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From the Photo-Series to Extended Photo-Observation*

SERGEI TRETIAKOV

From the Photo-Series to Extended Photo-Obser vat ion, which appeared in Proletarskoe foto with Max Alpert and Arkadii Shaikhets famous photo-essay A Day in the Life of a Moscow Working-Class Family, borrowed many of its arguments from Tretiakovs 1929 article The Biography of the Object and transposed them from the earlier discussion of narrative, mutatis mutandis, into the field of photography. Like The Biography of the Object, which disputed the Ptolemaic idealism of the psychological novel, From the Photo-Series challenged the conceit of portraiture to provide a comprehensive image of the individual without any indication of his productive relations to society. And also like the earlier essay, From the Photo-Series consequently explored the possibilities for a practice that, instead of atomizing and monumentalizing the individual, would situate him within the social fabric of his day. For Tretiakov, the photo-series and extended photo-observation were above all techniques for reestablishing the connections between the individual and the social environment that are obscured in traditional portraiture. Within the medium of photography, this meant harmonizing the discrepancy between subject and background. On this count, From the Photo-Series draws upon Osip Briks 1928 From the Painting to the Photograph, an essay in which Brik exposed the latent humanism of a linear perspective that extracts objects from their setting, isolates them from one another, and then redistributes them within an ideologically structured pictorial eld: Differentiating individual objects so as to make a pictorial record of them is not only a technical, but also an ideological phenomenon. . . . We need a method whereby we can represent [the] individual persona not in isolation, but in connection with other people. . . . Photography can capture him together with the total environment and in such a manner that his dependence on the environment is clear and obvious. 1 The goal for both Brik and Tretiakov was to produce not a portrait of the individual, but rather a picture of a collective subject.

* Ot fotoseriik dlitelnomu fotonabliudeniiu, Proletarskoe foto, no. 4 (1931), pp. 2043. 1. Osip Brik, From Painting to Photograph, in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 19131940, ed. Christopher Phillips, trans. John E. Bowlt (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), pp. 23031.

OCTOBER 118, Fall 2006, pp. 7177. 2006 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Whereas Brik claimed that the individual snapshot was particularly well-suited to apprehend both the person and his environment, the moment thus photographed was not suitably comprehensive for Tretiakov. As he explains in the following text, there are two waystwo montage proceduresthat are available to enhance the snapshots contingent record: the photo-series and extended photo-observation. The critical difference between the two is the element of time. While the photo-series provides a quantitative inventory of pictures out of which the viewer synthesizes a composite image of the object , extended photo-observation makes possible the qualitative perception of a process. The result would be a time-image, to employ the term Deleuze used to describe Eisensteins cinema. 2 And indeed the methodological kinship between Eisenstein and Tretiakov, two longtime collaborators, should not be surprising given the structural affinities between cinema and the photo-essay. In From the Photo-Series, Eisensteins notion of intellectual montage inspires Tretiakovs method of taking the incommensurable and accidental snapshot and, by conjugating it temporally, giving it the weight and signicance of generality [ obobshchenosti]. Without this generality, the photograph remains just an isolated, atomized phenomenon. But by incorporating the dimension of time, the photograph becomes a mode of cognition, a dialectical image. What Tretiakov describes here is not just an aesthetic practice, but a medium for materialist thought. * In publishing this commentary by Comrade Tretiakov, the editors consider it necessary to indicate in advance their disagreement with several of the authors theses, in particular with his assertion that photography is taking the place of painting. The editors will subsequently provide a detailed critique of Comrade Tretiakovs erroneous claims. The face is the mirror of the soul, proclaimed idealist art, and generations of painters mastered the technique of condensing the comprehensive image of the entire person into a single face by breaking down all the facts of his psychology, biography, profession, public activity, daily life, and habits into his wrinkles, eye color, locks of hair, and the zigzag of his prole. Naturally there was no room for movement. And within the portrait, it was the subjects dominant temperament that found expression over everything else. One could only speculate about the kinds of ties that integrated him into society and about the extent to which he was himself a product of his surrounding environment. But then again, there werent many enthusiasts who speculated about this anyway, for they thought it essential only that the individual be derived from
2. See Thought and Cinema, in Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 15673.

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some driving passion, that he demonstrate some elemental emotion. Clarifying the type and method of his social labor seemed tedious and insignicant. Furthermore, the idealist portrait searched for the one moment that would express what was universal and eternal in the individual. Hence the relation of this kind of portrait to the iconic representations of saints who are preserved for all eternity. And hence the expression on the face that is removed from any real action, as well as the pose of traditional photographic portraitsan expression that exists in no human activity other than the activity of posing. This frozenness, this isolation from the surrounding environment, this reduction to a single face (and one that is captured in a most ineffectual posed expression at that)all of this is also characteristic of the monument. A case in point: The Avenue of the Shock-Workers in the Park of Culture and Leisure, where we see only the physiognomies of the subjects, the shapes of their heads and their coiffures. But in no way do we comprehend their nature as shockworkers, the particular signicance of these shock-workers for each of us, or the commonalities that unite them as foremost in the ranks of the builders of socialism. It shows us neither what they did nor how they did it. The dialectical-materialist method sees the person as a product of the reality that surrounds him and as a force that transforms this reality. It examines him in a state of ux, in contradiction. And this is exactly why photography is replacing painting and becoming the active instrument of struggle in the hands of the proletariat: it is able to establish the technical foundations for an active dialectical-materialist relation to the world in a way that is immeasurably simpler and more comprehensive than painting. Many years ago publishers and authors thought that the photograph was an insult to the genuine artistic book, but today a book without photographs looks inauthentic. Not long ago Rembrandts descendant was warmly welcomed at the door, while the photographer was driven away. Whereas today its utterly inconceivable how we could get by without the photographer who takes pictures of the Five-Year Plan, who takes pictures of the launch and growth of our industrial giants, and thereby carries out a great and authentic agitation through display [agitatsiiu pokazom]. The juxtaposition, for example, of a photograph of a tiny village on a putrid little river with one taken a year later in which a glass building has replaced the villagesuch stunning juxtapositions force you to radically reconsider the obsolete notion of a human lifetime, for our century equals a millennium in earlier times. Composed only of individual photographs, books such as Deutschland ber alles by Kurt Tucholsky and John Hearteld emerge as stunning documentary indictments of their age, as concrete evidence of the crimes of capitalism that rivals the most talented novels in expressivity, temperament, and impact. It is no longer possible to talk about war with a single picture, be it a Delacroix or the skulls of Vereshchagin.3
3. Vasilii Vereshchagin (18421904) was a controversial realist painter whose most famous work, The Apotheosis of War (1871), depicted a towering pyramid of skulls.

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Both of these methods of photographic impact represent the next step beyond the isolated snapshot. The snapshot designates all kinds of life shot in motion, where posing is kept to an absolute minimum. If the painterly portrait (the monument, the icon) was based on stasis and universal generalization, then the snapshot is dynamic. Therein lies its colossal contribution. It extracts individual moments of movement from the present stream of events without making people pose. But the snapshot has its own internal aw: the uniqueness and contingency of what it depicts. Only rarely does the snapshot capture a moment that is characteristically expressive, a moment that reveals an essential internal contradiction. As a rule, snapshots are contingent. In order to provide the contingent gesture, expression, and action with the weight and signicance of generality, it is necessary to enhance the moment either quantitatively or qualitatively. After comparing a series of photographs that show the same phenomenon in different countries or in different operations, we will select an isolated, contingent photograph that is among others like it, and make it representative of a general, characteristic, and important phenomenon. In the same way we can take several snapshots of the same object, but in different phases of its development. And then, instead of a contingent apparition, even instead of an episode, a person surfaces before us in all of the diverse connections that integrate him with his surrounding environment, in all of the diverse contradictions that he overcomes in the course of developing.

Max Alpert and Arakii Shaikhet. A Day in the Life of a Moscow WorkingClass Family. 1931. Published in Proletarskoe foto, no. 4 (1931).

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If one snapshot taken at random is a kind of innitely thin scale [cheshuika] that has been peeled off the surface of reality, then serial photography or photomontage lets us feel the true weight of one of realitys dense layers. The infelicity of our photo-chronicle results from the fact that it overwhelms the spectator with an enormous quantity of these photographic scales haphazardly, without unifying the chronicle within a totality. For example, consider the centerfolds in our journals that tell about construction projects. Because they are so rarely held together by a core principle that reinforces them, these centerfolds are taken to be either heaps of scrap metal or, at best, stockpiles of spare parts. The fate of these objectsto be atomized and to disappear from the spectators consciousnessis also shared by the portraits of the shock-workers who all look alike, who are photographed with indifference, and are in no way explained or connected to each other. Apparently Rodchenko already wrote in 1928 that it was necessary to construct portraits by combining different snapshots of the same person.4 The serial picture of the Filippov family produced by Soiuzfoto is valuable precisely because it gives the subject of its depiction enormous substance, for we see the person not as an individual, not in isolation, but as a particle in our active social tissue, connected by little roots along the most diverse lines: the line of production, that of the sociopolitical, the familial lines of everyday existence. The value of this photo-biographical excerpt lies in its cross-section of the ux that we call the life of the Filippov family, a family like many others among us.
4. Reference to Aleksandr Rodchenkos Against the Synthetic Portrait, for the Snapshot, which was published in Novyi lef, no. 4 (1928), pp. 1416; trans. in Phillips, Photography in the Modern Era, pp. 23842.

Alpert and Shaikhet. A Day in the Life of a Moscow WorkingClass Family. 1931. Published in Proletarskoe foto, no. 4 (1931).

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The method for taking pictures is correct. Only it should have been realized more consistently in its details and more meticulously, if you will. For example, there was no reason to photograph Filippov in the streetcar that he takes after work, and then insert that photo into the morning series as if it were a trip to the factorywhen Filippov did not take the train to the factory while they were taking the pictures. Similarly, if the photos of the streetcar were supposed to show it as it typically is, there was no reason to photograph when it was half empty. As we know, todays Moscow streetcar is stuffed to capacity at that hour. They should have caught the discrepancy between the numbers in the caption below the snapshot and the ones in the appended document that was meant to conrm them (the purchase at the coop and the invoice). And nally, they should not have included the snapshot of the two girls with tennis rackets, which is obviously posed and, as far photographic traditions are concerned, indistinguishable from snapshots of bourgeois celebrities at fashionable resorts.

Alpert and Shaikhet. A Day in the Life of a Moscow Working-Class Family. 1931. Published in Proletarskoe foto, no. 4 (1931).

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But all this is rather triing when we consider the problem that the Filippov series tries to tackle. And the interest shown abroad for this series demonstrates that we have found the correct militant journalistic orientation for serial photography. Naturally we should now expect to see photo-series from those lives of people on the collective farms, of natsmenov [people from the Caucasus], and of workers from various branches of production. Serial photography delivers a momentary cross-section that cuts through the entire skein of relationships that entangle the individual. Unlike depictions we have had until now, serial photography gives us the sensation of dramatic progress. In particular, there was a very timely photo-series about a German worker living under the conditions of the economic crisis. The photo-series showed this worker in the same activities in which we saw Filippov.5 But clearly, we should not restrict ourselves to these kinds of monographic photo shoots. The sensation of movement should not be random. It can be integrated within the principles of our photo shoot. By grounding the work of the photo-chronicle in the dialectic of socialist construction, one can represent this construction as a single, integral process of development. The Filippov series is an initial incision. Next we can view this family through extended photo-observation, noting every moment of growth and change in their condition. And since this change in the Soviet proletariat is advancing boldly, the next year of work will allow us to collect an enormous amount of extremely valuable and convincing material about the laws, obstacles, and pace of growth for our socialist production and everyday life. We are building according to plan, and we should also be photographing according to plan. The series and extended photo-observation: this is the method.

5. Commissioned as a piece of Soviet propaganda for the international community, Alpert and Shaikhets photo-essay rst appeared in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, no. 38 (1931), under the title 24 Stunden aus dem Leben einer Moskauer Arbeiterfamilie. It was followed ten issues later in AIZ, no. 48 (1931), by Die deutschen Filipows, a collectively-produced reportage that documented a day in the life of the Fournes, a typical German proletarian family.