The Sovfoto Archive

Photo from the Sovfoto Archive

In 2001 the MacLarenArtCentre became the recipient of the Sovfoto Archive, an extraordinary archive comprising 23,116 vintage Soviet press photographs. This archive contains the most comprehensive photographic portrayal of the Stalinist USSR that exists outside of the state archives in Moscow. The Sovfoto Archive consists of two distinct halves: World War II and Militaria (approximately 10,000 photographs) and Images from Daily Life (approximately 13,000 photographs) organized into 52 categories and 162 sub-categories. Covering a wide range of areas from Soviet society, these state-sanctioned photographs tell the official story of the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1959. Republics and nationalities, economy, industry and agriculture, politics, the sciences and the arts, leaders and personalities are all extensively documented. The government’s overall aim was propagandistic: to promote the accomplishments of socialism. In the late 1930s, Soviet photographers were sent off to the furthest reaches of the Soviet empire to record life and progress so that their pictures could be used in the Soviet pavilions at international fairs. With the outbreak of World War II, many Soviet photographers became war correspondents, producing images of great intimacy and passion.

The photographs show images of massive destruction, heroic battlefields, German atrocities, and the day-to-day experiences of the troops. The photographic innovations of the revolutionary avant-garde were incorporated into war photography, generating both inventive and functional documents. The archive contains images taken by many anonymous photographers, as well as the foremost Soviet photographers, documenting a period of history in the twentieth century which has had a very lasting impact. It includes hundreds of examples of photographs by some of the most important Soviet artists of their time. After the crackdown of 1932, many of the Soviet Union’s leading avant-garde photographers found that their only available means of expression was press photography.

Dr. Margarita Tupitsyn, renowned expert on Russian photography, has written:

"The Sovfoto archive is of unquestionable status....Many of the photographs stand out as artistically remarkable and strong images as well as documentation of the human experience... The Sovfoto archive presents a visual depository for rich interdisciplinary studies, including photography, sociology, psychology and history...The annotations on the back of each photograph further enables the researcher to delve into invaluable historical layers of knowledge that would require a long time to find in other sources...The Sovfoto archive is the only one of its kind in North America."

Sovfoto was established in New York by the Soviet government in the early 1930s and was the primary Soviet photographic agency and archive in the west. Its function was to disseminate Soviet photographs to the American press. The agency came under private ownership during the 1950s and continues to operate as Sovfoto/Eastfoto, a stock photo agency specializing in photography from Russia, the former Soviet Republics, Eastern Europe, and China. They are one of the world’s foremost sources of images covering all aspects of historical, political, social, cultural, and economic life under Communism. Many of the photographs in the Sovfoto Archive were commissioned by such government sponsored organizations as Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS/Telegrafnoe agenstvo Sovetskogo Souza), VOKS or Soyuzfoto (Union Photo). The vast majority of photographs are numbered and have descriptions typed in English on the verso. They are also stamped in ink indicating the photographic agency, the necessary photo credit and terms of use. The MacLaren acquired this vast archive through an anonymous donor.

The Sovfoto Archive is a tremendous resource that is being utilized and contextualized in numerous ways, augmenting the MacLaren's collection of works by contemporary Canadian artists whose practices are influenced by the history of documentary photography. For example, the MacLarenArtCentre unveiled eighty-one of these vintage photographic prints in the 2007 exhibition Broken Promises: Soviet Photography in the Age of Stalin. As part of this project, Olexander Wlasenko created a drawing installation in which the artist worked from five photographs in the archive in order to shed light on collective farming implemented by Stalin in the Ukraine. It is through propaganda devices such as the Sovfoto Archive that the Soviet Union was able to demystify the devastation and death of millions of people. As Wlasenko cautions:

"One must bear in mind that this archive presents only state-approved images, sanitized and contrived by the Soviet state and intended for Western readers. This state-sanctioned collection is a compelling one, not only for what it contains, but what it neglects. Many realities of the totalitarian society such as dismal living conditions, purges, deportations, terror, coerced labour are not represented. Through the Sovfoto collection we enter the black and white vortex of a state-induced hallucination of the 'New Soviet Man'."

In an effort to increase the accessibility of the Sovfoto Archive, the MacLaren has begun to digitally scan both the front (recto) and the back (verso) of each photograph to allow researchers, curators, scholars and students the ability to uncover and discover the rich resource of information this archive possesses. By digitizing the entire collection, the archive can be preserved and cared for to a higher degree and the handling of the actual prints can be significantly decreased. The Donner Canadian Foundation has provided a $30,000, two-year grant to undertake the digitization. This grant is being administered through the Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR), Laurentian University at Georgian College in Barrie. Digitizing Sovfoto will allow researchers from across the globe to have access to this impressive archive. Dr. J. Larry Black, director of the CRCR, explains:

"Sovfoto represents an excellent photographic narrative of Soviet history, providing people everywhere with an image of the "new Soviet man and woman" that the Kremlin hoped would be emulated around the world. They were posed and, except for the war photographs, not usually intended to show reality. They illustrated what Soviet leaders aspired their citizens and the workers of the world to become. In short, they are classic representations of what the Soviets called Socialist Realism."