at their dacha at Vammelsuu in Finland. The author has delved deep into Andreev’s personal archive to uncover a trove of images taken by Andreev using the Lumière brothers’ autochrome process. Here, as elsewhere, Reischl delivers a clear, engaging explanation of the technology behind the autochrome photograph, and offers highly compelling interpretations of the meaning embedded in these images’ compositional details and their contrasting use of light and shadow. Always just below the surface here is a darkness; a shadow creeping into even the brightest spaces, a notion underscored on a theoretical level by photography’s associations with death. With the coming of the Bolshevik Revolution and the redrawing of the border with Finland, Andreev found himself an unwitting émigré sounding the alarm about an impending doom. But with his premature death from a heart attack at age forty-seven, Andreev’s photographs live on as a testament to what Reischl characterizes as a “final nostalgic picture of lost modernist Russia, haunted by a looming darkness just outside of the frame” (95).

Chapter Three explores what Reischl terms “microgeographies” of interconnected documentary material as a defining piece of Mikhail Prishvin’s authorial legacy. Prishvin is an appealing figure whose photographic and literary creations (often best conceived in the genre of ocherk, or “sketch”) straddle the decades before and after the introduction of official policies on the purpose and practice of photography, and art in general. Prishvin’s early ocherki evinced his belief that artistic subjectivity could be mapped on the objective image captured by the ethnographer’s camera, as found in his study of Karelia, In the Land of Unfrightened Birds (1907, revised 1934). He enlists what he terms “rodstvennoe vnimanie” (kindred attention) to characterize his approach to representing human experience through studies of nature and geographies.

In examining the expansive literary career of Mikhail Prishvin, which stretched from 1905-1954, Reischl connects the author-photographer’s recently published private diary with his photographic, ethnographic, and journalistic pieces to uncover a palimpsest of evolving creative approaches that were at some times in line with and at other times at odds with official Soviet doctrine on what socialist realist art should achieve and how it should do so. A central issue in this chapter is the problem of “photographic literacy” emerging from Anatolii Lunacharskii’s dictate that every Soviet citizen must be able to handle a camera, and that in time “the USSR will have achieved universal literacy as well as photographic literacy” (136). With a focus on the 1930s, Prishvin’s work is examined within the context of pedagogies of photographic literacy, exemplified in Reischl’s treatment of the Chto eto takoe? (What is This?) children’s books, which asked readers to solve a riddle to identify a visually defamiliarized object. In different iterations of his Karelia study and especially in his work for the issue of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction), devoted to visualizing the Soviet fur trade in broad social/geographic context, Prishvin was clearly operating under the influence of the principles of montage advocated by figures such as Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Yet even in this environment in which he used his camera to depict the expanses of collective industrial production in the Soviet Union, Prishvin pushed back in private space against the stripping of authorship in collective journalism projects, in which the images and text typically were not attributed to a particular writer or photographer. Here Prishvin penciled in his signature on the photographs he took that were included in SSSR na stroike. Concluding with an extension of the discussion to Prishvin’s final novel, Tsar’s Road (Osudareva doroga), Reischl maintains that in constructing his visual-verbal microgeographies Prishvin managed to exert his own expressive authorial self, balancing “timeless flows of nature” with “the larger matrix of Soviet construction” (182).

Chapter Four investigates the development of the photo-series and photo-narratives through an examination the remarkable photographic studies of life in Paris and the US by Il’ia Ehrenburg (Moi Parizh, 1933) and Il’ia Il’f (contributions to“Amerikanskie fotografii,” 1936). The author begins the discussion of the photo-series in the Soviet 1930s with a detailed reading of how the “Day in the Life” photo-series projects documenting average Soviet workers (such as those by Sergei Tret’iakov, Arkadii Shaikhet, and Max Al’pert) functioned so as both to capture a documentary portrait of Soviet citizens, and to promote a particular kind of active photographic literacy to inspire socialist mobilization. Transitioning to Ehrenburg’s work in the photo-series genre, Reischl sketches out the overarching position adopted by this author-photographer in his Spain series (1937), demonstrating that Ehrenburg seems to have neglected “the real threat to authorial subjectivity that the camera can, and does, present to traditional notions of authorship” (213). With this tension in mind, Reischl turns to a close reading of contrasting approaches to authorial subjectivity in the Ehrenburg and Il’f projects on Paris and the US, respectively.

Investigating life in capitalist Paris, Ehrenburg famously employed a camera with a lateral viewfinder, which allowed him to photograph individuals without their knowing that he was taking their picture. The result is a photographic study that moves away from objects and places to focus on faces and spaces of marginalized individuals and urban landscapes. Ehrenburg’s approach managed to evoke both human empathy and social critique. His method of photographing and subsequently selecting the images to include in his book made for a deeply personalized exploration of the spaces and faces he encountered in Paris. Ehrenburg’s technique contrasts sharply with Il’f’s American photographs, which were shot directly, but were shaped more by the text of the satirical captions and stories that accompany them. Reischl elucidates in this discussion a fascinating link between the way Il’f, with his partner Evgenii Petrov, constructed descriptions of space in the US that allowed them to draw Soviet space into the narrative, effectively inscribing the Soviet experience into their humorous portraits of America’s small-town life. Both of these photographic studies critiquing life in the capitalist world were created just ahead of a shift in Soviet politics that would more forcefully close off the USSR from the West and foster a more reflexive version of socialist realist art. Reischl also analyzes critical reception of Ehrenburg’s and Il’f’s contrasting approaches to documenting space and people in foreign lands.

The final chapter takes as its point of departure the problematic claim from Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) that there are no photographs of the GULag. Juxtaposing this erroneous claim with well-established critical treatment of the largely staged photographs of the Belomor Canal project and the labor projects documented in USSR In Construction, Reischl draws readers’ attention to the problem of how to read and understand the highly subjective visual and textual histories of the GULag. The author goes further in her investigation to detail the way in which Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s GULag Archipelago project engaged photography alongside a powerful textual narrative as a means of reclaiming authorial subjectivity over the camp experience. In opposition to the collectively composed Belomor volume, Solzhenitsyn’s project used his singular authorial voice to tell a multitude of untold stories of the GULag. Reischl skillfully argues that photographic capture operates as a key tool in the prison system’s stripping of individual identity. Paradoxically, taking a photograph of a prison inmate—recording and fixing an individual’s identity as he was stripped of his human freedoms—was also ultimately the moment in which he or she disappeared from public record. Solzhenitsyn’s mission in GULag Archipelago, therefore, was to restore this human record. His textual material provided a corrective narrative to the official Soviet account of the conditions under which the prisoners labored. And by incorporating photographic images from official accounts of the GULag, as in the Belomor volumes, Solzhenitsyn created an opportunity to re-inscribe, re-narrate, re-appropriate the images in service of his larger truth-seeking aims.

In addition to photography’s role in ushering the manuscript to press (Solzhenitsyn and Nikolai Zubov used microfilm to photograph and transport the manuscript to YMCA press in Paris), Solzhenitsyn also employed photography as a way of shaping his own authorial identity. He included the now-famous photograph of himself in prison garb as witness to the objective truth of his status as a zek (inmate). But the photograph itself is staged; taken after his release from prison, his hunched posture and exhausted scowl were all part of a self-conscious posturing. As Reischl argues, “[h]e has taken complete control of his prisoner identity by posing one more time before the camera. Moreover, the placement of the image in the work—as the authorial frontispiece—concretizes the link between zek and author” (263). In this sense, Solzhenitsyn co-opted the same subjective use of photography seen in the Belomor project to empower himself for his own authorial aims.

Reischl also includes in this chapter a useful counterpoint to Solzhenitsyn’s excavation of the GULag experience through visual/verbal representation in her brief exploration of Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia’s illustrated memoirs. The horrific dissonance of these accounts of the camps penned in a set of children’s notebooks provides a salient example of the common architectural mission Kersnovskaia shared with Solzhenitsyn. However, unlike Solzhenitsyn’s transformative use of photographic material as the visual counterpart to his text, Kersnovskaia’s hand-drawn illustrations are part of a full visual and verbal rendering of her camp experience. She even abandoned the textual narrative at the end of her work, allowing illustrations of broad expanses of the “wild south” to serve as visual representation of her intention for her narrative to move beyond the confines of the camp experience and to exist in interpretive space beyond the framework of a tightly controlled authorial frame such as that constructed by Solzhenitsyn.

Katherine Hill Reischl’s Objective Authorship demonstrates an impressive depth of research in archives across Russia, the US, and the UK. Her prose is clear and engaging, and the manuscript offers a wide-ranging, theoretically sophisticated engagement with secondary literature, as well as a stunning collection of rare archival images accompanying each chapter. The dissertation makes significant contributions to existing scholarship on how photography has intervened in and shaped literary culture, building in particular on key studies by Stephen Hutchings, Margarita Tupitsyn, Elizabeth Papazian, and Erika Wolf, among others. Reischl’s work demonstrates the author’s deep knowledge of photography and media theory, a strong command of the broad context of developments in Soviet policies toward the arts and culture, and an expert understanding of the technical aspects of the photographic processes at various stages of the medium’s history.

Reischl’s dissertation makes a powerful argument about the critical ways in which Soviet author-photographers harnessed the power of the camera lens as a way of moving beyond its objectifying technology to assert the primacy of authorial voice in their interrelated production of both literary texts and photographic images. The book that emerges from this excellent dissertation will undoubtedly make a major contribution to advancing the state of scholarship in Soviet-era visual culture and will be of interest not only to specialists in twentieth-century Russian literary culture, but to a range of scholars and students in the fields of cultural history, photography studies, material culture, and text/image interactions.

Molly Thomasy Blasing
Assistant Professor of Russian Studies
Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures
University of Kentucky

Primary Sources
Leeds Russian Archive, University of Leeds
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI)
Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) (IRLI)
Dom-muzei M. M. Prishvina, Dunino

Dissertation Information
University of Chicago. 2013. 286pp. Primary Advisor: Robert Bird.

Image: Family portrait by Leonid Andreev (c. 1910).

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