Rodchenko began taking photographs in the early 1920s, having created impressive bodies of work in painting, sculpture, and photo-collage. He made his first photographs for use in collages, but soon after began taking photographs that would stand on their own as individual works. Present in his camera images is the experimental spirit of the decade, a decade which saw new applications for photography created by El Lissitzky (Lot 21), Moholy-Nagy (Lots 20 and 22), and Man Ray (Lots 5, 9, and 25), among many others. Rodchenko became a master of framing and adventurous composition and brought the Constructivist diagonal to his photographs. Often his photographs were created for propaganda, but in the present image of his mother offered here, and in that of his daughter in Lot 18, we see Rodchenko’s experimental approach to photography applied to a personal agenda.
This image was taken in 1924 in Rodchenko’s studio, and the full negative shows his mother, Olga, seated at a table, reading the magazine Young Guard
. Lavrentiev, p. 62). She had learned to read late in life, yet the portrait captures her wholly absorbed in the act. In printing the image, Rodchenko chose to concentrate on his mother’s face and hand, arriving at what Peter Galassi describes as the ‘brilliant concision’ of the present cropping (Galassi, p. 110). While the opportunities for sentimentality in such a portrait would have been many in the hands of a less rigorous photographer, Rodchenko has created a tender yet austere image of his mother, and one that is wholly photographic in concept and execution. The image was reproduced with similarly tight cropping on the cover of Sovetskoe Foto
, No. 10, in 1927 and was also illustrated uncropped within that issue.
Few early prints of this portrait have appeared at auction. According to the photographer’s grandson Alexander Lavrentiev, the negative for this photograph was broken in the 1930s (Lavrentiev, p. 326).