Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

This new exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London traces the advancements in Russia, looking at the development of Russia’s social history through the context of colour experiments and the growth of colour photography in Russia over the course of a century. Translated into Russian, the word “primrose” means “first colour” and is one of the earliest and most colourful flowers to bloom in the spring. The exhibition features over 140 works, many of them never seen before in the UK, and moves through the progressive use of colour in early Soviet photography, covering a timespan from the 1860s to the 1980s arranged in five chronological sections.

The individual sections offer an insight into the different periods of Russian photography and the aesthetics that prevailed. The early photographs were tinted prints, coloured using watercolour and oil paints applied by hand. Later, the photographic documentation of life in Russia became a priority and Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky developed a tricolour plate system to capture the full-scale of the country’s diversity. Even later sections examine the period following WWI, when photography was utilised as an important propaganda tool. Photomontage was central to the agenda and these are displayed alongside the later works of Alexander Rodchencko, whose work features sporting and art events shown in a pictorial style that expressed his disillusionment with the notion of Soviet utopia.

The mid-1950s saw the reversal of much of Stalin’s repressive control and photography moved closer to everyday reality. Dmitri Baltermants’ images show a return to the representational works seen earlier in the century and hand-tinted portraits began to reappear during this time period as well. The use of handcolouring techniques in the later sections demonstrates Russia’s stalled progress and recalls nostalgic sentimentality for old craft. Much of the work exposes Soviet ideology and challenges the dominance of the Soviet nation over the individual. Historically, this work was hidden, with exhibitions in underground clubs, artist studios and apartments synonymous with the Soviet nonconformist art of the time.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia, until 19 October, The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW,

1. Dmitri Baltermants Rain, 1960s © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow

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