Grapes, oiled green and black nipples arranged in soft-focus and Snow-White porno-apples. This fruit would surely have made some headway in convincing the Soviet public that food was lush and plentiful in 1940’s Russia. In fact, when this 1949 image by photographer Ivan Shagin was taken, the country was just emerging from famine in the wake of drought and aftermath of war. This, of course, did not sit very well within a Stalinist vision for Russia and the politician understood the importance and power of image making within his regime, “Print is the sharpest and the strongest weapon we have” he is quoted as saying. Shagin’s food images are the ‘skatert-samobranka’ (Magic Tablecloth) of Russian folklore. Simply spread the cloth on the ground, say the magic words and a plethora of salty butter, bread and vodka will appear, real or not.

Shagin’s collection of images, currently on display at the Photographers Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition ‘Primrose: Russia Colour Photography’, demonstrate the moment at which colour negative film was still a luxurious commodity almost exclusively used by official or state photographers for ideological purposes. Things were about to change. By the end of the 1970’s colour negative film would be almost completely overtaken by cheaper colour transparency or slide film and photography would be prised out of the political clutches of the Soviet Union and start to be re-embraced by the public.  

Arranged in chronological order, ‘Primrose’ charts the appearance of Russian colour photography from the 1860’s to this 1970’s moment, with over 140 works over two floors. Opening with a selection of early tinted and hand painted portraits of individuals, family life and the developing city-scapes of old Russia the exhibition moves through the turning point of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the emerging utopian photo-montages of famous modernists such as Rodchenko, Stepanova and Lissitky and the humanist photography of Social realism. Although Russia’s relationship with colour photography at some stages mirrors the rest of the world, the trajectory it has followed and its relationship to politics, social control and ideology has been very different. ‘Primrose’ charts this with incredible depth and complexity, bringing the viewer right up to the very early 1980’s when individual and artistic use of colour photography emerged slowly from the underground and began to take its place in modern Russia.

There is much to say about this exhibition but also some great reviews and resources available online already, a couple of which are listed below. You have, however, a couple of weeks to catch the exhibition in London and we recommend you do that, this is really not one to miss.

'Primrose' runs until 19 October 2014. Free entry.

Further info...

Curator Olga Sviblova introduces the exhibition in a short video on TPG's website -

'Primrose' travelled from FOAM, Amsterdam. have reproduced a large amount of the gallery and catalogue text and also  many of the exhibitions photographs in what makes for a comprehensive resource.

AuthorSacha Waldron