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Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography

Nare Aleksanyan 1

One of the great photographers who passionately believed in the photographic medium as

a form of art was Aleksandr Rodchenko. The Russian photographer from the early twentieth

century was one of the most influential figures in the history of photography. A closer look at

Rodchenko’s theory of art and photography will provide a thorough understanding of his

ideology in regards to photography as an art form which I will discuss in the context of art in

photography. This will place photography in dialogue with the conventional arts defined in terms

of aesthetics of form and composition. Arthur Danto argues that the visible differences in a work

of art constitute an inescapability of aesthetics in experiencing it.1 In photographs, especially in

those of Rodchenko, light and composition are the two main formal qualities that prompt such

aesthetic awareness.

Figure 1Fire-escape, from the series “House on Myasnitskaya”
Gelatine silver print, 32x24
Aleksandr Rodchenko ,
Private collection

1 Danto, Arthur. “The Future of Aesthetics” in Francis Halsall et al. Rediscovering
Aesthetics. (p.113).

He began to photograph in the early 1920s during the period of the New Economic Policy in Russia. and many of his contemporaries.3).2 Rodchenko believed in forms which could be perceived as objective and precise to be the most appropriate bases for visual statements. portrait photography.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 2 Sviblova.204). Olga et al. As an active photographer from 1924 to 1954. Rodchenko’s photographic compositions were a way of discovering new visual opportunities which would then expand the limits of photography as an art form. 2008 Living in Russia. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. 3 Margolin.3 He was a proponent of a revolutionary art practice that would abandon the art of the past in favor of an art that would express the conviction of form that he had. It is worthy to note that before he turned to photography Rodchenko was a painter. photo- art and photo reportage. 4 Lavrentiev. He would do so through his carefully constructed compositions.4 He intentionally stressed perspective and depth by choosing angles that did not reproduce the texture or compositional scheme of painting. . Rodchenko experimented with photomontage. Rodchenko was a part of the artistic-social avant-garde movement and one of the most prominent Russian Constructivists. Moscow: Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts. (p. Olga et al. rejected the traditions of representational painting for the new visual language of abstraction. Moscow House of Photography Museum. at which time he had abandoned painting and focused on design. Forms in art would become the signifiers of a new vision for the Constructivists. (p. Victor. Rodchenko. Alexander. Rodchenko insisted that there were artistic qualities that 2 Ibid. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. “Alexander Rodchenko: Beginnings of the Photo Avant- Garde in Russia” in Sviblova. The Struggle for Utopia. It was mainly the Russian Revolution that energized him to experiment with photography in an attempt to expand his sphere of social influence while at the same time gaining respect for the medium.

He is referring to “the contrasts of perspectives. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography.8 In fact. In addition. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. “Photography is an Art” in Sviblova. (p. (p.204). It is only necessary to remind ourselves of the importance of a viewpoint in traditional picture-making to draw a parallel between these images as forms of art.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 3 were specific to photography. Olga et al. 6 Ibid.7 The formal qualities of a picture are prioritized by the photographer. He believed photography had the possibility to create a truly contemporary art. 8 Lavrentiev. This was critical for Rodchenko because in his utopian Constructivist thinking. . Alexander. Rodchenko characterizes some qualities of photography as equally complex as those of fine drawing. animals. people. cars…”5 It follows that the selection of an interesting and original viewpoint in order to create a successful composition is of great interest for the photographer.10). Alexander. For instance. and it is precisely such features that make up a work of art in aesthetic terms mentioned earlier in reference to Danto. he abandoned ‘pure art’ in favor of photography because he saw in it the visual language that could address a mass audience so crucial to the political climate he was living in. and the contrasts of form. Rodchenko’s main goal was for photography to be recognized as an art form – the art of his time.”6 The importance of composition cannot be overstated in the case of Rodchenko. the contrasts of light. he believed with a new 5 Rodchenko. Olga et al. in his diary Rodchenko writes of viewpoints not possible in drawing or painting – “those with exaggerated foreshortenings and pitiless texture of the material…the unprecedented moments of movement. “Photography is an Art” in Sviblova. who describes the ability of photographic compositions loaded with forms and intricate patterns as surpassing the imagination of painters. 7 Ibid.

he applied a new social role to photography in the newly forming Soviet It is necessary to consider how Rodchenko’s photographs came to be in the context of the political situation he was living in and in relation to his own utopian ideas.7). from the series “House on Myasnitskaya” Gelatine silver print.9 Therefore. Olga et al. The photographs Rodchenko took of his apartment building on Myasnicka Street do not seem to be politically charged images at first. By documenting the social and political life of the Soviet Union through photography. 41x30. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. Figure 2Fire-escape. Rodchenko fulfilled the potential of the medium as the art appropriate for his day. The photographer visually transformed his own surroundings through a creative act by choosing to photograph where he lived.3 1925 Aleksandr Rodchenko Moscow House of Photography Museum www. . Victor Margolin argues that for Rodchenko this was precisely the quality which characterized an active citizen of a post- 9 Sviblova. (p.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 4 form of art he could help transfigure the world and mankind.mdf.

the viewpoints are different. Therefore. It is precisely the influence of Conceptualism that is visible in his low angle shots of the fire-escape photographs from the series “House on Myasnitskaya” of 1925.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 5 revolutionary culture. In Figure 2. he even reinforces the compositional significance of the ladder in relation to the human figure. Even though he is seen climbing up the ladder. The Struggle for Utopia. While the photographs I have chosen to discuss are all low angle shots. Rodchenko was facing the direction of the wall. For the purposes of this paper. The introduction of Conceptual art into photography was one of the many contributions Rodchenko brought to photography. 10 Margolin. and we see enough detail to recognize him as a male. there is a wide variety of low and high angle shots in Rodchenko’s oeuvre. In both photographs. he makes the ladder the central motif of the composition.133). a consistency in the viewpoint will demonstrate the photographer’s command of composition and aesthetic understanding. Furthermore. In Figure 1.10 This act of transformation was an integral part of Rodchenko’s Constructivist utopian ideology. while both are shot from the same place. however. the series of photographs he took of his apartment building demonstrate his post-revolutionary and utopian thinking as implemented by photography. One of the most characteristic qualities of Rodchenko’s photographs is his use of acute camera angles. . It is important to look at Figure 1 in relation to Figure 2 because the absence and the presence of the male figure on the ladder accordingly is a crucial part of each composition. while in Figure 2 he was facing in the direction of the ladder. however. Rodchenko’s choice of how much light he needs in the picture to allow the viewer to a see a human form but not any specific details of it is a great example of his Conceptual thinking. Victor. (p.

What is then the significance of the ladder in relation to the generalized form of the human subject on it? It most certainly is a proof of Rodchenko’s sensibility to light. (p. Rodchenko shot in dramatically skewed perspective. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Camera-Eye. In Figure 1 and Figure 2 Rodchenko photographed an everyday object or scene in such a way that it showed the object photographed . the photograph gains its significance. Thus. Rodchenko is more interested in capturing the form of the subject rather than the details that are specific to it.from a completely new perspective. Here the photographer has moved to the right side of the ladder and shot it in profile view as opposed to the central viewpoints observed in Figures 1 and 2. Leah Ann. The long narrow ladder of the 11 Dickerman.136). Holding his camera close to the walls of the 8-story structure of his apartment house. he embraced the Soviet view of the new society and applied it to his photographic art. as we have already seen. Furthermore. In this. This was at the heart of Conceptualism and Rodchenko took it to photography because he believed that the medium even more so than Conceptualism in painting embodied his contemporary world.the ladder . now signifies the human and not just one specific individual. Rodchenko provides the form of the human figure in that specific situation – climbing the ladder. Rodchenko. was a proponent of a utopian ideology. it is an image of the post-revolutionary culture that has ushered in this new kind of seeing.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 6 In other words. Photography was for him the art of his time. This perfectly embodied the ideology of a new kind of seeing. The government wanted its people to adopt an art form that did not represent anything but a new vision.11 Another example of this series is Figure 3. having lost his individual characteristics. form and compositional construction. but more significantly. because the male figure. . The idea of a new kind of seeing that came with the Soviet Union amounted to a completely new society that in its visual culture would embrace the new government.

All these photographs show the surroundings of the photographer prioritizing the building and the ladder – the tangible examples of post-revolutionary achievement. However. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. is here again the central motif of the composition.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 7 fire escape. The measured intervals of the ladder’s steps accentuate the serial repetition of the architectural forms – the unadorned brick construction of the walls. Figure 3 also has a political connotation. The psychological response to the diagonal line of the ladder resting against the brick wall is a clever pictorial composition which intrigues the viewer on an aesthetic level. Rodchenko uses these forms as a geometrical basis for the composition of the photograph. Figure 3Fire-escape. 41x30. Moscow: Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts. etc. 2008 . Olga et al. however. much like the first two photographs discussed previously and others of the apartment building series not mentioned in this paper.3 1925 Aleksandr Rodchenko Private collection Sviblova. This underlying motif binds the scenes together. Moscow House of Photography Museum. the windows. from the series “House on Myasnitskaya” Gelatine silver print.

then what Rodchenko wrote of photographers should settle the debate on whether photography is art or not. they have their own and particular themes and subjects. and manner. The photographic arrangements of the ladder. Photographs can be taken by anyone. they are aesthetically appealing not only because they show the building or the ladder from an unusual angle. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. However. and style. Olga et al. If the careful construction of a composition or an intellectual thinking applied to the creation of a picture is what art is. and in the case of Figure 2 also the man climbing up the ladder. form. He wrote that masters of photography have “individual taste. and most importantly. Alexander. but also. because they work as pictures. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographs show that in order to make a great photograph one must have knowledge of aesthetics. “Photography is an Art” in Sviblova. and they most certainly are today. the building. Furthermore. are the products of carefully constructed compositions by a great photographer. by studying photography as part of the history of art we will be better equipped to evaluate photographs much like we are in regards to works of the traditional media. 12 Rodchenko. through the lens of the camera and the choice of the lighting. style. .”12 Unlike the popular misconception that photographs are just snapshots that anyone can take and therefore should not be considered a form of art.10). That way we can study the history of photography and be able to recognize its contribution to the history of art in general. and this is precisely why it is necessary to accept photography as an art.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 8 Rodchenko’s photographs of his apartment building are striking in the steep plunging and spatial confusion caused by the camera’s angled view. (p.

This takes me to the question that I want to leave the readers of this article with: Is art in photography always the art of photography? Drawing a distinction between these two concepts may lead us to a better understanding of the place of photography within the history of art. I have tried to argue in this paper through a formalist approach to the interpretation of Rodchenko’s photographs that art in photography can be understood in terms of formal qualities that provoke an aesthetic awareness in the beholder. While this establishes photography as a form of art. it does not necessarily imply that the latter is the art of photography. . it is of crucial importance to advance art-historical discourse in the field of photography to show its aesthetic quality as one compatible with the traditional arts. we can move on from the debate on the art of photography to a more fruitful discussion of art in photography. The brief discussion of the three photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko presented here was an attempt to demonstrate the concept of art in photography.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 9 In conclusion. By studying the formal qualities of photographs that differ considerably from those of the traditional media but which similarly stimulate an aesthetic response.

Francis et al. Moscow House of Photography Museum. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Camera-Eye. Aleksandr Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography. Leah Ann. Ann Arbor: UMI Company. 2008 . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Olga et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1997 Sviblova. 1997 Halsall. 2009 Margolin.Aleksandr Rodchenko: Art in Photography Nare Aleksanyan 10 Works Cited Dickerman. Moscow: Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts. The Struggle for Utopia. Victor. Rediscovering Aesthetics.