The Commissar Vanishes

By David Michael Newstead.

David King died last month. He was a British graphic designer famous for his collection of Soviet photographs and posters. King spent years amassing his collection, building a visual portrait of history like a jigsaw puzzle.

The only reason I know about David King’s work though is because I was wandering around a bookstore while I was in high school. I found myself immediately drawn to his book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since.

On one level, The Commissar Vanishes is about Photoshop before there was Photoshop – where enemies of the state were airbrushed out of existence so often that an original photograph looked nothing like the multiple reproductions churned out after each purge. In many cases, Stalin was a constant presence, while the other people in the photo were at risk of being killed and then erased from history.

As if that weren’t Orwellian enough, the book also included defaced portraits of officials whose terrified friends and loved ones suddenly found themselves in possession of something illegal, something that had to be destroyed. The result being that victims’ photos were expunged both in public and in private.

But through his years of digging, David King was able to piece together the truth and show each iteration of the fabrications and the system that manufactured a cult of personality through statues, books, posters, photos, and paintings. Because of that work, his legacy is well-earned. David King was 73.