“Photography has all the rights, and all the merits, necessary for us to turn towards it as the art of our time.”— Alexander Rodchenko
In the years following the overthrow of Czarist rule, the young USSR rapidly recapitulated the cultural innovations that had been denied to the country for centuries. Never did the future seem more promising than in 1920s Moscow. Every field of art became a laboratory, devoted to a modernization of perception and a "New Vision." As a sculptor, Rodchenko had already turned the world upside down in his suspended Constructions in Space, and when he bought a camera in 1924, his photographs proved no less revolutionary.
His first extensive cycle, Views of a Building on Myasnicka Street, 1925, show a ten-story brick building in precipitous perspective from below, with iron-railed balconies stacked tightly over one another. In other views, the fire escape shoots up nearly vertically— a daring anticipation of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Balconies of the Bauhaus in Dessau, 1927. In his images of courtyards and squares, Rodchenko likewise abandoned the "normal" point of view, picturing people and things obliquely from above, and employing cast shadows as compositional means. "Especially from above looking downwards and from below looking upwards—these are the most interesting vantage points for contemporary photography," he stated in 1928.
The forced industrialization of agrarian Russia entailed a great social and aesthetic challenge for the avant-garde. Rodchenko first tested the new field of photo-reportage in 1928, in a series on the daily Pravda that recorded the paper's production from typesetting and layout to printing. For the journal DAES, in 1929, he documented manufacturing at the AMO automobile plant, proving a master of the "gripping detail," as he himself put it. For his 1930 record of a mass scene like Dynamo—Moscow, Rodchenko likewise found a new visual idiom.
His photo series on the Pioneers, including Pioneer with Horn, 1930, the boy's face pictured from below in daring foreshortening, became icons of the new cultural upheaval in the USSR. Dive into the Water, a brilliant photographic experiment, showed a high diver rolled almost into the shape of a ball in the upper right corner of the picture. With images of his mother and the poet and publicist Vladimir Mayakovsky (both 1924), Rodchenko produced master portraits of the new era. Under Stalin, the burgeoning cultural and political orthodoxy harassed the artist with charges of formalism. In 1942 Rodchenko abandoned photography.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan