From painting to photography: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s revolution in visual art


Against the synthetic portrait, for the snapshot

Aleksandr Rodchenko
Novyi lef № 4, pgs. 14-16
Moscow (April 1928)

I was once obliged to dispute with an artist the fact that photography cannot replace painting in a portrait. He spoke very soundly about the fact that a photograph is a chance moment, whereas a painted portrait is the sum total of moments observed, which, moreover, are the most characteristic of the man being portrayed. The artist has never added an objective synthesis of a given man to the factual world, but has always individualized and idealized him, and has presented what he himself imagined about him — as it were, a personal summary. But I am not going to dispute this; let us assume that he presented a sum total, while the photograph does not.

The photograph presents a precise moment documentarily.

It is essential to clarify the question of the synthetic portrait; otherwise the present confusion will continue. Some say that a portrait should only be painted; others, in searching for the possibility of rendering this synthesis by photography, follow a very false path: they imitate painting and make faces hazy by generalizing and slurring over details, which results in a portrait having no outward resemblance to any particular person — as in pictures of Rembrandt and Carrière.


Any intelligent man will tell you about the photograph’s shortcomings in comparison to the painted portrait; everyone will tell you about the character of the Mona Lisa, and everyone forgets that portraits were painted when there was no photography and that they were painted not of all the intelligent people but of the rich and powerful. Even men of science were not painted.

You need not wait around, intelligentsia; even now AKhRartists will not paint you. True — they can’t even depict the sum total, let alone .001 of a moment.

Now compare eternity in science and technology. In olden times a savant would discover a truth, and this truth would remain law for about twenty years. And this was learned and learned as something indisputable and immutable.

Encyclopedias were compiled that supplied whole generations with their eternal truths.

Does anything of the kind exist now? …No.

Now people do not live by encyclopedias but by newspapers, magazines, card catalogues, prospectuses, and directories.

Modern science and technology are not searching for truths, but are opening up new areas of work and with every day changed what has been attained.

Now they do not reveal common truths — “the earth revolves” — but are working on the problem of this revolution.

Let’s take:

  1. aviation
  2. radio
  3. rejuvenation, etc.

These are not mere platitudes but constitute areas that thousands of workers are expanding in depth and breadth, thanks to their experiments.

And it is not just one scientist, but thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of collaborators.

And hence there will never be eternal airplanes, wireless sets, and a single system of rejuvenation.

There will be thousands of airplanes, motorcars, and thousands of methods for rejuvenation.

The same goes for the snapshot.

future tumblr_m77amiqQi21rwl0c9o1_1280

Here is an example of the first big collision between art and photography, between eternity and the moment — moreover, in this instance photographs were taken casually, but painting attacked photography with all its heavy and light artillery — and failed miserably…

I mean Lenin.

Chance photographers took his picture. Often when it was necessary, often when it was not. He had no time; there was a revolution on, and he was its leader—so he did not like people getting in his way.

Nevertheless, we possess a large file of photographs of Lenin.

Now for the last ten years artists of all types and talents, inspired and rewarded in all sorts of ways and virtually throughout the world and not just in the USSR, have made up artistic depictions of him; in quantity, they have paid for the file of photographs a thousand times and have often used it to the utmost.

And show me where and when and of which artistically synthetic work one could say: this is the real VI Lenin.

There is not one. And there will not be.


Why not? Not because, as many think, “We have not yet been able to, we haven’t had a genius, but certain people have at least done something.”

No, there will not be — because there is a file of photographs, and this file of snapshots allows no one to idealize or falsify Lenin. Everyone has seen this file of photographs, and as a matter of course, no one would allow artistic nonsense to be taken for the eternal Lenin.

True, many say that there is no single snapshot that bears an absolute resemblance, but each one in its own way resembles him a bit.

I maintain that there is no synthesis of Lenin, and there cannot be one and the same synthesis of Lenin for each and everyone…But there is a synthesis of him. This is a representation based on photographs, books, and notes.

It should be stated firmly that with the appearance of photographs, there can be no question of a single, immutable portrait. Moreover, a man is not just one sum total; he is many, and sometimes they are quite opposed.

By means of a photograph or other documents, we can debunk any artistic synthesis produced by one man of another.

So we refuse to let Lenin be falsified by art.

Art has failed miserably in its struggle against photography for Lenin.

There is nothing left for it but to enlarge photographs and make them worse.

The less authentic the facts about a man, the more romantic and interesting he becomes.

So that is why modern artists are often so fond of depicting events long past and not of today. That is why artists have enjoyed less popularity when they have depicted contemporaneity — they are criticized, it is difficult to lie to their faces…and they are acknowledged afterward when their contemporaries have died off.

Tell me frankly, what ought to remain of Lenin:

  • an art bronze?
  • oil portraits?
  • etchings?
  • water colors?
  • his secretary’s diary, his friends’ memoirs?


  • a file of photographs taken of him at work and rest?
  • archives of his books, writing pads, notebooks?
  • shorthand reports, films, phonograph records?

I don’t think there’s any choice.

Aleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). Assembling for a Demonstration. 1928-30. Gelatin silver print, 19 1:2 x 13 7:8%22 (49.5 x 35.3 cm). Mr. and Mrs. John Spencer Fund

Art has no place in modern life. It continues to exist as long as there is a mania for the romantic and as long as there are people who love beautiful lies and deception.

Every modern cultured man must wage war against art, as against opium.

Photograph and be photographed!

Crystallize man not by a single “synthetic” portrait, but by a whole lot of snapshots taken at different times and in different conditions. Paint the truth.

Value all that is real and contemporary.

And we will be real people, not actors.

Pioneer-by-Alexander-Rodchenko290N09020_753LGAleksandr Rodchenko, Pioneer GirlDSC05035RODCHENKO (ALEXANDER) The Student, 1927SONY DSCrodchenko_ogromnyydsc03937 fleshandmetal_11_rodchenko-webAleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). Balconies. 1925. Gelatin silver print, 11 7:16 x 9 1:16%22 (29 x 23 cm). Gift of the Rodchenko family Aleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). At the Telephone. 1928. Gelatin silver print, 15 9:16 x 11 1:2%22 (39.5 x 29.2 cm). Mr. and Mrs. John Spencer Fund Aleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). Varvara Stepanova. 1936. Gelatin silver print, 14 7:8 x 10%22 (37.8 x 25.4 cm). The Parkinson FundCRI_247974 (1)Александр Родченко. Портреты,1924.rossiya s 1922 po 2000 aleksandr rodchenko. Осип Брик. 19246e0b77772e45Portrait-of-Osip-Brik-LEF-ad-postery-by-Alexander-Rodchenko (1)39eb889b5ff87c5458d09b9f4662683fb4c96cb3 Mayakovsky-with-Scottie-19247d7924ed169817a89693503339d86b9c49392c7e Александр-Родченко2 vladimir-mayakovsky-1924-rodchenko-1372292421_org 38_200728a8c80 84dsc03943Александр Родченко. Лиля Брик и Луэлла Краснощекова 1924. Дата- 18.10.2013 Rodchenko-1931-Kirsanov-i-Aseev

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