Transcript: Photography in the Russian Literary Imagination

This week’s podcast is an interview with Katherine Reischl about the relationship between photography and Russian literature.

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. 

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Katherine Reischl is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Language and Literature at Princeton University focusing on twentieth-century Russian literature, art, and culture. She’s the author of Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors published by Cornell University Press.

Your book, Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors examines photography in the Russian literary imagination. What is photographic literacy?

I’m begin with this idea that everybody thinks that they’re photographically illiterate, but this is an idea that I’m working with and against. Photographic literacy is built on the basic idea of literacy, first and foremost. We all must first learn the alphabet, and only then we can start reading longer texts. Eventually, we can write our own texts. The idea here, and one that I’m also playing with, is that the most advanced form of literacy is the literary. It’s moving to this next stage that is important for my big picture. Then, in parallel, we have photography. We have to first learn how to read a picture. But also, of course, how to take a picture, how to use a camera, and then picture making, which can include editing and developing as well.

I also want to emphasize that when I’m thinking through what photographic literacy is, it’s much more complex than just these parts. Photographs have a surfeit of immediacy. The photograph doesn’t just speak for itself. It also moves in and out of different kinds of contexts and contingencies. It’s important to think about the way in which photographs move into the sphere of literary literacy or into the sphere of ideological literacy, so that photographic literacy is taking into account all of these kinds of literacies.

How do people achieve photographic literacy?

I think in our everyday lives. The way we use our iPhones, for example. It’s not just how you use your iPhone. It’s how you then edit the picture afterwards. Then, how you form your body into certain models of the right way to pose in a photograph becomes part of that photographic literacy. How do you describe the photograph within an Instagram post or a Facebook post. That’s also built on an idea that there is a photographically literate way to present someone that you can play with and against forms and certain modes.

When was photography introduced in Russia and how was this new technology received?

Photography was introduced in 1839. That’s really when we register the introduction of the French daguerreotype. Photography was both really exciting, and also a bit of a threat. Photography was exciting because it could do everything. It could allow for certain kinds of scientific inquiry so we can look closer or further than we ever had before. We can create records of monuments and even works of art. It could do that better than the human hand. That’s what was so exciting. It’s better than etching. It’s better than painting. But for that reason, when it is everything, it’s also viewed with distrust. In offering everything, you have this picture that’s painted by the sun, here I have in mind light writing or Russian svetopis’. It’s not even made by human hands. It’s made by technology.

In this sphere of art and artists, we have a lot of distress. This also includes authors. Authors like Dostoevsky argued that photography is just surface. It’s just naturalistic. It’s not real with a capital R. It’s not transcendent or transformative, which is so important to the 19th century realists. Photography could be confusing in that you could confuse a picture of a person with that person’s essence, as it were.

Tolstoy’s an interesting figure. On the one hand, he’s described as having a camera eye with his picturesque description of scenery and people. But then he becomes a subject of the camera because of his celebrity. What was Tolstoy’s relationship with the photographic, the camera and even his own picture?

I like this idea of thinking about the photographic as a category. When I first started thinking through Tolstoy, I immediately put him in the skeptic camp like Dostoevsky. But Tolstoy was really interested in technologies, which I think is a great part of his biography and a way of thinking through him as a figure. He was interested in film, in gramophones, and photography as well. This is a picture of Tolstoy that isn’t sequestered from modernity, which I think is sometimes the picture that we have of Tolstoy, especially after his spiritual crisis in the latter part of his life.

What I love is that a lot of the introduction of photography into Tolstoy’s life, even outside of his writings, is through his wife Sophia Andreevna, who’s also an author in her own right.

She’s a super accomplished photographer, and a master of the large format camera. She’s at home crafting this loving picture of a loving family. Then we have that picture come in conflict with Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s publicist in the 1880s, who’s crafting a different picture of Tolstoy. They’re both circulating these competing pictures of Tolstoy out in the world. They are also feuding behind the scenes, which is an interesting way to think about how fraught even one picture of Tolstoy might be. Tolstoy’s viewing this as an intrusion in to his quiet solitude and his writing with Sophie Andreevna, while also inviting Chertkov to take photographs of him, and blessing those Chertkov circulates.

Like the picture of Tolstoy in his signature Tolstoy-blouse on horseback, coupled with moralizing Tolstoy and sayings. In all of this, we see in Tolstoy someone who is fundamentally acquainted with this photographic and how to deploy it. He can deploy it in his texts. He can go into the minutiae. He can use his camera eye to zoom in on things. But he also knows how to use it to further his aims as well, to get his message to the people and to the popular consciousness. He’s somebody who was situated in such a way that he could also take over the means of production. He did this with his publishing house, Posrednik, and with Chertkov. He knew what it meant to stamp his image—his photographic image—on his works, and to circulate it with that photographic blessing by proxy.

This goes to another issue: what role does photography play in bridging the public and the private?

In addition to Tolstoy, I think my other favorite early-20th century celebrity is Leonid Andreyev. He’s one of these characters who’s really dancing between the public and private, and at the same time, is as a wildly famous a celebrity as Tolstoy while Tolstoy is also writing and living and Yasnaya Polyana. Andreev is a playwright and a short story writer, but my favorite part of his brand is as the “Edgar Allan Poe of Russia,” as he was named for in the New York Times. I also love this because he’s in these performative feuds with Tolstoy and his family over the right way to write art and to write literature as it were. He’s one of these figures who invites the press into his dacha. He’s living in this enormous theatrical dacha in Russian Finland.

Andreev’s bringing in the press and cameraman to share these intimate portraits of himself and his family, which are then consumed, very often, next to pictures of Tolstoy in the popular press, bringing in the everyday man into these intimate lives of these authors. What I think is really significant about Andreev is where he might diverge from the Tolstoy’s story is that he was also a photographer. He took hundreds of autochrome photographs, which are incredibly beautiful. These are colored-glass plate positives. He developed them at home in his dark room. It’s already part of his home life, his intimate home, and his private space. But as he’s doing this, he’s making his children into certain kinds of models. Also, he’s making himself a character from his terrifying stories at different points.

We see this real tension between photography and his photographic practice, in particular, playing out this public self-fashioning as a scary figure of the Edgar Allan Poe of Russia, and in his private life where his children are living their semi-bucolic lives in this beautiful dacha in Russian Finland. Then he also ends up publishing some of these, which I think also further complicates how we watch these images move. These glass plates move from his home and then into the public sphere, where they are consumed as part of a popular journal, Kultura that has my favorite journalist named Syn rossii, the son of Russia. This is where you have this emphasis on these photographs that Andreev took at home. They’re published alongside excerpts from his prose about the terrifying resurrection of Lazarus, or a Judas’ figure is next to this wonderful self-portrait of Andreev in color with a red beret.

You cite this quote from Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment in the 1920s: “Just as every forward-looking comrade must have a watch, so must he be able to handle a camera. Just as the USSR achieves universal literacy in general, so too, will it have photographic literacy in particular.” How did the camera serve not only as an instrument of Soviet authorship and self-authorship, but also for becoming a Soviet person?

This is probably my favorite quote from Soviet history, if not, obviously, from the book itself. What we see here is the way in which the camera is offering a means of control. The watch structures time, the camera structures time and space. It’s even a bit of a step beyond the watch. What I think we also see here, and this is where literacy and the authors come in, in that the camera can enact a creative transformation on surroundings and on a new Soviet every day. There is a lot of power that is complicit in the photograph and in the camera, itself. There’s this idea that Lunacharsky is also operating with, and against to an extent, that the camera can transform reality.

As the Soviet everyday reality is under its own revolutionary development, the camera can reflect that change but can also potentially be a part of that change. Modernist photographers like Aleksandr Rodchenko are really utilizing that as they adapt their cameras to new heights and angles to capture this now, de-familiarized every day. This also becomes increasingly problematic as we trace a longer history of photography. Photography can also fragment. We see a fragmented picture or a picture of just one moment. This doesn’t fit well with the rise of socialist realism in the 1930s, where the idea of what it might mean to be photographically literate will change quite a bit.

At the beginning of the Soviet period, you can see the camera as part and parcel to the image of every man’s Soviet authorship in that anyone can take up the camera, anyone can be an author, and anyone can be a photographer. We see the shrinkage of that space and that democratic empowerment by the latter part of the 1930s.

How does socialist realist aesthetics get imprinted into photographic practice?

This is really fraught. At the 1934 Writers’ Congress, we have photography being held up as a foil to socialist realism, in that like those 19th century discourses, photographs are fragmented. It’s partial. It’s naturalistic. It’s superficial. It’s not life in its revolutionary development.

It’s static.

It’s static, and this is where photographs will fail. What we see in the photographic press an attempt to say, “No, no, no. We can do this. We already have the tools in our camera bags to show you what socialist realist photography will be.” There’s two ways forward, that are also predicated on this. The idea of photographic literacy i.e. there’s a right way of taking photographs, a right way of representing photographs, and a right way to contextualize in photographs. One way forward is to poster-ize. This is the idea that a photograph does speak for itself and its ideological engagement is very clear. It’s very easy to imagine the smiling proletarian worker holding an overflowing abundance of products. There’s a very clear relationship there. We have this clear single photograph that can capture a socialist realist image on the order of something like a painting or a poster.

The other way that we see photography overcoming this problem of fragmentation, is through narrative and a narrative framing of photography. One photograph doesn’t stand alone. It’s part of a series of photographs. This gives rise to the photo series that becomes the most used photography in the popular press. Even within a gallery space, we need the photographs to tell a certain story about development.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Nabokov are two other authors you talk about. How do some of these problems of photography, authorship, public, private and also celebrity relate to the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov?

These are the big end points. It is a little bit of everything when we consider them. I love being able to bring these two together, as well. I want to emphasize, that they are not necessarily author-photographers in the same way that so many of the figures that I’m looking at in the book are. But they do utilize photography for their own ends to play with all of the things that you see growing through this long history of photography leading up to their works in the 1970s. These are two authors who also represent a world conscience by the time they’re writing these experimental, photographic memoirs. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, it’s The Gulag Archipelago and with Nabokov it’s Speak Memory.

I think that both are really united by a concern for the ways in which photography could offer this problematic substitute for a full picture of life, of memory, of experience or of suffering. What Nabokov does in Speak Memory is give us a view into the intimacy of his personal life. He’s taking photographs from his own albums, but not letting us see all the way in. Often this is done through the intervention of text. A long caption tells us what we can’t see in the photograph and makes us focus and refocus our attention differently by making us move away from the photograph as it were, even though it’s paradoxically very present for us.

Solzhenitsyn is really laying bare the false narrative put forward by the photography of the Soviet state of places like the White Sea Canal. He’s offering a different picture of suffering by utilizing some of the same photographs that were published in the White Sea Canal book. Solzhenitsyn is also staging his own photographs, which I find really interesting. Instead of talking here about altering the surface of photographs, I’m thinking about another potential falsification—staging photographs. Solzhenitsyn poses in his prison garb after his release and this becomes one of the most often-circulated pictures of him. It often becomes divorced from its context, which is, he does not say that he took this immediately after release. He talks about how he posed, but it’s often taken as a picture of him in the Gulag rather than upon release.

And the photo is a stand-in for the Gulag itself.

Exactly. It comes to represent all the Gulag through his authorial persona. He’s also harnessing the power of photography. One of the first things he does when he’s released, is get a camera to take this photograph with another zek, with another recently-released prisoner. Then, this becomes the frontispiece of the Gulag Archipelago, and serves as the poster of suffering in the Gulag.

Finally, how do you understand the modern Russian literary tradition now that you’ve investigated this relationship to photography? In what ways do you see it the same or different?

I have come to view it very differently. I think the agenda I came in with and I came out with has remained stable, but there’s another important part. The assumption I had was that modern Russian literature is distinctly visual. I wanted to bring to the fore how visual it is by bringing it alongside photography within the modern Russian literary tradition. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that all of these author-photographers and the question of photography really introduces this problem we’ve been talking about: the frozen finality of the photograph.

But it’s also the fact that photography, with cameras and printing, is also about a constant process and a constant reprocessing in that we can infinitely copy a photograph and move a photograph into new contexts. And we can do this with text as well and text is important in shaping new contexts for photographs. In a sense, I think these authors have revealed to me how illusory a definite reading or a definitive volume on modern Russian literature might be. How indefinite something like a complete collected works is. None of these authors are concerned with putting a final period on a product, in the same way that they’re not concerned with what a single photograph can do. Rather, what the process of photography might offer towards getting closer or completely throwing out this idea that we can capture a whole of anything.