“We are obliged to experiment,” proposed Alexander Rodchenko. It was 1928 and the multi-talented Russian artist was involved in a heated public debate over the daring verticality of his photographs.
Not only was he accused of plagiarising visual experiments common in Europe, he was also denounced as a proponent of “bourgeois formalism”, this in an era when Russian ideologues railed against “fake setups that obstruct the meaning of photography and cheapen reality”.
Rodchenko defended himself bravely: “Photography — the new, rapid, concrete reflector of the world — should surely undertake to show the world from all vantage points, and to develop people’s capacity to see from all sides.”
Thoroughly immersed in the possibilities of what it meant to be progressive and modern, he rejected the horizontal view — “of man standing on Earth, looking straight ahead” — in favour of pictures that jolted the senses.
This photo, part of a series depicting “New Moscow”, showcases his preferred oblique style, of seeing things “from above down” and “from below up”. Unfortunately, Rodchenko’s particular way of looking didn’t win him many friends. Three years after joining the influential October circle of artists, he was expelled in 1932.
Years later, the distinction of Rodchenko’s vision has been retrieved. Earlier this month a private European collector paid R628000 at a Christie’s auction in London for a vintage print of this photo — a duplicate also appears in a collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Although small change compared with the R19.2million paid for a rare photo by Edward Steichen last year, and not without irony given Rodchenko’s strong Leninist views, it is a vindication of a life committed to showing more than the plainly factual. — Sean O’Toole