Concentrating the Shot, or Langman Known and Unknown
Concentrating the Shot, or Langman Known and Unknown
Eleazar Langman (1895-1940) has been one of the enigmatic fi-gures in the history of Soviet photography of the 1930s. At the beginning of the thirties the passions were burning around his name, as well as around those of Alexander Rodchenko (1) and Boris Ignatovich (2) who were also members of the association of photographers Oktiabr (October) (3). Langman’s pictures were very expressive and could be easily remembered. He was accused of being too much tending towards formalism, being a “leftist” (4) intentionally “slanting” his pictures (5). Photo-graphs from his earlier period are, by the way, almost unknown, there exist very few trustworthy biographical data, his archive - his negatives and positives - have, as it seems, been lost, as in the last years of his life he had no permanent address and had wandered from one dark room into another.
Langman is well-known as the inventor of the “screwed-off screw”, i.e. the rather unsophisticated way of shortening the extreme limit of the minimum distance in taking pictures by the Leica camera. On the standard 50-millimetre objective of the Elmar camera this could be focussed from the minimum distance of one metre only. It was not possible, at that time, to get closer to the object which had to be photographed, because the small bar on the objective rested on the screw of the stop-cock. As Boris Ignatovich has witnessed, Langman had been the first who had the idea of screwing off the checking mechanism. Thus it was possible to screw off the objective one more turn and to photograph objects even from the distance of half a metre. Some used a tailor’s yard-stick for focussing the right distance. Langman, as we see, very sensitively explored the limits of possibilities of optical devices in using a sharp focus.
Langman is also known as the author of several photographs as scandalous as the well-known Young Pioneer Blowing the Bugle. One of these has been named Early Morning Gymnastics by Radio. Until recently it was not quite clear, by the way, how this picture should be understood. Only after having found the author’s own copy in Alex Lachmann’s (6) collection - and not the different variants of its reproduction in the journal Proletarian Photo (7) in 1931 where one and the same shot had been printed in very different ways - it has become clear which is the top and which the bottom of this picture. Which, by the way, totally changes its perception.
Gymnasts are leaning forward and touching the tips of their toes. A loudspeaker is standing on the table near them and has been placed higher than their heads. Finding out which side of the shot is representing the floor, the composition of the picture becomes clear and logical. One can easily imagine where the photographer was standing and at which level his eyes were looking at the gymnasts.
Early Morning Gymnastics by Radio shows us where Langman has put the greatest stress upon the composition of his pictures. He placed elements and objects existing at different spacial levels upon one single line - that of the optical axis of his camera’s objective - and these, serving his artistic intention, became neighbours. At the first level the disk of the loudspeaker has been placed. At the second one we can see two gymnasts in one and the same posture. Langman has chosen from all possible viewpoints the one where space seems to be many times compressed, concentrated, “bundled up”. The entire empty space of the picture has been filled with different forms and semantic details of fundamental importance.
In the catalogue of the Exhibition of Masters of Soviet Artistic Photography which was held in 1935 (8) we can find biographical data which have practically been up to the present our one and only source of information about Langman.
“He was born in 1895 in Odessa. He studied at an artistic school in his native city and afterwards at the polytechnical institute and conservatoire (in the violin class) in Kharkov. As a violinist he played in different orchestras and took part in concerts organized by propaganda brigades (9). He became military chief of the repair works at the Volga-Bugulma railroad track. He worked in the team of the architect A. Langman (10) - the author of the project of the Dinamo Stadium and the STO building in Moscow (11). He was also the author of posters.” (12)
In this short biography two moments are of special importance.
First of all, it becomes evident that Langman was not only a very gifted artist, with a refined taste, but also a professionally well prepared man able to draw very nice pictures. The above-mentioned catalogue also contains an interesting photographic portait of Langman made, most probably, by A. Sternberg. (13)
Langman’s picture was taken from above, he is shown sitting behind a table. On the table there is a roll of drawing paper and a curve. As if he were no photographer, but rather an architect. (Sternberg, by the way, who was also a member of the Oktiabr association, made another portrait of Langman with his Leica camera which was published in 1936 in the journal Sovietskoye foto under the title Portrait of a Formalist. (14)
The second circumstance is of primary importance for the domain of photography. It shows us that Langman was technically educated as well - he was, among others, a civil engineer. Technology was no unknown territory to him.
From the above-mentioned catalogue we learn that “Eleazar Langman began to show interest for the art of photography since his 11th birthday. The last 15 years of his life he was working as a professional photoreporter.” (15) In other words, we can consider Langman to have been a professional photographer since the beginning of the 1920s, although no pictures from the earlier years of his career have been found up to this time.
We have found, however, a few earlier photographs by him - not journalist’s pictures, but rather experimental ones - from the years 1928-1930. They show us that he has, quite naturally, understood the situation and taken part in the photographic experiments of the 1920s. His shot named The Tennis-Player has been constructed diagonally and is showing us the tennis court from above, from the seat of the referee. On his shot The Billiard Player its space is condensed to the maximum and on the line which seems to be cutting through the level of the photograph, we find a billiard ball, a cue, as well as the player who is paying his full attention to the game. The blurred picture of the billiard ball in the foreground covers almost the entire level of the photograph. And his picture of a girl jumping into the water is something like a forerunner of Rodchenko’s well-known photograph taken in 1934 and called Jumping into the Water where the many times multiplied figure of a sportsman is held up in the middle of his motion and seems to be flying high up in the sky. That means that two or three years before the appearance of Rodchenko’s famous picture showing some sportsmen, Langman had been the first to present dynamism and an intentionally chosen kind of a perspective.
In the years 1929-1930 he worked as a photoreporter in Ignatovich’s team (16), taking pictures to be published in the newspaper Vechernaya Moskva (Moscow Evening News). At that time his creative manuscript was born, as well as his wish to overcome by all means the optical mannerisms of photographic composition.
“Eleazar Langman has to be included in the number of those who have been searching for a new dynamic form in photography as an art,” - says the author of the above-mentioned article, most probably Lev Mezhericher (17), the editor of the catalogue An Exhibition of Masters - “what more, he is belonging to the “extremists” among them. E. Langman’s creative development has been strongly influenced by his encounter with B. Ignatovich and their following cooperation. He became an active member of the creative association Oktiabr. In his works of art he uses A. Rod-chenko’s formal principles as a starting-point, but later he acquired an individual style of his own. According to his own words, he was “seeking a new revolutionary form” for expressing Soviet subject matter. Typical of his compositional interpretation are his rationality, a sharp accentuation of certain elements of the particular shot, a clear-cut linearity of the composition, intentionally chosen kinds of a perspective and filling the framework of the picture to his heart’s content.” (18)
Among all the members of the association Oktiabr, Langman was the greatest extremist and a very clear-cut and brave experimenter. Rodchenko was, in comparison to him, more of a classic, Ignatovich - more eloquent in his photoreports, and Vladimir Grüntal (19) - more careful in handling intentionally chosen kinds of a perspective, as well as the slant of his pictures. None of these has been able to create such an expressive foreground as can be found only in Langman’s pictures. He will tell us something about that himself a little later. Although his photographs are an expression of freedom, dynamism and emancipation, Langman’s character was somewhat different. According to the words of M. Markov-Grünberg (20), he was a very modest, gentle, rather reticent, deliberate and often not too self-confident man. On Langman’s panel at the Exhibition of Masters in 1935 thirteen of his photographs were shown: A Kolkhoz Field, Harvest, The Skating Ring, Asphalt Road, The 25 000 Kilowatt Stator, The Tapping of Cast Iron (in the Old Factory in Kramatorsk), A Chinese Artiste, A Tartar Working in the Kolkhoz, A Day Nursery in Kalmykia, Comrade Ordzhonikidze (21) Putting the Production Plant in Kramatorsk into Operation, The Martin Steel Furnace in Makeyevka, Physical Training at the Kaganovich School (22) and The Electrified Landscape of Donbass. (23)
Sometimes the titles of his pictures were as characteristic of the given period as the photographs themselves. In the period of the greatest activity of the association Oktiabr, i.e. in the years 1930-1931 - and especially in the latter of these, when the scandalous exhibition in the Dom pechati (House of Print) had taken place (24), after which the maledictory articles on the formalism of Oktiabr were published in the journal Proletarskoye foto - literary titles started to prevail on most of Langman’s pictures, e.g. The Old and the New in Simonovka (25), Morning Gymnastics by Radio, A Norm-Setter in the Experimental Grain-Growing State Farm, or on some of them there appeared such an enigmatic title like, for instance, Hurrah for 1040! - which meant that 1040 machine-tractor stations had to be built...
Similar titles can also be found on Ignatovich’s photographs - his well-known shot showing street-car inspectors in the Dinamo factory, for instance, received the title Never More Shall We Be Entirely Dependent upon Vehicles from Foreign Countries!
Such literary titles intentionally determined the political or progressively technical context of the perception of photographs. A slant picture showing camels pulling waggons full of grain was placed near another one, also slanting towards the diagonal, but to the opposite side, showing a long row of tractors transporting grain to an elevator. In that way two of Langman’s photographs called Two Kinds of Transport showed how the traditional, old means of transport had been replaced by a new, technically more efficient one.
Even such a “politically right” title, however, did not always save the artist from persecution. When the slanderous campaign against Oktiabr had been launched, the journal Proletarskoye foto wrote: “...We shall mercilessly fight against the latest display of some of the creative methods of the Oktiabr group in which the contents is suppressed by the form and where a lack of the subject matter (it is, as a matter of fact, the subject matter of our class enemy!) is hidden by the veil of a perfidious text.” (26)
Another example of this “ideological” campaign: “Nothing can be said against the titles under the pictures. Some of those slogans are leading the proletariat of the Soviet Union towards their victory in fulfilling our five-year-plan. It is necessary, however, for us to pose the question: “Are these titles not trying only to hide the deplorable ideological wretchedness of the photogra-phic production of the Oktiabr group?”
Or this: “Langman is visiting the youth commune in the Dinamo works. This topic is of an extreme importance. A new type of young people is hammered out under the new conditions. It is necessary to present them in such a way that the heart of the matter, the essence of changing this human material should be shown in a clear and convincing way. It is impossible to do this at a blow. It is necessary to visit this commune not once and not twice, but more often, to talk with the boys and girls many times. Langman’s eyes and the release of his camera, however, are very quick. And thus one of the thrilling topics of our construction of communism is hidden behind a tea-pot. The picture is called The Youth Commune. The text under the photograph cannot save the situation, the author cannot hide behind these words.” (27)
The author of the above-mentioned article - S. Friedland (28) - was a member of another group of photographs, inimical to the Oktiabr association, which called itself ROPF - the Russian Association of Proletarian Photoreporters. (29)
The people who were in charge of Soviet photography were expecting something like super-beautiful, optimistic and romantic photographic reflections agitating for socialism. The reality of life, however, required of the photographer and the artist to make their choice out of its visual and plastic qualities, he was showing what he did understand and what he did really see. Perhaps it was, of all things, the tea-pot - which made the critic so furious in his picture called The Young Commune - that had become for Langman the symbol of a better life! Simple buildings, nothing out of the way, but what extraordinary things may happen in that commune, what is the indicator of its special educational influence? A simple dormitory, simple life. Out of the ordinary is only the “early morning gymnastics by radio” - the picture with the same title has also been taken in the youth commune of the Dinamo works. A series of photographs of that type, equipped with adequate and intelligent titles, could mean something quite different.
Langman was lucky enough - in spite of the devastating criti-cism published in the professional press, followed by the liquidation of Oktiabr, he continued to cooperate with the VOKS association (30) where he became a member of the jury preparing photographic exhibitions which were sent abroad, and he also continued to work, making pictures to order for IZOGIZ (31). In 1932 he started to take pictures for the cardboard photo-album From the Moscow of Merchants to the Moscow of Socialism (32). This was very important for him from the psychological point of view - to feel not like an outcast, but like the member of a group of people operating on one and the same wave length, fulfilling a concrete, useful and politically justified task. Apart from Langman, pictures of Moscow for this photo-album were also taken by Ignatovich, Saveliev, Kazachinsky (33) and Rodchenko.
With one and the same camera of the Leica type, Langman is perceiving not only different views of the Moscow streets and squares. He is hunting for interesting moments of life, positive and negative ones, including scenes which - according to the Soviet ideology - he was drawing deliberately from the past -drunken people in the streets, fortune-tellers sitting on the square, homeless individuals. These latter ones were not included in the photo-album. Life shown in these pictures was too real and too true to be printed. These photographs were, by the way, formally less perfect and less expressive than the architectural and technological topics handled by Langman. Appointed to do so by IZOGIZ, Langman travelled around a lot - and took pictures of the sovkhoz (34) Gigant, the construction of new giant factories in Donbass, the Dinamo and Elektrozavod works in Moscow. One part of these photographs was published in the voluminous photo-album called The Industry of Socialism (35), the maquette and lay-out of which had been done by El Lisitsky (36). Langman thus deserved the right to be called a master in his branch of art. He participated in teaching in short-term courses organized by the Sojuzfoto agency (37), he showed his pictures to young photographers and explained to them his technical means and methods. No wonder, therefore, that he was asked to participate in the Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography.
On the days of April 13, 19 and 22, in 1935 when the above-mentioned exhibition was already in full swing, a creative discussion was held in the House of Cinema in Moscow. The texts of many of the speeches held there were published in the journal Sovietskoye foto, No. 5-6/1936 - among others, those of S. Fried-land, V. Grishanin, I. Sosfenov, A. Rodchenko and E. Langman.
In his speech for which he had chosen the title Creative Quests, Langman mentioned that he had started to work, being fully aware of it, in the domain of photography since 1929 after having met Rodchenko and Ignatovich. Why have these two art photo-graphers left such a deep impression on him? He sympathized with them because they had got rid of clichés, their art was original and impressive. “For the first time in my life I understood that photography is an art.”
“What did I begin to do? In my archive I have neither Rodchenko’s Cog-Wheels nor any other of his invoicing pictures - in the name of the shot, in the name of the form. Once it has been done already, there is no use for me to do it once again.
I am not able to do it better than he has done - and to do it worse is uninteresting. One thing has become absolutely clear to me - that on the basis of the refined form already achieved by me it is now possible and necessary to do truely realistic things.”
Langman is explaining the traits specific for the construction of many of his pictures in which space seems to be subtracted from the somewhat blurred foreground.
“In my pictures there is a foreground - without any object, it is in front of the shot itself, dominating over everything else. Rain, The Soil, The Stakhanovite (40) Kuzimbayev belong to that kind of photographs. In these pictures there is absolutely nothing in the foreground. From the formal point of view this is a rather difficult method and, according to my opinion, it is possible and necessary to use it for such objects which are not photogenic. The soil has never been photogenic, for instance, and it is very difficult to make a picture of the soil. For the first time I tried to let the soil cover the whole shot. It was absolutely necessary for me that this should become a picture with a social meaning, I had to make clear that the soil is being ploughed by a tractor and thus I concentrated upon showing this soil. It seems to me that I have succeeded in showing it in a convincing way and by artistic means. The first variant had not been too successful: the kolkhoz was too much lopsided. The second one was already better. In the picture The Stakhanovite Kuzimbayev a carpet is in the foreground and, in spite of the fact that half of the shot is covered by this carpet, that trait of national folklore makes the picture more ceremonial, and the whole one half of the shot covered by it is nothing to worry about.”
Langman has also explained the origin of this “lopsidedness” of his photographs which has become, as he expressed it, “rather notorious” - which means that he had been very often accused of being a formalist. According to his words, the “lopsidedness” in his pictures has become “a protest against clichés and platitudes and everything that has become stale and trivial in photography.”
“For some reason it has been necessary for me,” Langman continues to write, “to provoke the onlooker, to jerk him out from the “grey-haired” standard. As I could not find anything else, I started to apply this “lopsidedness” which was, by the way, somewhat less ugly than in the pictures of other colleagues. Realism is not, after all, a path leading in a given direction. It is rather an immense radius, following which you may arrive at one and the same point by innumerable paths - and “lopsidedness” may also be considered as one of these paths leading us to realism” (41).
In the mid-thirties when this “lopsidedness” had also turned into a cliché, Langman set himself other tasks. He tried to get rid of the “lopsidedness” and an intentionally chosen kind of a perspective in his pictures, but tried to retain, at the same time, their compositional expressiveness. In the journal The USSR Con-structing (42) devoted to Kazakhstan, as well as in the photo-album Ten Years of Uzbekistan (43) Langman’s first portraits were published. He looked at the people whose pictures he was taking, slightly from the worm’s eye view, used the biggest format possible and the faces were very elaborate. Rodchenko and Stepanova (44) who made the lay-out of these publications, were paying the greatest attention not to the montage and the final arrangement of Langman’s photographic shots in the columns of the above-mentioned journal or the photo-album, but to the unambiguousness of the angle of view chosen by Langman - they were stressing the contrast between the large foreground and the extremely small background in his pictures.
Langman’s photographs can be easily remembered due to their inner values and their intentional character. They have been made on purpose and are therefore remembered as the only possibility and as containing a high information value. By means of his small Leica camera he succeeded in concentrating in his shots information, form and space.
Alexander Lavrentiev (born in 1954), Professor of the Moscow University of Design. Russian avant-garde art - especially design and photography - are his major field of interest. He is the author of monographs about Rodchenko and Stepanova.
1) Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) - Russian avant-garde artist, designer, photographer, one of the leaders of avant-garde photography in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s
2) Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976) - photoreporter, journalist, one of the leaders of avant-garde photography in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s
3) the Oktiabr group - a creative association of photographers-innovators (1930-1932) - stemmed from the photo-section of a former association founded earlier, in 1928, bearing the same name (Oktiabr) and uniting all the different branches of art. The group was founded by Boris Ignatovich, Eleazar Langman and Alexander Rodchenko
4) “leftism” - a term accepted in the 1920s and 1930s by the official Soviet art criticism and History of Art. This term defined the works of art of painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, composers, theatre and film directors who were actively searching for new forms and trends in art and, therefore, could not be - due to their formal, subject matter and ideological indications - included in the framework of the officially accepted standards. The quests of the “leftists” were within the channels of the avant-garde search in world art and culture
5) the “slanting” of the shot - the diagonal construction of its composition, one of the main methods of constructivist photography
6) Alex Lachmann - a collector and the organizer of a whole series of exhibitions presenting Soviet photography in the 1920s and 1930s. Gallery in Köln, Germany
7) The journal Proletarskoye foto (Proletarian Photography) was published in 1931-1932. Its editors were members of the ROPF - the Russian Association of Proletarian Photoreporters
8) The Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography included the works of art of more than twenty of the best photographers of the 1920s and 1930s in all the different genres - photoreportage, study art photography, photoportrait, pictorial photography - of the representatives of the photographic avant-garde. Among them we find Nikolay Andreyev, Alexander Grünberg, Moisey Nappelbaum, Georgy Petrusov, Alexander Rodchenko, Arkady Shaikhet and others
9) propaganda brigades - one of the forms of ideological work in the USSR in the 1920s. These brigades were sent from large cities to smaller towns and villages. They included lecturers and artists. First a lecture was given in which the official views upon the political, economical and ideological questions of the day were expressed - and afterwards musicians were arranging a concert
10) The architect Alexander Langman was Eleazar Langman’s uncle
11) The Dinamo Stadium was a sports institution built up in the constructivist style (1926-1928) in Moscow. STO - the Soviet of Work and Defence - was a building erected in the constructivist style (1932-1936) in Moscow; now this building serves as the Gosudarstvennaya duma - the Lower House of the Russian Parliament
12) Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography. Catalogue. Moscow, 1935
13) Abraham Sternberg (1894-1979) - a portrait photographer, the brother of the well-known avant-garde painter David Sternberg
14) Sovietskoye foto - a journal specializing in photography, published from 1926 to 1991, since 1992 appearing a few years under the title Fotografia
15) Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography. Catalogue. Moscow, 1935
16) The Ignatovich Brigade consisted of Boris Ignatovich, his first wife Yelizaveta Ignatovich, his sister Olga Ignatovich and Eleazar Langman
17) Lev Mezhericher was a well-known critic in the domain of photography in the 1930s, a picture editor and organizer of the photo-series 24 Hours from the Life of the Filippovs which was made by the photoreporters Max Alpert, Solomon Tules and Arkady Shaikhet
18) Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography. Catalogue. Moscow, 1935
19) Vladimir Grüntal (1899-1966) - a photoreporter, a master of applied photography, member of Oktiabr group, in his work he was consistently developing the principles of constructivist photography
20) Mark Markov-Grünberg (1907-2003) - a well-known photoreporter actively working from the 1930s to the 1960s
21) Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937) - a revolutionary, politician, the people’s commissar in charge of the heavy industry - he carried through the industrialization of the USSR
22) Lazar Kaganovich (1893-1991) - a revolutionary, a Soviet statesman, the Minister of Transport
23) Donbass (adjective: Donetsky) - a coal basin
24) an exhibition arranged by the Oktiabr group in the House of the Press in Moscow in 1931
25) Simonovka - the region of St. Simon’s Monastery in Moscow
26) In the First Stage of Creative Discussion. Editorial in the journal Proletarskoye foto, No.1, 1932, p.12
27) S. Friedland: Silence Is Not Always Golden. In: Proletarskoye foto, No.l, 1932, p.18
28) Semyon Friedland (1907?) - a well-known photoreporter in the 1930s -1950s. In spite of “ideological” differences with members of the Oktiabr group he actively and with great talent utilized in his work the stylistics and methods of constructivist photography
29) ROPF - Russian Association of Proletarian Photoreporters (1931-1932), founded as a counter-balance to the avant-garde group Oktiabr
30) VOKS - All-Union Associaton of Cultural Ties with Foreign Countries. In the 1920s and 1930s it was sending the collections of the Soviet masters in the domain of photography to photo-shows presented in other countries
31) IZOGIZ - State Publishing Institution for the Visual Arts, belonging to the Union of State Publishing Houses for Journals and Books. It was also publishing the journal The USSR Constructing
32) From the Moscow of Merchants to the Moscow of Socialism. Moscow, 1932
33) A. Saveliev, Kazachinsky - photoreporters
34) sovkhoz (abbreviation of the words “sovietskoye khoziaistvo” - Soviet economy) - a Soviet establishment providing agricultural products
35) The Industry of Socialism. Moscow, 1935
36) El Lisitsky (Lazar Lisitsky) (1890-1941) - an artist, architect, designer, one of the most conspicuous representatives of the Soviet artistic avant-garde
37) In the Sojuzfoto agency short-term courses were organized for raising the qualification level of photoreporters
38) V. Grishanin - a critic in the domain of photography, the author of articles published in the journal Proletarskoye foto concerning the method of making whole series of photographs
39) Ilya Sosfenov (1904-1941) - art critic, art historian, member of the Oktiabr group
40) a stakhanovets - member of a movement whose aim it was to raise the productivity of labour.
41) E. Langman: Creative Quest. In: Sovietskoye foto, No. 5-6, 1936, pp. 27-29
42) The USSR Constructing - an illustrated monthly journal published in the years 1930-1941. Many outstanding photographers and book designers - Alexander Rodchenko as photographer and designer, El Lisitsky as designer, the photographers Boris Ignatovich, Arkady Shaikhet, the designers Gustav Klutsis and Solomon Telingater - were collaborating with the journal. In the history of the design of the polygraphic production in the 20th century the journal The USSR Constructing has served as one of the most expressive and most interesting models
43) Ten Years of Uzbekistan. Moscow, OGIZ-IZOGIZ, 1935
44) Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) - an artist belonging to the Russian avant-garde, a designer. She was Alexander Rodchenko’s wife.