Another Way of Telling the News: The Rise of Photojournalism in Russia, 1900-1914

Article excerpt

Widespread circulation of photography through the popular illustrated press turned readers of the news into spectators of social performance. Pictures of current events addressed consumers more directly than the daily papers. They offered a realistic depiction of lived experience, gave the impression of bearing witness to history, and allowed readers to interpret what they saw in conjunction (or in counterpoint) to what they read. Through the camera's lens, people were transported to faraway places and brought face-to-face with strangers, each image establishing an intimate connection between the private lives of consumers and the public "world outside." (1) The immediacy of photography and the visceral reactions it evoked, so unlike the neutral language of print journalism, made news magazines both immensely popular with readers and highly profitable publishing ventures. But more important, the advent of photojournalism marked the birth of a modern mass media, one dominated increasingly by photography and capable of drawing millions of spectators into an artificial reality, which had the power to inspire real-world actions.

The story of Russian photojournalism is fundamentally about the creation of a new visual language that transformed illustrated journals into full-fledged news magazines. Together, publishers, editors, and photographers took advantage of innovations in photography and print technology and produced a slick weekly that appealed to a general, middle-class audience. In contrast to serialized fiction and hand-drawn images, which dominated magazines initially, photography was used to communicate the news. Though international in scope, these pictures primarily focused on the activities of Russia's rising professional class, which had evolved since the Great Reforms into a politically ambitious and influential segment of society. (2) In a sense, as prominent members of this class, publishers produced news magazines for themselves. The illustrated press offered members of civil society immense, nationwide exposure--the photographs both reflecting and reinforcing their values, public identity, and sense of social integration. However, these publications did not truly take off until they embraced a wider audience, which consisted increasingly of migrant workers from the countryside, who saw in magazines living models of the bourgeois success they aspired toward. Photographers and editors collaborated to turn the visual landscape of photo journalism into a convincing pseudoenvironment, which Russia's middle classes shared with celebrated figures from around the world. (3) Through the illustrated press readers saw themselves as they wished to be seen--as modern, European, and politically relevant. And as editors adopted more sophisticated techniques of visual storytelling, the social reality constructed on the page became an increasingly convincing portrait of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

This article locates photojournalism at a crossroads in communications technology, specifically at the moment when magazine publishers began reproducing high-quality photographs alongside text. (4) The audience for early Russian photojournalism varied in terms of interest, education, and social standing, and this diversity was reflected on the newsstand. The range of publications included supplements to daily papers, periodicals that catered to interests in science, hunting, and the theater, and so-called "family journals," which in themselves covered a wide spectrum of literary and artistic tastes. (5) How consumers used these publications depended largely on the magazine's profile. Initially, essays and serialized fiction outweighed all other content; magazines offered the reader an elevated literary experience, often supplemented by sketches and drawings. But as the news media became increasingly mixed, many publications began to eschew prose in favor of more photography. At the same time, the amateur market in cheap, handheld cameras encouraged people to regard images as signifiers of social information. …