Communism Through the Lens: Everyday Life Captured by Women Photographers in the Dodge Collection
For artists and photographers, the Russian Revolution of 1917 changed the political and aesthetic stakes of artistic production. Beginning in the 1920s, women photographers became part of the burgeoning photojournalism profession in the Soviet Union, exhibiting their work and publishing it in mass-produced illustrated journals. Spanning almost the entirety of the Soviet Union’s history from the 1920s through the 1990s, this exhibition of rarely seen images explores themes of political art, documentary photography, and gender, offering a historical look at how women photographers interpreted life in the communist state.
Official Soviet artists were tasked with making art that would communicate the revolutionary ideals of a new society built on principles of anti-capitalism, social and economic equality, and democracy. Focusing their attention on imagery that might express these utopian ideals, some women photographers of the 1920s and ’30s also imparted to such images their own everyday experiences. A new generation of artists, born in the 1940s and ’50s, pressed beyond the boundaries of socialist realism by creating nonconformist photography that rejected official norms. Despite the Soviet Union’s rhetoric of gender equality, women of both generations from all over the Soviet Union shared a range of personal and professional challenges in advancing their careers as photographers.
Much of the legacy of Soviet women photographers exists within the expansive breadth of the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Bringing together more than one hundred and thirty works from this collection, the majority of which are displayed for the first time, this exhibition is the first at the Zimmerli devoted to photography by women from the Soviet Union. It also presents a survey of approaches to photography to highlight for the first time the central role played by women in redefining photography’s social reach and expressivity, as perhaps the quintessential modernist medium.
This exhibition highlights the unique—and often overlooked—photographic innovations by women who shaped the history of photography during the twentieth century. It delves into Soviet photography and design, featuring works by artists from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as rare photography books and journals from the Zimmerli’s archival collection, such as USSR in Construction and The Left Front of the Arts (LEF). It is divided into five thematic sections: Workers and Labor, Experimenting with the Medium, Identity and the Self, Gender and the Body, and Portraiture and Fantasy.
The exhibition has been organized by Maria Garth, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli Art Museum and a PhD candidate in Art History at Rutgers University. Her dissertation examines the historical practices of amateur and professional photographers in the Soviet Union as they relate to avant-garde theory and socialist realism.
This site is a virtual presentation of the exhibition Communism Through the Lens: Everyday Life Captured by Women Photographers in the Dodge Collection, on view in the Dodge Gallery/Lower Level September 1-October 17, 2021. The exhibition and brochure are made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund and the Dodge Charitable Trust – Nancy Ruyle Dodge, Trustee.