February 13, 2022

Sending Smiles from the Soviet Union


Sending Smiles from the Soviet Union
Vladimir Rufinovich Lagrange Image courtesy of Cameralabs.

When we think of the Soviet Union, our minds often go to the Cold War, the space race, and mustachioed dictators. The idea of a happy Soviet may even feel like a paradox, something we may not have even considered.

In the West, we have a strong photojournalism background: in 1958 Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac published The Americans, which showcased real Americans living their real lives, not just propaganda for the American dream. Diane Arbus followed the same MO when photographing New Yorkers, again showing everyday regular people just being people. What Frank and Arbus did for America, Vladimir Lagrange did for the Soviet Union: he showed everyday Soviets living their lives. Lagrange did not take his subject out of their environments; instead, he simply was an observer who caught them in a single moment in time being themselves, living in their own world.

A man and a woman holding each other in a park
In Love, 1965

Lagrange was born in 1939 in Moscow, to a mother who was a photo editor and to a father who was a photographer. It was destiny for Lagrange to become a photojournalist himself, and, thanks to this, we have his beautiful documentation of people during Russia’s Thaw, a time during the 60s when the Soviet Union was easing up on censorship, and the terrors of the Stalinist regime were beginning to fade. Lagrange worked in the Soviet and foreign press, the TASS photo chronicle, and later on he worked for several magazines, including the prestigious Soviet Union magazine
 

a group of men and women in red square chasing a flock of doves
Doves of Peace, 1962

The Thaw proves to have been a perfect time for Lagrange to capture Russians, as his works run counter to our conceptions of people during the Soviet period as being depressed, oppressed, and forever unsmiling. In his famous photograph, Doves of Peace (1962), we see a group of young men and women in Red Square: even though the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral are in the background, they are only seen faintly, and instead, it is the people that are at the forefront. Not only is the focus on the people, but they are happy and carefree as they playfully chase the doves

four children walking and having fun together
Friends, 1976

Lagrange’s perspective of Soviet life not only can change how Americans may look at this period, but his work was just as groundbreaking in Russia as well: previously, such photos were often staged, whereas Lagrange simply pointed his camera and clicked. He was able to capture humanity in a way that had not been previously explored. In the works of two other Soviet photographers, Rodchenko and Ignatovich, we don't see the same emphasis on people; we see an emphasis on lines and architecture, an emphasis that makes us think of industry and all of its metallic and hard edges. 

5 young girls practicing ballet
Young Ballet Dancers, 1962

The photography of Lagrange is emotional: he shows love, happiness, people at work, people dancing. He perfectly showcases humanity to its fullest during a time in which humanity may have seemed to be in question across the world. Photographers such as Lagrange will always be important, as they mirror the best of humanity and can give us a light even when we know that a Thaw can only exist because there was once a freeze

On January 22nd, 2022, Russia and the world mourned Vladimir Lagrange's passing at 82, but his legacy will be held with the deepest of gratitude.

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