MOSCOW—Photographers for the old Soviet TASS news agency labored under censors and government demands that their work promote official ideology. But they also enjoyed prestige and privileged access as they chronicled seven decades of the remarkable and the mundane.
Now directors of the successor ITAR-TASS agency lament that much of the vast archive of more than 1 million photos sits in wooden filing cabinets in the agency's dilapidated headquarters, with no plans and no money to digitize the collection or ensure its preservation.
The one-of-a-kind collection includes the once famous, such as first man in space Yuri Gagarin, beetle-browed Leonid Brezhnev and octogenarian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. It captures famines and other tragedies, ostentatious parades and Communist Party sessions. It reveals life under the fallen system: factory openings, fashion shows, cramped apartments and barren shops.
The photographers "created masterpieces," said Felix Shmayger, the photo division's director. "Even through an official chronicle, you can see many things about how the country looked and how it wanted to show itself."
Some of the best photographs, especially from World War II, have been electronically archived and published the world over. But the bulk of the collection—80 percent or more—isn't in digital form and may never be.
The creations are archaically catalogued: Photos and captions are attached to 5-by-7-inch poster-board cards and crammed into wooden filing cabinets that fill several rooms of the agency's first floor, where the windows are covered with iron grates.
In fire-prone Russia, the aging four-story building, where people still smoke, has no sprinkler system. Protecting the photos from fire would mean relying on a few handheld fire extinguishers.
While archivists and photo agencies all over face the same preservationist challenge, ITAR-TASS' task is larger than most, because of its sheer volume and because there's no way to pay for the gargantuan undertaking. Officials admit that it's no way to treat history or do business.
"The organization is still stuck in the Soviet mode," lamented Mikhail Grachev, head of the photo agency's international section. "We should sell to live. We suffer from a lack of promotion."
Shmayger said the agency, still government owned, can't afford to "make the big investment required to make our archive digital."
Chinese counterparts at the official Xinhua Agency hired a team of 150 people to get its collection online in a few years—more people than are currently employed by ITAR-TASS' entire photo division. Currently, there are only five people in the archiving department. Aside from special requests, that's enough to add only 30 historical photographs to the online stock daily.
That leaves a vanquished empire's visual history not buried, but waiting to see the light again.
The photo division is actually one of the most market-driven parts of the organization, which became ITAR-TASS after the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly 15 years ago. The redundant name stands for Information Telegraph Agency of Russia (ITAR), while TASS means Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union.
Shmayger said the photo division brings in $2 million in sales annually. Its staff of 130 is down from 250 when he became director four years ago, but that's still too many for its revenue.
The independent revenue offers a measure of freedom from state interference to staff photographers and freelancers, who collectively add up to 150 images daily, Shmayger said. Since 2000, new photos go into the online archive at www.tassphoto.com and are available for purchase.
The agency has published three photo books that sell poorly. Archivists contribute to exhibits, most recently to one in New York for the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They're preparing for July's meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The photo collection is perhaps rivaled only by the one at the Russian state archive in Krasnogorsk, which is even further behind in its digitization, a deputy director said.
Soviet nostalgia and history may have only limited commercial appeal, but the ITAR-TASS holdings are priceless, Shmayger said. "Not everything is about money. Our pride is our photo agency. Every person wants to leave a legacy on earth and this will be our legacy."
(Bonner reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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