David King, the photographer and designer who died last week, was best known for his collections of posters, images and artefacts from the Russian Revolution.
King’s interest in the Russian Revolution was not purely academic.
As art editor of the Sunday Times magazine, he went to Russia in 1970 to research an article on the centenary of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s birth.
He soon found that a lot of the material he collected there had been doctored or falsified.
Leon Trotsky and other leading revolutionaries central to the 1917 Russian Revolution had effectively been removed from history.
Much of his work from this point was dedicated to reclaiming the revolution and recreating a world that was lost when Joseph Stalin rewrote the history books.
King’s books are not simply photographic records, but are designed to guide the reader to a true understanding of the period.
In The Commissar Vanishes—the Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, he reveals how photographs were retouched in an attempt to change history.
For instance, he placed a 1918 photograph of the Council of People’s Commissars—the revolutionary cabinet—beside a 1970 version of the same photo.
The original 33 members have been reduced to 4 as many of these commissars, including the revolutionary leader Trotsky, were murdered during the Stalinist period.
Although the design of his beautifully produced books is integral to them, King was interested in content far more than in form.
In oppressive regimes, he said, “design doesn’t much matter. The horrors of the regime are what matter”.
So with Nazi films he argued, “I don’t care how well it’s filmed or what the lighting’s like. It’s a disgusting Nazi rally”.
In the 1970s King designed anti-apartheid posters and posters and logos for the Anti Nazi League.
He produced some of the most iconic political posters of the period.
His final book, John Heartfield—Laughter is a Devastating Weapon, is a collection of works by the radical German artist.
Heartfield used art as a weapon against the Nazis in his political montages of the 1930s.
In Red Star Over Russia—a Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin, King writes, “Even as a child I detested capitalism.
“When my uncle, who was a socialist, taught me about the true nature of the ruling class I agreed with him that it clearly had to be overthrown.
“I used to dream, like all children, how life would be in the 21st century.