By Roman Yarovitsyn
Lately I’ve been increasingly remembering one of the most striking episodes of my early career as a photographer.
All this happened during times that was later nicknamed “cannon carriage racing”. The funeral ceremony for senior Soviet officials involved placing a coffin on a cannon carriage which carried the deceased on his last journey. There were a period in USSR history, when each new ‘Gensek’ (citizens called General Secretaries) did not have time to serve at least one year due to old age.
So, the top funeral in Soviet-era Moscow happened every year, because every next Gensek was older than the one before. Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, Yuri Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko left our world in 1985.
Soviet traditions provided mass visual campaign in every locality. It meant mourning portraits must appear on important buildings facades in the centre of every city, village and even farm offices.
Portrait dimensions depended on the size of settlement and importance of the building. In my small city the most important building was the Culture Palace in the centre of the city (named “Lenin Square” of course). The main mourning portrait in our town must be placed at this palace façade, just opposite the monument to USSR founder Vladimir Lenin.
The photographic section, where I started my career, was situated in this Culture Palace, the major cultural institution of the town. And making photographic portraits of dead Genseks was one of the inevitable duties of this section’s supervisor.
When Leonid Brezhnev died I was too young and didn’t participate yet in this section. But Andropov and Chernenko forced me to quickly learn the skills of extra-large format printing.
The dimensions of the portraits were two metres wide and three metres high. It had to be clearly visible from the opposite side of a wide enough central city square. Of course, I didn’t make the prints on my own. Our supervisor Viktor Ivanovich (Ivanovich isn’t a surname, but a patronym) used me as the assistant, the same as his several grown-up colleagues.
It was a great school for me, and an exciting adventure for a teenager. In those years I was still a high-school student. And if the first portrait had to be printed on a day off, then the second time the palace director asked my school management to let me out of class, a huge honour for a schoolboy.
Viktor Ivanovich knew that I was already skillful enough to count on my help. This adventure revealed to me the essence of Soviet reality in full. I realised that there are things for which our state will never spare money and resources, although the country in that period lacked many of the most necessary things. Management used such moments to stock up most usable stuff. God knows, how much photographic paper, film and chemistry were decommissioned thanks to Gensek funerals.
For example, when our temporary staff prepared to print Chernenko, one of us dropped a 20-litre glass bottle full of just prepared fixing solution. Our lab was in a basement with a concrete floor covered with thin linoleum. Fixing bath died instantly, but lost hyposulfite was not a big problem. The problem was the lost time. The picture must be made FAST.
Now we had to urgently make another 20 litres. Guys just took another portion from the warehouse and did it. The floor, covered after drying with white crystals, was washed later, when the whole job was done in the next enlarging room.
First of all, Viktor Ivanovich photographed the original portrait with his own Pentacon Six TL. It was the best available camera in outback USSR and we needed the biggest possible negative for supersized enlargement.
There were a lot of original Gensek portraits with good picture quality. Note that only one portrait was approved and had to be used across the entire USSR. Not one alternative portrait existed. The iconic face was published in every Soviet magazine on flyleafs, even the magazine Soviet Photo. So, it was easy to find a source picture. But the hardest thing was to make a large-sized print. No two jobs were the same. But I had experienced teachers.
Fortunately, there was enough space in our lab and we had pro enlarger ‘Belarus-2’, suitable for negative up to 9 x 12 cm. It could project image both to table-bed and to the floor by changing the direction of its light. It could even be turned to project image on the wall.
One more problem was to make a print of two metres wide. Photographic paper of such width was not available in the USSR, and I doubt anywhere else either. Fortunately, our section was supplied as a pro studio and we had a paper in wide rolls.
Each roll was a little bit wider than one metre, 105cm if I remember correctly. We just had to cut two pieces of paper and hang them on the wall, where the image was focused previously. I must say, it is not easy to roll up and accurately cut three metres of light-sensitive photographic paper in the darkroom, low illuminated by red lamps. It’s even more difficult to secure sheets three metres high, and absolutely impossible to do it alone, that’s why mine and the other staff’s help was so necessary.
But the biggest problem was paper processing. There was nothing to even think about cuvettes of this size! Also we didn’t have any automatic processor, more over that times me and my colleagues didn’t even know the existence of such a technology miracle! But Viktor Ivanovich was an experienced studio manager.
It is worth saying that in those days photographers were not afraid of b&w solutions. But chemicals for colour photography were considered dangerous
Co-ordination of our section was his part-time evening job, but the main job for him was at high-tech defence factory, which sponsored our palace. Of course, there were a lot of experts who worked there, who had perfect skills in metal processing. I already wrote that professional photography in USSR was impossible without photographer’s personal cooperation with turners, welders and milling operators. Our master knew how to get along with workers. This people once made for him two tubs of stainless steel, not too wide, but deep and long enough. Their capacity was exactly 20 litres.
One of them we intended for developer and the other for the fixer bath. Every exposed sheet we rolled up and put down into developer. And after that one or two of us rewound the roll into another to let the developer do its job. This manipulation was my personal duty in addition to developer preparing from separate powders.
It is worth saying that in those days photographers were not afraid of b&w solutions. But chemicals for colour photography were considered dangerous. During my entire career before the digital revolution I probably spent more than a month in total up to my elbows in b&w developer and as you can see, I’m still alive and quite healthy. Maybe, my skin is not too sensitive for chemicals.
Instead of stop bath we rinsed each roll in a cast iron bath, the same as found in any Soviet apartment’s bathroom. Such a bath installed in our darkroom was usual in almost every Soviet pro lab, because dedicated processing tables were available for only a very few. In a fixing bath there were the same manipulations with paper, as in developer, and after that the sheet returned to the large bath for final wash.
Read more of Roman Yarovitsyn’s stories:
- Life as a 1990s newspaper photographer shooting on a Zenit-E
- Amateur photography in the USSR: Part One
- Amateur photography in the USSR: Part Two
The difficulty was that portrait consisted from two paper bars and they could not be developed simultaneously. In case of mistake of developing duration, the two different halves could appear with a different tone. To top it all off exposure was very long because we did not have powerful enough light sources in the enlarger. We spoiled at least one-third of a 100m-long roll of paper in both cases. But I bet many of you are asking: “What do you then do with two wet halves of a giant portrait?”
Here I must tell one more story. The death of a General Secretary was an extraordinary event in the USSR, even when it became, for a few years, an annual routine. So, the whole staff of the Culture Palace was involved. Staff artist were not excluded.
It’s worth saying here that the posters in all Soviet cinemas were painted by type designers, Every self-respecting cinema had a stuff painter to make posters. Our Culture Palace was not a cinema, but its concert hall was equipped with a professional film installation for showing 35mm anamorphic widescreen movies. A film show took place here at least once a week. There was a frequent need to create posters for amateur and professional concerts.
Our staff artist joined work immediately after us, sticking still wet prints onto the wooden tablet. Anyone who has at least once been behind the scenes of Soviet cultural institutions knows well how confusing the numerous corridors and staircases inside. To prevent the need to squeeze the tablet through the corridors and narrow doors, the final assemblage of the portrait took place in the entrance hall of the Culture Palace. And less than after an hour, a serious face with black ribbon appeared opposite Lenin’s monument.
Our job was done. The section justified its existence, Viktor Ivanovich justified confidence and now had the opportunity to order more photographic paper, films and more chemicals. It was important for authorities, that he could quickly fulfill such a responsible task. May be that helped them turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the ordered paper, films and chemicals were later used for commercial photography.
However, this is how every photo studio and even the entire consumer economy in the USSR worked. In fact, it was precisely such an unwritten agreement that Soviet power stood on.