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Camera Communism: Women Photographers, Avant-Garde Art, and Documentary Aesthetics in the Soviet Union, 1920s-1980s

Garth, Maria.   Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies ProQuest Dissertations & Theses,  2024. 31139895.

Abstract (summary)

Many of the fundamental transformations in Soviet photography, and global modernist photography by extension, were made by women photographers. They challenged institutional privilege while pushing the boundaries of what was permissible in photography aesthetically, socially, and politically. Women did not merely enter the field during formative moments in photography’s history. Instead, they were active agents of that change, introducing to the visual field a different experience of living and working under socialism than their male peers. In reframing the influence of these photographers, many of whom have been ignored in scholarship on this topic, a new view of Soviet photographic history begins to emerge. 

This dissertation is composed of five chapters that progress chronologically, with each one focusing on a photographer: Evgeniia Lemberg, Olga Ignatovich, Valentina Kulagina, Zenta Dzividzinska, and Natalia Tsekhomskaya. The first three chapters delineate the history between the 1917 revolution and World War II, looking at how female photographers navigated the emergence of the USSR’s system of state art. Chapter 1 introduces the frameworks and theoretical debates surrounding avant-garde, documentary, and Socialist Realist photography. It also investigates the brief career of Evgeniia Lemberg (1904-1934) and her working relationship with Aleksandr Rodchenko. Chapter 2 turns to Olga Ignatovich (1905-1984), focusing on her early career in the 1920s and 1930s to articulate the role of women in the emergence of photojournalism as a professional career path in the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 explores how photographers such as Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987) skillfully adapted avant-garde photomontage to the new aesthetic demands of Socialist Realism and Stalinism in the 1930s. 

The last two chapters analyze how artists and photographers carved out space for dissent and artistic freedom between the 1960s and 1980s. Chapter 4 argues that early nonconformist photographers like Zenta Dzividzinska (1944-2011) were challenging established stylistic and institutional norms with approaches that echoed the radically experimental ethos of earlier counterparts. Chapter 5 focuses on the rise of nonconformist photography during the Soviet Union’s twilight decade of the 1980s through a case study of photojournalist and artist Natalia Tsekhomskaya (b. 1945). I argue that this last generation of Soviet photographers actively reexamined the groundbreaking work of earlier photographers by exploring new aesthetics that blended official dictates with nonconformist agendas. In this way, this dissertation traces how critical theories of photography intersect with radical political and artistic movements, to show how photography formed a discursive space for issues of gender equality in Soviet society. 

Indexing (details)

Art history;
Gender studies;
Fine arts
0377: Art history
0578: History
0733: Gender studies
0357: Fine arts
Identifier / keyword
Avant-Garde Art; Documentary; Gender; Photography; Socialist Realism; USSR
Camera Communism: Women Photographers, Avant-Garde Art, and Documentary Aesthetics in the Soviet Union, 1920s-1980s
Garth, Maria  VIAFID ORCID Logo 
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 85/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Sharp, Jane A.
Committee member
Zervigon, Andres M.; Sidlauskas, Susan; Glebova, Aglaya K.
Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies
Art History
University location
United States -- New Jersey
Source type
Dissertation or Thesis
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
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