Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia

Early colour photographs, as shown at The Photographer’s Gallery’s stunning and exhaustive new exhibition Primrose, take on an almost surreal, misty quality that bring them quite outside the realm of the sharply-focussed, detailed digital imagery we’ve become accustomed.

Varvara Stepanova Photomontage 'Beready!' 1932

Source: Using photographs by A. Rodchenko Courtesy of a Private Collection

Varvara StepanovaPhotomontage ‘Beready!’ 1932

The exhibition explores early colour photography in Russia, and takes its name (full title Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia) from the literal translation of ‘first colour’, the primrose being ‘one of the earlier and more colourful flowers to bloom in spring’, according to the gallery.

More than 140 works are on show, spanning from the 1860s until the 1980s, and these display some curious and often strange-looking techniques that incorporate collage and painting directly onto prints.

P.T. Ivanov First year of the military service, Saint Petersburg, 1911

Source: Collection of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Ar

P.T. IvanovFirst year of the military service, Saint Petersburg, 1911

This painterly style bestows on images a sharp, odd yet clearly hand-created look.

Dmitri Baltermants Untitled (Flag), 1960s

Source: Collection of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Ar

Dmitri BaltermantsUntitled (Flag), 1960s

Portraits of children are given a doll-like quality; and propaganda pictures gain the feel of fine-art works, almost detaching them – at least for the sake of the show – from their political connotations.

The show is arranged chronologically, divided into five sections. As such, the viewer is given a visual tour through advances in technology, as well as through Russian political and social history.

Works by photographers including Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Mkhailov Dmitri Baltermants, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, and Ivan Shagin are all included, creating a nice companion show to the current Richard Saltoun gallery exhibition of Russian Avant Garde photography on show in east London this month.

Ivan Shagin Student, beginning of 1950s

Source: Collection of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Ar

Ivan ShaginStudent, beginning of 1950s

As another current Russian photography show at the Calvery22 Gallery, Russian Photography Now explains, photography in Russia was pushed by Tsar Nicholas II in the early 20th century as a means by which to document Russian life.  

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky was the man undertaking this mammoth task, and his work is shown alongside autochrome image captures by nobleman Pyotr Vedenisov, whose images offer glimpses of the lives of the upper echelons of Russian society at the time.

Dmitri Baltermants Stalin’s funeral, Moscow, 1953

Source: Collection of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Ar

Dmitri BaltermantsStalin’s funeral, Moscow, 1953

The works in Primrose demonstrate the political conditions of their time as much in what they omit as what they show. The images taken after the mid 1950s offer more documentation of everyday Russian life, for instance, captured after the Kruschev Thaw when Stalin’s repression was removed. Even then, though, many practitioners were still using techniques of hand-colouring from nearly 100 years before.

Dmitri Baltermants Rain, 1960s

Source: Collection of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Ar

Dmitri BaltermantsRain, 1960s

The Photographer’s Gallery says, ‘The use of hand-colouring techniques represented Russia’s stalled progress as well as nostalgic  sentimentality for old craft’

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia runs from 1 August – 19 October at The Photographer’s Gallery, 16-18 Ramilies Street, London W1F 7LW

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.