From the relatively European west to the barren mountains of the Caucasus in the east, the enormous country of Russia fascinates through its incredible diversity and the richness of its history. Foam examines this intrigue in their current exhibition Primrose, a study of the development and history of colour photography in Russia from the 1850s until today. In the exhibition's introductory text, the emotions the nation can evoke are formulated rather lyrically by Pieter Waterdrinker: "Russia is not just a different country; it's a different universe. Emotions are more intense there than they are here; snow is whiter; the cold is colder; summers are more summery than anywhere else on earth." The collection of photographs on show at Foam captures the mythical essence of the nation in both natural and not-so-natural colours.
An exhibition of Russian colour photography is inherently an exhibition on the country of Russia. When dealing with a country that has seen so many great changes over the years, but where tradition still plays a vital role, it's inevitable that an overview of its photography be filled to the brim with historical events. During the communist era, photography was avidly used for Soviet propaganda, for many of the country's inhabitants were illiterate. The results are shown through several depictions of Stalin and images of proud and strong young men and women, often accompanied by the colour red. The exhibition takes us all the way back to the Russian Empire, when as it turns out the people were proud and strong already.
The country is so vast in size and various in composition that every kind of scenery imaginable can be found and photographed, from steep cliffs to port towns and from empty landscapes to metropolises. Both destruction and construction are everywhere. Because of government restrictions on what could or could not be photographed, we see many photographs of infrastructural constructions, a subject that they did approve of, presumably as symbols of progress. Following the history of photography in this country allows us to follow their development from the 1860's to the present day - though, not every era is represented equally in this particular exhibition. What is particularly striking is the ability to see this world from a perspective not so natural to see, particularly in those earlier years: in colour.
The title 'Primrose' might seem overly poetic, but it's actually very well chosen; the primrose is a flower that blooms in early spring in many different colours, in a sense pioneering before all other flowers. The parallel to Russian photographers is clear, as they were pioneers in colour, though they were not the only ones. Soon after the invention of photography, practitioners from all over became interested in introducing colour to it. At first, black and white photo prints were painted in colour by hand, resulting in surreal and obviously artificial images. Viewing these images with modern eyes, they can look quite kitschy. After that, Primrose guides us through the development of actual colour photography, providing useful information on important developments such as the emergence of autochrome and colour film. The show comes full circle with Boris Mikhailov's variations on hand-coloured photos from the 1970s to '80s, obviously inspired by his forebears to turn the method into naive-looking postmodern camp.
Besides Mikhailov and perhaps Alexander Rodchenko, not many artists will be familiar. One of the most appealing artists is Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, whose talents have only fairly recently been really rediscovered, resulting in the October 2012 monograph 'Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicolas II'. Nostalgia is exactly the emotion these photographs evoke. The scientist-turned-photographer lived and worked during some of Russia's most tumultuous and historically important years, spanning the last years of the last Czar, the Russian Revolution, the First World War and - perhaps the event most evidently represented in his photographs - the emergence of industry. On the one hand, we see the 'old' Russian Empire with its simple and hard farmers' life and, on the other, there's modern machinery slowly but surely taking over more and more of Russia's vast countryside. Especially his portraits of peasants and the impressive, centuries-old landscapes depicted in full colour evoke this nostalgic feeling; they can make one long for an age of simple beauty and honesty.
The prize photograph of the exhibition is Prokudin-Gorsky's portrait of the great writer Leo Tolstoy at an advanced age. The photographer, who produced the most realistic colour pictures at the time, was confident enough about his craftsmanship to write Tolstoy a letter in order to convince him to have his photo taken. The writer is shown sitting in a chair on his own land, wearing sombre clothes and a full beard. The simplicity of the scene is striking.
Another true discovery in the Primrose exhibition is the versatile art of photojournalist Dmitry Baltermants. Although some of his most powerful work is in black & white, he seems to have reserved his colour film for lighter subjects: while he's documented several wars, the photos shown in Primrose include shop windows, smiling girls, street views and bars of gold. A close-cropped photograph of a helicopter seemingly landing on top of a foreground filled with reindeer may hint at a culturally engaged subject, but when stripped of its context, it becomes simply a pretty picture and a nice image of the '70s with its typically sallow colours.
Although not everything matches the quality of Baltermants or Prokudin-Gorsky, the exhibition proves that Russia, having taken part in the development of colour photography from the very beginning, has brought forth many outstanding images. Primrose was organised as part of the Netherlands-Russia year, which has already proven its worth by making possible this assembly of extraordinary artworks.
The exhibition Primrose. Russian Colour Photography is on display at Foam in Amsterdam until April 3, 2013.
For more info see our exhibition guide.