Seeing a Century Through the Lens of Sovetskoe Foto

Published in Moscow, Russia, from 1926 to 1991, Sovetskoe Foto (Soviet Photography) was the only specialized photography magazine in the Soviet Union, aimed at a broad audience of professional photojournalists and amateur photographers. As such, it is unequaled in representing the official photographic culture of the USSR throughout the history of this country. In this article, researchers at the Cultural Analytics Lab explore the digital archive of Sovetskoe Foto to find out what it can tell us about the history of this remarkable magazine and the twentieth-century photography in general.

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The Family of Man: The Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate

“The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art,” says the cover of the photo-book accompanying exhibition The Family of Man. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern art (MoMA), New York, from January 24 to May 8, 1955. It was highly popular—the press claimed that more than a quarter of million people saw it in New York. But it gained its central role in the twentieth century photography history largely because of its international exposure. The U.S. Information Agency popularized The Family of Man as an achievement of American culture by presenting ten different versions of the show in 91 cities in 38 countries between 1955 and 1962, seen by estimated nine million people But, contrary to the popular reception, scholarly criticism of the exhibition was—and continues to be—scathing. 

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The Myth of Straight Photography: Sharp Focus as a Universal Language

That photography is a language, and a universal one at that, was a popular metaphor in the 1950s. Such a language, as photographers and politicians claimed, could finally unite all people of the world because it transcends languages, cultures, religions, political positions, and any other differences. Although today such a belief in the power of photography can seem naïve, in the decade following the end of the Second World War it expressed a hope for a better—peaceful—future. But not just any kind of photography was believed to be a universal language. When Rothstein and many others in the 1950s were talking about photography as a universal language, they arguably had “straight,” documentary photography on their mind. But exactly what kind of photography is “straight,” and why it was supposed to be so universal?

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