A great innovator and a seminal figure in Russian Constructivism, Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976) left an indelible mark on the evolution of early 20th-century Russian photography and photojournalism. “The Bolshevik revolution in Russia swept away the bourgeois order and the bourgeois aesthetic,” writes historian of Russian photography Valery Stigneev. “The builders of a new society needed their own language and idols. On this great, fast-moving wave of art rose Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Aleksandr Deyneka, El Lissitzky, and others. More accurately, they made this Art. Boris Ignatovich made Photography... Ignatovich created a frame like a sculptor, shearing off anything superfluous, and bringing the image to life like a movie.”
Born in the city of Slutsk, in present-day Belarus, Ignatovich was a journalist before he became a photographer. In 1923, he began taking photographs, and by the end of the decade he had established himself as a leader in the field of photojournalism, bringing to the medium fresh perspectives and an energetic, stylistic approach. Ignatovich embraced the Constructivist experimentation permeating artistic circles in Moscow, and was largely responsible for bringing the relatively new medium of photography into the new avant-garde fold. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, his photographs, photo-essays and aerial surveys were widely published both within and on the covers of periodicals such as Ogonyok, Sovetskoe Foto, Pravda, Soviet Architecture, Krasnaya Neva, and USSR in Construction. In 1929, Ignatovich worked alongside Aleksandr Rodchenko for the prominent vanguard photography journal Daesh, and published photographs in all fourteen issues.
In 1930, Ignatovich joined October, the avant-garde union of artists, architects, filmmakers, and photographers whose photography section was led by Rodchenko. Founded in 1928 with participation by Gustav Klutsis, Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, Varvara Stepanova, Alexander Deyneka, Diego Rivera, and others, October arose from the Constructivist tradition of industrial and applied arts, and explored new forms of artistic expression for a nascent Soviet culture. Members of October were inspired by Ignatovich’s photographs and incorporated them into both their personal work and their designs for various publications. Stepanova, for example, integrated Ignatovich’s photograph Red Army into her 1930 photomontage of the same name, which she published in the arts and politics magazine Za Rubezhom, and placed Ignatovich’s photographs alongside Rodchenko’s in her album From Merchant Moscow to Socialist Moscow (1931). In 1929, when El Lissitzky was commissioned to design covers for a series of books representing architectural fantasies of America, France, and Russia, he used Ignatovich’s photograph With A Board (1929) for his photomontage on the cover of the first volume, Russia: The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union (Neues Bauen in der Welt). In 1931, when Rodchenko was expelled from October, Ignatovich took over as director of the photography section until party officials disbanded the group in 1932.
Like an architect, Ignatovich meticulously constructed his images and included only elements that he deemed necessary to convey meaning. His work is characterized by masterful expressions of light and shadow, as well as rigorous, geometric compositions. Some of his photographs, such as Monument to Ferdinand Lassalle (1930), even appear at first glance to be photomontages. In Control Lever, Dynamo Factory, Moscow (1930), Ignatovich focused his camera’s attention on the levers of the Russian-owned and operated Dynamo factory, arranging them in a rhythmic sequence within the frame of the image to evoke the rhythm not only of the machinery itself, but also of an efficient, ideal socialist society. Among his innovations were some of the first aerial photographs of Leningrad, captured from an R-5 bomber plane in 1931, as well as experimentations with cinematography and filmmaking; in 1930, he helped to produce one of the first sound films, Olympiad of Art.
Ignatovich participated in all major exhibitions on Soviet photography at the time, including Ten Years of Soviet Photography (1928) and The First All Union Exhibition of Art Photography (1937-1938), and exhibited abroad as early as 1929 at the seminal Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany. At the First October Exhibition in Gorky Park in Moscow in 1931, his photographs were displayed alongside Rodchenko’s. He declined an invitation to participate in the 1935 exhibition Masters of Soviet Photography, which was organized just a year after the First Soviet Writers Conference (1934) that enforced the policy of Socialist Realism across all art forms. His open criticism of the exhibition jury coincided with growing artistic censorship in the Soviet Union, while reflecting the photographer’s own integrity as an artist. Ignatovich remained faithful to photographic experimentation for the entirely of his career.
From the first day of involvement in World War II, Ignatovich worked as a military photographer, publishing photographs of the army for the journal Boevoe Znamia (Banner of War). He photographed on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, riding on horseback with the soldiers and reporting on both the military action of the war and the conditions and daily life in the trenches and encampments. He also photographed the signing of the Potsdam Declaration in 1945. After the war, he began experimenting with color photography, landscapes, and portraiture. He continued to work for Pravda and Ogonyok, and became a department head at the publishing house Iskusstvo (Art).
Ignatovich continued working as a photographer and exhibiting his work until his death in 1976. In 1969, in honor of his seventieth birthday, he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Central House of Journalists in Moscow, organized by the Union of Soviet Journalists. Ignatovich printed eighty-five large-scale gelatin silver prints for the exhibition, which is preserved in its entirety and provides both a remarkable survey of the photographer’s decades-long career, as well as an unparalleled glimpse into the social, economic, cultural, and political reality of the Soviet Union during its formative years in the first half of the twentieth-century. Nailya Alexander Gallery represents the Boris Ignatovich Estate.