Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is an exhibition currently taking place at the Photographers’ Gallery just off Oxford Street. Being fascinated by Russia, I visited the Gallery on Thursday evening when it opens late. I was pleasantly surprised to see that entry is free – I am sure I had to pay last time I visited, so this was nice to see.
The exhibition looks at the development of colour photography in Russia from the 1860s to the 1970s. As well as the history of photography in Russia it is also concerned with the history of Russia in photography. This period was a time of turbulent change and the photographs really showcase this.
Arranged in chronological order, the exhibition begins with early hand-tinted images, moving to more developed photographs and eventually to photomontage and colour film. Societ authorities restricted the use of photography during the mid-20th century and it wasn’t until the 1970s, when inexpensive colour film was available to the general public via unofficial routes, that ordinary people could really exercise free choice over their photographs – even then they normally had to be shown in secret.
I was fascinated by the early tinted colour photographs, making me think of characters from Anna Karenina. They were not unlike our Victorians, though many, particularly children, were dressed in traditional Russian costume. At the turn of the century, the pictures started to remind me of Chekhov characters, as the clothes worn by the subjects of the images were very like those I have seen on stage. One standout image for me was the photograph of Tolstoy – he looks like a grumpy old man (which, in a very basic way, I suppose he was). Colour photographs – even those which have been hand-coloured – bring their subjects to life like black and white pictures can’t, and make their subjects seem much closer to us today.
Images from the following century made the Soviet era seem much more “real”. They were so vivid and clear – I loved looking not only at the people themselves, but at their surroundings, how they lived and what their spaces looked like.
This exhibition is on until the 19th of October – even if you’re not particularly interested in Russian history, I recommend a visit.