From Russia with Love: Long Hidden from Western Eyes, Russian Fine Art Photography Is Making Waves at Photo Galleries, Art Fairs and Museums. (Russian Photography)

Article excerpt

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, paintings by Russian artists have found their way onto the world art market and American shores. But until recently, Russian fine art photography was virtually ignored, at home and abroad.

Now, that's changing. Lately, Russian photography--from various periods in Russian history displaying differing styles--is making waves at photography galleries, art fairs and museums across the United States. Indeed, it seems that everywhere you go you hear the phrase, "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming."

Expanding Collector's Horizons

For more than 60 years, Russian art and photography was mostly hidden from Western eyes. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and through the Cold War period, the Soviet Union prevented the world from observing the evolution of fine art forms in Russia and the other Soviet states.

When the Soviet regime collapsed, art dealers from Europe and the U.S. trekked to Russia and began to bring back armloads of paintings. However, photography was considered a distant second cousin without fine art credentials to that first wave of cognoscenti. "Even in Soviet scholarship, [photography] has been relegated to a secondary position ... in relationship to the visual arts as a whole," commented John E. Bowlt, a modern Russian culture expert in the catalog, The Avant-Garde in Russia: 1910-1930. Propaganda "documentary" photographs--often fake and posed--were not considered art at all, but rather merely a part of the mass media message machine, added Steven Yates, curator of photography at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and curator of the traveling museum exhibit, "Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage and Film."

The Rodchenko show, on view through Oct. 13 at the Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego from Jan. 12 through March 23, 2003 (with other subsequent venues), is one of several important museum-level exhibits that, taken together, are introducing thousands of photography collectors, dealers and curators to the varied aspects of more than a century of Russian and Soviet photography.

Organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions of Pasadena, Calif., the Rodchenko show focuses on Modernist artist Alexander Rodchenko's ground-breaking photographic experimentations, Constructivist abstractions and everyday scenes viewed from unusual angles.

Meanwhile, at Houston's biennial month of photography, FotoFest, last March, organizers showcased a seminal exhibit on "Russian Pictorialism," bringing to the United States a collection of more than 130 images from the 1880s through the 1930s that was almost unknown both outside and inside of Russia. For many of the art dealers, critics, collectors and curators attending this year's FotoFest, this exhibit represented the first time they had been exposed to a large quantity of Russian photographs. "The Pictorial show in Houston drew much attention because they were fabulous masters who were not known at all," explained private dealer Nailya Alexander of Washington, D.C.

And in Abilene, Texas, the Grace Museum is scheduled to present "Fifty Years Inside the Kremlin: Photographs by Samariy Mikhailovitch Gurariy," some 30 photographs by the Soviet-era photojournalist including images of Khruschev, Castro and Soviet cosmonauts compiled from the collection of Houston art dealer Anya Tish.

"Baby Contest" by Marat Baltabaev, 1996 "Untitled" by Alexey Titarenko, from his "City of Shadows" series, 1992

On view from Oct. 3 to Dec. 7, this show accompanies a larger exhibit, "Censored and Sanctioned: Soviet Art of the Cold War, 1956-1986."

According to Grace Curator Charlene Rathburn, the Grace Museum exhibit was inspired, in part, by presentations at Houston's FotoFest. "I went down there specifically looking for a photography show," explained Rathburn, "and to see Russian Pictorialism. …