Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko was born on the 5th of December 1891 in St. Petersburg to a working-class family. They moved to Kazan after the death of his father, in 1909. When Rodchenko decided to become an artist, he hadn’t had any exposure to the art world. He drew much inspiration from his early influences, which were mainly art magazines that were available to him. In 1910, he began studies under Nikolai Feshin and Georgii Medvedev at the Kazan School of Art, where he met Varvara Stepanova, whom he later married. Their daughter, Varvara Rodchenko, would be born in 1925.
After 1914, he continued his artistic training at the Stroganov Institute in Moscow. At this early stage in his career, he began creating his first abstract drawings. The following year, he participated in “The Store” exhibition organized by Vladimir Tatlin, who was another formative influence in his development as an artist.
Rodchenko’s work was heavily influenced by Cubism and Futurism, as well as by Malevich’s compositions, which featured geometric forms deployed against a white background. While Rodchenko was a student of Tatlin’s he was also his assistant, and the interest in figuration that characterized Rodchenko’s early work disappeared as he experimented with the elements of design. He utilized a compass and ruler in creating his paintings, with the goal of eliminating expressive brushwork.
In 1921 he became a member of the Productivist group which advocated the incorporation of art into everyday life. He gave up painting in order to concentrate on graphic design for posters, books, and films. Impressed by the photomontage of the German Dadaists, Rodchenko began his own experiments in the medium, first employing found images in 1923, and from 1924 on shooting his own photographs. His first published photomontage illustrated Mayakovsky’s poem, “About This”, in 1923. From 1923 to 1928 Rodchenko collaborated closely with Mayakovsky on the design and layout of LEF and Novy LEF, the publications of Constructivist artists.
His photography was socially engaged, formally innovative, and opposed to a painterly aesthetic. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles—usually high above or down below—to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He wrote: “One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.” Rodchenko regarded photography as mechanical and objective and therefore socially progressive.
Rodchenko was accused in the press of 1928 of plagiarizing his celebrated style of oblique angles from “imperialist” photographers in the West. He valiantly answered this first of many attacks, but he gradually attempted to adapt to the new political climate. He joined October in 1929, a group whose announced aim was to bridge the gap between advanced art and the working class. In the 1930s, with the changing Party guidelines governing artistic practice (Stalin came securely in power in 1932), he was forced to concentrate on sports photography and images of parades and other choreographed movements and in 1932 his photography was denounced as “bourgeois formalism” and he was expelled. In an attempt to reform in the face of continued attacks, Rodchenko accepted an extended assignment to photograph the building of a canal from the White Sea to the Baltic. His pictures appeared in the December issue of USSR in Construction, of a lavish propaganda monthly. Rodchenko seems to have accepted the wooden propaganda about the building of the canal: that the hard work redeemed those who had strayed from Communist ideals. In fact, it was the first of Stalin’s major gulags, in which some 200,000 people died.
He returned to painting in the mid-1930’s, but stopped photographing in 1942. He continued to organize photography exhibitions for the government.
He passed away in Moskow on the 3rd of December 1956.