The Soviet photobook of the 1920s and 1930s is a unique artifact of an era of the industrial breakthrough. The main criterion for selection in the present exhibition has been photographic material arranged in the manner of a screenplay with a precise plot line. The exhibited works include twenty photobooks selected from the collection of editions of 1920s and 1930s. These masterpieces reflect the photobook history as well as the main tendencies in photography and design of that period.

The exposition is arranged as follows: Prologue — Lessons in Constructivism — Industrialization — The Red Army — The Blissful Country — The Land of Abundance. The original photographs from the museum collection complement the exposition. Displayed works by Max Alpert, Dmitry Debabov, Georgy Zelma, Boris Ignatovich, Boris Kudoyarov, Alexander Rodchenko, Ivan Shagin, Arkady Shaikhet were repeatedly reproduced in the photobooks of the 1920s and 1930s.

Photography owes its attainment of a mass audience in the 20th century to the printing industry: it was the printing press that became its distributor and popularizer. As early as the start of the century, photography was supplanting drawings and assuming the role of chief form of illustrative material in newspapers and magazines. In that period photography was believed to have the qualities of being objective and truthful. All these images of industrial advancement were but tools in political propaganda, covering the ambiguity of historical events under the glorious veneer, although they had formed a strong affirmative image of the country. A facsimile of reality “just as it is” accorded with the zeitgeist — “the mechanical reproduction of a work of art”, as it was called by Walter Benjamin.

Photography not only perceived itself as an up-to-date artistic phenomenon, but also suggested a particular means of presentation: photographic illustration and photomontage, the development of which led to a new form of book and a new publishing policy. The words “photobook” or “photographs and montage” appearing on the cover and the title page spoke of the special status of a publication that laid claim to a documentary character, visual impact, essayism, reportage. Of course, we are not talking here about photographic albums of cities, nature or travelogues produced by printers’ methods or directly from the original negatives — those had existed previously and continued to do so — but about the idea of a book in which the content is constructed from photographic material and the verbal is replaced by the visual.

At times it is hard to detect the boundary between a photo album and a photobook, but it does exist and is encapsulated in the very term “photo-book”. In the photobook the artist, who in the 1930s acted as “director” of a publication, was allotted the leading role. Considering the commissioned nature and large print-runs of these books, an author/photographer could not have realized his own project, nor, most significantly, have acted as its initiator.

Each decade of the twentieth century put forward its own conception of the photobook: in the mid-1920s it is a book with photomontage illustrations; at the turn of the 1930s a photo-essay; by the middle of that decade a documentary report, a book-film; towards the end of the 1930s artistic tendencies begin to dominate, having emerged victorious in Soviet photography despite the intensified pressure of Socialist Realism. Jumping ahead, in the 1960s the photo-chronicle, photo-story, photo-narrative and photo-reportage appeared.

The photobook evolved actively throughout the twentieth century. With the appearance of “instant printing” and modern photographic and reproduction technologies, it acquired new features and functions; it became more independent, socially oriented, anti-establishment; it acquired an interested target audience. Today, almost a hundred years on, the need has arisen to analyse that course of development.