The Sovfoto Archive

The Sovfoto Archive at the MacLaren Art Centre comprises 23,116 vintage silver gelatin press prints originating from the New York City-based press agency Sovfoto/Eastfoto. The archive has a particular focus on World War II and its aftermath, as well as Soviet life in the pre-war and post-war periods. Far-reaching in scope, it includes series on rebuilding Soviet cities after the war, the emergence of collective farms, Soviet education, theatre and the arts, and other diverse subjects.

Established in 1932, the Sovfoto agency received state-sanctioned photographs from the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo) on consignment. Sovinformburo selected the majority of these photographs from Soviet press agencies TASS, VOKS and Soyuzphoto, while the remainder were taken from other sources. All were printed, captioned in English and often retouched before leaving the Soviet Union. Sovfoto, in turn, licensed these images to a diverse group of North American clients. These include major wire agencies that paid a subscription fee for this service, such as the Associated Press and the International New Services; illustrated magazines including Life, Time and Newsweek; and the US State Department as well as various branches of the Armed Forces.

These photographs were the only significant source of visual reportage of Soviet life after the iron curtain ended the free flow of information between the Soviet bloc and democratic nations. Sovfoto later became Sovfoto/Eastfoto, and continues to operate under that name as a major and growing stock photo agency of historical and contemporary photographs from China, Russia and other former and current communist nations. Organized thematically as it was during its days as a working image library, the Sovfoto Archive at the MacLaren Art Centre is an important artifact of Soviet life under Joseph Stalin as well as a vital record of a midcentury press agency.

The Sovfoto Archive is regularly animated within exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art, including Olexander Wlasenko: Broken Promises: Soviet Photography in the Age of Stalin, Robin Pacific: Zaum Zaum and Sadko Hadžihasanović: Under the Plum Tree in 2007; Leopold Plotek: Workingman’s Dead in 2012; andin Again and Once More, Again: Kristie MacDonald, Myfanwy MacLeod and Mitch Robertson in 2016.

In an effort to increase the archive’s accessibility, the Donner Foundation through Laurentian University’s Centre for Canadian Russian Relations supported a two-year project to digitize the photographs. At present, 80% of the archive is digitized. Digital scans of the Sovfoto Archive can be seen in virtual exhibitions, including Look Once, Look Twice: Retouched Press Prints from the Sovfoto Archive [[https://maclarenart.com/exhibitions/look-once-look-twice-retouched-press-prints-from-the-sovfoto-archive]].

Research and Reproduction

Researchers may make an appointment to view the Sovfoto Archive by contacting Emily McKibbon, Associate Curator and Collections Manager, at emily@maclarenart.com. Please allow a minimum of two weeks’ notice. Research appointments typically last two hours; MacLaren staff will attempt to accommodate researchers requiring a greater time commitment with advanced notice.

Those interested in reproducing images from the archive, please direct your inquiries to Emily McKibbon at emily@maclarenart.com. A fee schedule is available on request.