Ear & Eye Thing: Russian Rap Humpday w Bad B

April 29, 2009

Bad Balance takes us back a couple of decades into the history of Russian hip-hop in the video for Стиль оригинальный.  The late-Soviet photos are interesting, but I think the sepia-toning of the whole video is a little cheap and goofy. I’d rather have seen the weird hues and contrasts of Soviet color photography.

Academic query: Has anyone written a history of Interclubs, or better yet a study of just one Interclub? They are all over the margins of my dissertation, but I know nothing about what they look like between 1933 and their appearance in this video.



  1. To be fair, cheaply printed color photography from the 70s was funny-looking not only in the Soviet union, I think it was a pretty universal phenomenon. And omg, the shot “Весна. Людмила Пахомова и Александр Горшков” is absolutely amazing. I would send it to my mom, but then I’d just get a lecture/nostalgia-fest for the glory-days of Soviet ice-skating.

  2. I hear you, but my point was, rather, that there is a particular Soviet palette presumably derived from specific film, processing, printing and tastes.

    Also–and here you art historian types may be able to give me the real details–it seems to me that Soviet photography embraced color more quickly than Americans (dunno about the rest of the world) who, from my understanding, disdained color as vulgar, garish, uncouth, amateurish, etc.

    But I really have no idea what I’m talking about. And I imagine I’ll get a lecture on the vastly different art worlds, etc.

    Ears are open.

  3. So my knowledge of the subject is very spotty and I could be vastly wrong, but here’s my sense of it. Both in the USSR and in the U.S., popular print culture (something like post-war Life magazine) embraced color photography quickly (the Kodachrome, “the first successfully mass-marketed color still film,” was introduced in 1935 and Agfacolor came about in 1936). You can see here (http://images.google.com/hosted/life), I think, that by the 40s, Life, which was hugely influential on photojournalism, was publishing color images. Also, I think a lot of private photo archives in the US from the 50s were often in color – largely untrue of the USSR where owning a photo camera at all continued to be a luxury into the 80s and if my family’s photo archive is any indication, color pictures came about very late because film, like everything else, was hard to come by. In comparing print publications, drawing a comparison with Baltermants would be totally valid since he spent his entire post-war career as one of the most prominent photographers for Ogonyok and I think he worked primarily in color. The issue of accepting color photography in the U.S. as a “serious” form of expression happened in the realm of Art photography. There, it’s usually (I think) Wm. Eggleston’s 1976 show at the MoMA that’s considered the even that put color photography on the map – and that is, indeed, very late (esp given that color photography processes have existed since the late 19th c.; if you think of the other important photographers of that generation – Winogrand, Arbus, Clark – they were all working in b/w). The problem with the USSR is that artistic photography as such didn’t really exist – photography remained a primarily utilitarian medium and the “great masters” – Mikhailov is the obvious example, his color photos also come from the 70s and are amazing – were working in unofficial circles or independently and had no impact on the popular perception of photography. In those unofficial circles, I think, the situation was largely similar to what it was in the U.S. and color began to be taken seriously very late. I know that drawing sharp photojournalism/art distinctions is problematic, but it’s one of the issues that historians of photography really struggle with, and I’m not gonna be able to resolve it here.
    Does that help at all?

  4. As for the specifically “Soviet” look of color photos, it’s very hard for me to speak to the chemical nuances. This discussion seems informative: http://www.flickr.com/groups/russiancameras/discuss/72157607686885836/ and confirms that Soviet amateurs had very limited access to color film, though I’m also remembering now that there were color slides, which were popular and pretty common, I think. It also seems to imply that professional-grade film might have been imported (from East Germany, for instance – which seems right, if you’ve ever seen pictures from the DDR), but even then, to my eye, pictures taken in the 70s both in the East and the West look about the same (and equally goofy…) even though I’m sure there was more R&D in the West. In looking this up, I found a wonderful archive of Soviet photos at marxists.org which you might enjoy, for both personal and professional reasons (http://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/art/photography/index.htm). There is also apparently this amazing early (turn of the century) Russian pioneer who documented the Russian empire in color (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Mikhailovich_Prokudin-Gorskii)
    Ok, gotta stop. Can’t research the history of everything in one afternoon.

  5. The problem with the USSR is that artistic photography as such didn’t really exist….

    Yeah, that’s what I meant with the whole “vastly different art worlds” comment. And I was thinking about Baltermants when I wrote that comment. It’s hard to for to look at his photography as just photojournalism, or photojournalism at all. It seems so obviously stylized and searching for a voice when compared with, say, the folks who won the Pulitzers for photography this year. (Please, don’t get all “that’s a style too” on me. I know, but you know what I mean, perhaps?) In my mind of rough inaccurate comparisons, B is akin to the artsy photographers who also published in Life (Walker Evans comes to mind). But I think I’m just uninformedly babbling now…

    This bit of information was good to learn:

    In those unofficial circles, I think, the situation was largely similar to what it was in the U.S. and color began to be taken seriously very late.

    Unfortunately, all of this banter just makes me MORE CURIOUS about what those photos in the video looked like before they got horribly sepia-toned. Someone should have told Bad Balance: Олд скул цветная фотография рулит!

  6. There is also apparently this amazing early (turn of the century) Russian pioneer who documented the Russian empire in color.

    Ummmmm, looking at my current banner, I have to assume that this is sarcasm, right? Please.

  7. Believe it or not, there was an exhibition of Baltermants’ photographs at my uni my senior year and I wrote a paper on him… I never much cared for his post-war stuff; if he was looking for a voice (or, more accurately, a vision), the one he found didn’t excite me. Personally, I think it falls easily within the cannons of photojournalism, but that’s a long discussion to be had at some other time, and the first thing I would object to is the modifier “just” in speaking of photojournalism. (Who’s the snob now). As an interesting aside, I believe Fortune magazine, which commissioned from Agee/Evans what would later become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men declined to publish (or, at any rate, never published) the thing they produced… (Evans worked for Fortune and Time, not Life.
    I agree about old school tsvetnaya photografiya, though if I were a betting person, I’d bet that those photos were just b/w before all that brown sepiaed into them.
    I take your point about the banner, even though I was being earnest. Let’s just say that it’s unreasonably to expect me even to actually pay attention to your posts, let alone to your image sources. But it’s a very nice banner.

  8. On a slight tangent: there was a movie film process called SovColor which had, as I recall, a strange color palette.

  9. By “just photojournalism,” I meant “photojournalism alone,” not “merely photojournalism.” I stand corrected on Evans and Life, though I am not sure if it affects my point.

    Let’s get back to that rap though. Where were you break-dancing in 1988?

  10. Found the original photos on Bad B’s website: http://www.badb.ru/photo/
    Turns out that they are a mix of color and b/w, and none too interesting looking. Was better when it was idle speculation.

  11. Hey Buster, I was wondering if you had heard of the White Smoke Clan? They were ‘rappery’ from the mid nineties, and the first to start fighting back against the nazis, metalisty, and gopniki that regularly beat them up for wearing baggy pants. They put a book out recently, (http://www.litblog.ru/white-smoke/) I’m reading it now. The weird thing is, they use smailiki in the printed book which will probably amuse/annoy you. But with your interest in Russian rap, it’s probably worth reading.

  12. Daut, Thanks for the heads-up. Don’t know when I will get a chance to track down that book (with no plans to return to Russia anytime soon) or when I’d find the time to read it. All the same, it’s added to my long list of non-academic “splurge” books to get to when I finish the dissertation. Ideally, someone else would read, summarize and evaluate all these books for me.

    Say, didn’t you just mention that you are already reading the book? /hint

  13. It may take me a while to get through it, but when I do I can summarize it for you, it’s the least I can do!

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