Soviet photography

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about Soviet balalaika music, I’ve just come across a link to a lot of Soviet photography.

Download 437 issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s historic photography journal (1926-1991)
The early years of the Soviet Union roiled with internal tensions, intrigues, and ideological warfare, and the new empire’s art reflected its uneasy heterodoxy. Formalists, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists, and other schools mingled, published journals, critiqued and reviewed each other’s work, and like modernists elsewhere in the world, experimented with every possible medium, including those just coming into their own at the beginning of the 20th century, like film and photography.

These two mediums, along with radio, also happened to serve as the primary means of propagandizing Soviet citizens and carrying the messages of the Party in ways everyone could understand. And like much of the rest of the world, photography engendered its own consumer culture.

Out of these competing impulses came Soviet Photo (Sovetskoe foto), a monthly photography magazine.

It’s interesting to note how the politics of the country affected the art form, and the magazine.

The aesthetic purges under Stalin—in which artists and writers one after another fell victim to charges of elitism and obscurantism—also played out in the pages of Soviet Photo. “Even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union in 1934,” Nouril writes, “the works of avant-garde photographers,” including Rodchenko, “were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style).” Soviet Photo boycotted Rodchenko’s work in 1928 and “throughout the 1930s this state-sanctioned journal became increasingly conservative,” emphasizing “content over form.”

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You can browse 437 complete issues of ‘Soviet Photo’ magazine online
Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some really interesting (and surprisingly familiar) things in there. From standard street photography, to architecture, rooftopping, and (unfortunately) train track portraits, to conflict photography, even some pretty amazing photojournalism, and gear/equipment ads.

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Had the magazine continued to the year 2000 (collapse of the Union notwithstanding), the secret photographer Masha Ivashintsova might have been included.

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet – don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

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Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Mark Knopfler (possibly).

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

Strange moves

A couple of music videos that have caught my eye recently.

Little Big – Skibidi

No idea. Psy meets Begbie?

Loyle Carner – Ottolenghi

Here’s some more on the making of that.

Oscar Hudson reveals (some) of the secrets behind his video for Loyle Carner
Set on a train, which looks like a classic (unreliable) Southern or South Eastern network model from the seat pattern, Ottolenghi switches from VHS footage filmed by Ben (Loyle Carner) on a real train before switching to a set built in a studio. The beginnings of the video developed from a “super simple” idea of Ben’s: he would fall asleep on a real train journey, and then “start to dream a train journey,” Oscar explains. “I wanted to do something that ‘woozed’ back and forth between dream and reality where details from real life get amplified and warped in the dream.”

New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

[…]

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

A secret photographer

I can’t imagine there will be many more stories like this. In this social media-sullied age, we are all too keen to press our photos into the faces of friends and strangers alike.

Over 30,000 negatives discovered in Russian artist’s attic reveal a lifetime of hidden photography
Russian artist and theater critic Masha Ivashintsova (1942-2000) lived a secret life as a photographer, taking over 30,000 photographs in her lifetime without ever showing a soul. It wasn’t until years after her death in 2000 that her daughter Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan stumbled upon her vast collection of negatives while cleaning out the attic. The photographs showcase an astounding look into the inner world of Ivashintsova, while also providing a glimpse of everyday life in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) from the 1960-1999.

Ivashintosova was heavily engaged in the city’s underground poetry and photography movement, yet never showed anyone her images, poetry, or personal writing during her lifetime. Ivashintsova-Melkumyan shares a quote from one of her mother’s diary entries that hints at the reasoning behind her hidden artistic life, “I loved without memory: is that not an epigraph to the book, which does not exist? I never had a memory for myself, but always for others.”

“I see my mother as a genius,” explains Ivashintsova-Melkumyan, “but she never saw herself as one—and never let anybody else see her for what she really was.”

These are remarkable photos, so evocative. She reminds me of what I think was said about Magritte’s painted gentlemen, that they were ordinary people holding extraordinary secrets. Masha Ivashintsova was a world famous photographer, but kept that secret from the world until after she died.

This is a long shot

An incredible film, 2000 cast members, 3 orchestras, 1 camera, 1 continuous shot.

Directed by Alexander Sokurov in 2002, Russian Ark was filmed entirely in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum using a single 96-minute steadicam shot. It’s a dreamlike reflection of 300 years of Russian history. It could be said the main character in the film is the palace itself, home to the Russian monarchs and to so much history. This could be the ark of the Russian soul, keeping it safe from harm.

The Russian Ark Trailer (2002)
A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years. Entirely filmed in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum using a single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. The film was entered into the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

In One Breath | Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Making of)
Behind the scenes documentary on the filming of Russian Ark.

Russian Ark (2002) trivia
The film’s final, hypnotic dance sequence was a recreation of a 1913 gathering which marked the final ball ever held in Csarist Russia. It should be noted that the sequence was filmed in the exact same ballroom that was used in 1913, and that the room had not been used for dancing since that pre-revolutionary time.