Russia (and photography) at the turn of the century

A bunch of first impressions run through my head when I see this photo: traditional dress, infrared film, re-enactment, Eastern Europe. The year 1910 isn’t one of them.

After doing a bit of research, I’ve realized that my perception of photography at the turn of the century is pretty inaccurate. I think brownies, family portraits, and the occasional black-and-white picture of some architectural marvel in New York City. Yes, it’s true that a lot of people were using photography at that time simply as an archival tool. But projects like this one suggest that the relationship between photography and documentary projects extends far into the past.

There are issues relating to cultural journalism that I began thinking about while viewing this 1910 Russia series. The first is the tendency to take an exotic approach to reporting cross-culturally. Some of the captions on these photos led me to thinking they were captured in this light. The focus on traditional dress and these people in their “natural environment” can easily turn from an accurate, curios, documentary look meant to educate readers/viewers on how other people live to an exhibit of exoticism. Taken by a Russian photographer and commissioned by the Tsar, these photos by themselves do not have that feel. However, with the captions tacked on, there is a hint of ethnocentrism, reminiscent of some early National Geographic coverage of foreign peoples– “check this out, they are different and weirdly fascinating!”

Making other peoples’ lives into escapist, adventurer journalism is definitely one danger of reporting and photographing abroad. The other tendency, one I see as drifting too much towards anthropology for a journalistic piece, is not a negative one. Covering a culture deeply and insightfully is key if you want tot report and portray it accurately. However, when does doing good journalism end and where does anthropology begin? Having been interested in longer form journalism most of my life (Frontline episodes or Atlantic articles for instance), I have always struggled with distilling a culture or a story within another culture to something readable for a magazine or online audience. Though I do not know the answer of where to draw the line, I know that one of the beauties of journalism is capturing so much about something so very concisely in order for people of all walks of life and with all sorts of time constraints to enjoy it. Besides the groundbreaking color techniques used in these photos, I believe their accuracy and piercing attention to detail to be unparalleled in any photo series I have seen portraying Eastern Europe.

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