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.

  Sovetskoe Foto  covers: October 1927 (left), January 1934 (middle), August–September 1991 (right).

Sovetskoe Foto covers: October 1927 (left), January 1934 (middle), August–September 1991 (right).

Avant-garde artist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s mother, Stalin, and a semi-nude female model do not have much else in common apart from the fact that they all have appeared on the covers of the magazine Sovetskoe Foto (Soviet Photography) at different times. Published in Moscow, Russia, from 1926 to 1991, Sovetskoe Foto 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.

Montage of the available Sovetskoe Foto covers published in the 1930s. Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich.

Regardless of the cultural isolation of the Soviet Union on an official level, the magazine demonstrates that this photographic culture often overlapped with the leading paradigms of photography evolving in other countries at the same time. Thus, for example, depictions of families, children, workers, and popular festivities in the 1960s are reminiscent of the visual language of humanist photography which we are accustomed to associate with the American illustrated magazine Life and photography exhibition The Family of Man, opened in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Portraits, sports reportages, and cityscapes as well as experiments with color or optical distortions from the 1970s and 1980s, meanwhile, can be mistaken for the images in the leading Western photography magazines of the time such as Camera, published in Switzerland. The covers of Sovetskoe Foto demonstrate that photographers in this country often employed the same visual devices that their peers abroad who were working in different political regimes, cultural contexts, and economic circumstances.

Montage of all available Sovetskoe Foto covers, published between 1926 and 1991 (detail). Visualization by Alise Tifentale, image editing by Lev Manovich. See full-size image on the Cultural Analytics Lab website.

Despite its immense cultural significance, the magazine is still largely understudied. Art historians such as Benjamin Buchloh, Leah Dickerman, Christina Lodder, Margarita Tupitsyn, and Erika Wolf have written about Soviet avant-garde photography of the 1920s and early 1930s. Few other historians have discussed photography in Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Konstantin Akinsha, Elena Barkhatova, Susan Emily Reid, Valery Stigneev, and Jessica Werneke (see the Bibliography section for references). Complete history of the magazine, however, is yet to be written.  

Thus, when the digitalized issues of this magazine became available on Archive.org in spring 2017, we were excited to explore the dataset and see what it can tell us about the history of this remarkable magazine and the twentieth-century photography in general. The team working on the project included Lev Manovich, the Director of the Cultural Analytics Lab, and two research fellows at the Lab, Agustin Indaco and Alise Tifentale. We downloaded the available data in April 2017. Then we conducted analysis and visualizations in two stages, the first in May 2017 and second in June 2018. In this article, I summarize some of our observations about the dataset and examples of the visualizations we made.

Read the full text of the article on Cultural Analytics Lab website or download the article as pdf. 

Portrait of a photographer at work on January 1929 cover of Sovetskoe Foto.  The photo is credited to Yakov Khalip, one of the  most important Russian photographers of the time. 

Portrait of Hungarian photojournalist Angela (?) Józsa on August 1960 cover of Sovetskoe Foto.

Photographer at work on April 1971 cover of Sovetskoe Foto magazine. Man with the camera is Yuri Gagarin, Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, the first human in space. Photo: Nikolai Turanov.