Molly Thomasy Blasing: Snapshots of the Soul: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Modern Russian Culture

New York: Cornell University Press, 2021, ISBN10: 150175369X, 328 p.

Lucija Furač
Boris Pasternak, Marina Cvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, Bella Akhmadulina, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Andrei Sen-Sen’kov, Kirill Medvedev, Lev Rubinshtein, Sergei Vasiliev, photography, Russian-language modernist and postmodernist poetry and prose, ekphrasis, emigration, poetics, British realist novel, French New Novel, modernism, technology.

How can photography inform poetic language? Molly Thomasy Blasing, an associate professor of Russian studies at the University of Kentucky (USA) who specialises in modern and contemporary Russian poetry as well as encounters between literature and the visual arts, tries to answer this question in her book Snapshots of the Soul: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Modern Russian Culture. In five chapters and a coda, Blasing tracks the many ways in which musings on photography’s mechanical and chemical processes defined the linguistic practises associated with several twentieth-century Russian poets.

In the introduction, the author defines the context of her research, the modern world increasingly saturated with images. However, tracing the many ways in which poets react to them, Blasing points out that it is not ekphrasis that interests her. In other words, she does not want to merely examine descriptions of photographs in their writing but rather to consider the various ways in which photography came to inform the understanding of poetic communication for each of the poets, which Blasing calls “the ontological connection between the lyric and the snapshot” (Blasing 2021: xxiii) that links the studied oeuvres, making them original. Each of the following five chapters touches on a particular author and the role of photography in his or her poetics. In the coda, she offers a brief glimpse into the state of poetry and photography in the digital age.

Blasing focuses on the Russian-language poetic register found in the writings by authors of the first Russian emigration, Soviet, and post-Soviet times, namely the works of Boris Pasternak, Marina Cvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, Bella Akhmadulina, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Andrei Sen-Sen’kov, Kirill Medvedev, Lev Rubinshtein, and Sergei Vasil’ev. Balanced in terms of “gender, historicization, and stature” (two women and two men, two poets who spent significant time in emigration and two who did not leave the Soviet Union, two active around the turn of the century and two in postwar Soviet times), the selection of authors allows Blasing to illuminate the attitudes toward photography and its impact on literary production where one would not necessarily expect these to be relevant (ibid.: 5). Even though she continuously refers to these authors as “poets,” Blasing examines their prose, epistolary legacy, and philosophical essays as well, which implies a broader understanding of the term ‘poetic.’ Ultimately, Blasing treats boundaries between different literary categories more realistically than rigid formalism would. It is indeed convincing that, for instance, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and his “Singular Days” – the former being a novel and the latter a poem – share an inner logic of representation that goes beyond the confines of their respective literary forms (referential shifts, in other words, happen ‘across’ different accepted frameworks and the impetuses for them can definitely be said to be extraliterary).

Blasing warns about two major deficiencies in the existing scholarship on the intersection between photography and poetry. On the one hand, studies on ekphrasis generally exclude photography and prioritise painting and sculpture. On the other, studies on photography’s impact on other media often exclude poetry. It is worth noting that the Soviet avant-garde has long been more attractive to scholars than modernism, both in literary studies and in art history. Blasing, however, reminds the reader that it was modernist literature that first “discovered” the everyday experience as its subject of interest, which coincided with the proliferation of photography. Unfortunately, whenever the intersection of poetry and photography is examined, it is focused in terms of the photomontage believed to be illustrative of a poetic text.

While Blasing sees her work somewhat close to that of Andrew D. Miller and Christophe Wall-Romana, she justifiably considers it pioneering, as she deals with the reception of photography in the Russian poetic imagination. In his Poetry, Photography, Ekphrasis, Miller undertakes a detailed study of photography’s potential to offer a unique type of ekphrasis evident in poetry since the nineteenth century onward. Wall-Romana, on the other hand, tracks French poets’ sources of inspiration in the modern world of images, identifying a “language turn” to photography and cinema (Wall-Romana 2012: 347) in Cinepoetry: Imaginary Cinemas in French Poetry. Blasing’s connection to these works, therefore, lies in her interest in the ekphrasis of which the photograph is capable and the impact it can have on literary production, even as the authors’ points of concern differ. Relatively recent works that, however, do closely resonate with Blasing’s central insight about photography’s influence on discursive practices as well as on how one ought to read them are Stephen C. Hutchings’ Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image and Katherine M. H. Reischl’s Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors. While Hutchings analyses “the function of images of photography in nineteenth-century Russian fiction,” exploring both the influence of Soviet cinematic adaptations of literature on the public sphere and the post-Soviet rearticulation of identity in the light of television (Hutchings 2005: 3), Reischl dives deeper into the nature of the “truth” photography provides and how it allows to reclaim “subjectivity and the twentieth-century authorial self” in the works of different Russian authors (Reischl 2018: 18).

It is worth pointing out that several scholars unconcerned both with Russian literature and poetry as such identified corresponding shifts in representation in the development of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European ‘novel’, namely that of British realism and the so-called French New Novel.1 Again, to consider Blasing’s insights from that perspective is to argue against any sort of essentialism regarding literary forms and the dynamics of their change, a line of thought especially tempting when it comes to writing a history of the novel. In that context, Blasing ‘redeems’ the importance of poetry.

Beginning with Pasternak, Blasing explains that “the technological mechanisms of the camera” shaped the motifs which make “the lexicon and metaphor of photography” (ibid.: 24) in his poetry and prose. Similar procedures can be observed in the case of other poets considered in the book. Blasing even tackles their physical engagement with the medium as all of them were exposed to photography, either through family members, or by picking it up as a hobby of their own. Blasing concludes that even if photography was not the primary concern of these poets, its presence defined their thinking about the nature of resemblance, the dynamism of modern existence, the connection between image and memory as well as image and death, the ways to fixate the passage of time with the help of poetic descriptions, and, along the way, the very position and possibilities of the speaking lyrical subject. In the case of Pasternak, for example, photography is the basis for a new kind of attitude toward the world, a new vision. It is a highly subjective matter, for it illuminates one’s consciousness, it tells something about it. Pasternak extensively turns to photography-dependent metaphors which do not make him dwell on the idea of frozen moments in time but allow him to build his poetics around movement and continuity instead (ibid.: 50-51, 54). Fascinated by the tension between the static and the dynamic, “everything gives off rays of light” for Pasternak, so his collection of poems My Sister Life is entirely built around images of "flashbulbs, light-sensitizing solution, and animated photographic portraits" (ibid.: 49).

On the one hand, it is even possible to talk about a certain apotheosis of the photographic medium among the twentieth-century poets with the exception of the more contemporary ones (Medvedev, Rubinshtein, and Vasil’ev). These three, on the contrary, exhibit disappointment in the possibilities of photography, remaining unimpressed with the state of society in the digital age (it is important, however, that the kind of photography they have in mind differs from the one the earlier poets preoccupied themselves with, both technologically and in terms of the social practises that accompany it). On the other hand, photography has allowed for a turn in the subject’s relationship with the world he or she is reporting about – again, an impulse for idealisation, in which photography is taken to be a metaphysically potent wonder, has conditioned that process. The question that arises is how credible the account of an experience lived through by the speaking subject is. Just as is the case with the British realist novel and the French New Novel, the issue of realism and its contingency becomes pressing in times of instantaneous, technologically precise image-making and the readership aware of it. Blasing writes, for instance, how “the pinnacle of realism, according to Pasternak, is achieved only when the artist is able to reproduce the finest details of life in his work, just as they appear to him at that precise moment of perception,” and there is nothing that embodies that presumption as literally as taking photographs does (ibid.: 38).

What also makes Blasing’s book important is its illumination not just of the historical circumstances in which the poets were active but also the roots of their intellectual development. While the context of Pasternak’s relevant writing lies in the early Soviet debates about the possibilities of photography and cinema to represent the new socialist people and the world of their making, emigration in particular determined Cvetaeva and Brodsky’s work, and the Soviet Thaw that of Akhmadulina. Further on, each of the authors was influenced by specific thinkers in a crucial way. For instance, Pasternak seemed to have adopted Henry Bergson’s concept of ‘durée’ and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, and both conditioned his thinking about photography (ibid.: 66). On the other hand, knowledge of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious might be essential to Sen-Sen’kov and Dragomoschchenko’s poetic paradigm since these poets showed interest in the possibility of worlds beyond what is perceived by the human eye alone.

Snapshots of the Soul will be of interest to students and scholars of Russian language and literature, general literary studies (especially for those interested in poetry), art history (with an emphasis on those primarily concerned with modern and contemporary screen-based media practises), philosophy (those concerned with questions in aesthetics and, possibly, eager to explore the practical implications of phenomenology), and everyone else open to a thoughtful exploration of this book’s layered subject.

Lucija Furač
Independent Scholar


1 Nancy Armstrong, Fiction in the Age of Photography: Legacy of British Realism, 1999; Ann Jefferson, The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction, 1980; Irene Albers, ‘The Shock of the Photographs, the Weight of the Words’: Photographic War Memories in Claude Simon’s La Route des Flanders, in: Thomas Wägenbaur (ed.), The Poetics of Memory, 1998.


Lucija Furač is an art historian and writer based in Zagreb. Her main professional interests are film theory and history (notably that of Southeast European cinema), trends in linguistic practices in art criticism and art-historical writing, and specific topics within the philosophy of language.


Blasing, Molly Thomasy. 2021. Snapshots of the Soul: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Modern Russian Culture. Ithaca, New York.

Hutchings, Stephen C. 2005. Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image. Milton Park, England; New York City.

Miller, Andrew D. 2015. Poetry, Photography, Ekphrasis. Liverpool.

Reischl, Katherine M. H. 2018. Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors. Ithaca, New York.

Wall-Romana, Christophe. 2012. Cinepoetry: Imaginary Cinemas in French Poetry. New York City

Suggested Citation

Furač, Lucija. 2022. Review: “Molly Thomasy Blasing: Snapshots of the Soul: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Modern Russian Culture.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 15. DOI:


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