"My Visual Diary": Sergej Tret'jakov's Photographic Activity

Erika M. Wolf, Wayne State University

"I don't know what would be more difficult for me on a writing trip: losing my pen and notebook or losing my camera?"
--S. Tret'jakov, Sovetskoe foto, 1934.

My paper will explore the photographic activity of the Soviet writer Sergej Tret'jakov (1892-1937) during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Beginning in the mid-1920s, Tret'jakov made use of photography to document experiences in China, on a collective farm in the Caucasus, and other writing trips. These photographs were used as research material for his documentary texts and were occasionally published as illustrations to his writings. Tret'jakov also published several texts, in which he discussed the relation of photography to his work as a writer. I will analyze photographs by Tret'jakov in light of these texts. I will also consider the impact of Tret'jakov's work on other writer-photographers, including Il'ja Erenburg and Il'ja Il'f.

In addition to employing photography in his literary and journalistic production, Tret'jakov also wrote a series of significant critical texts about photography. As editor of the last five issues of 'Novyj lef' in 1928, Tret'jakov contributed several texts to a major debate concerning left photographic practice and articulated a position distinct from that of his colleagues Aleksandr Rodchenko and Osip Brik. While most existing scholarship has characterized Soviet photography during this period as being divided into two camps (vanguard Formalists versus anti-formalist "Proletarians"), analysis of Tret'jakov's photographs and critical texts reveals a greater complexity underlying photographic debates of the period. In the early 1930s, Tret'jakov's critical writings helped shape the emergence of the "fotoocherk," a new Soviet documentary genre. The "fotoocherk," an extended narrative photographic essay that employed both images and text, became the preeminent photographic genre in Stalinist visual culture of the 1930s. Through Tretiakov's photographic activity, I will trace the relation of left avant-garde photographic practice to the articulation of Socialist Realist aesthetics.

After his demise in the Terror in 1937, all of Tret'jakov's work fell into obscurity. While his early poetic and dramatic work have attracted the attention of recent scholars, Tret'jakov's journalistic and photographic works have been largely overlooked. As a left writer who made use of photography, his work has been over shadowed by the enormous reputation and oeuvre of Aleksandr Rodchenko, who managed to survive the Stalin period. This paper will shed light on a relatively unexplored areas of both Tret'jakov's work and early Soviet photography.