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.


A Century of the Trench Coat

By David Michael Newstead.

I was reading over the winter and at some point I stumbled onto an intriguing historical fact: trench coats got their name from the First World War.

I quickly got online to confirm and I learned that the now obvious origins of the name had been staring me in the face for years. Trench coats were worn by British officers during the harrowing trench warfare characteristic of World War One. The coats shielded soldiers from the wind and rain. And they would go on to become very popular in peacetime thanks to their utility and style.

Today, a hundred years later, trench coats are more closely associated with businessmen or hard-boiled detectives. That said, they represent one of many enduring legacies of that Great War a century ago.

Suffragette Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Suffragette is excellent on a granular-level from the acting to its film locations, period clothing, and cinematography. Against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, we see a snapshot of Britain a century ago – a country of impoverished slums, rigid class distinctions, and strong Victorian sensibilities.

The activists that challenged those norms go on to experience all the hardship that British society at the time can inflict. This comes in the form of police beatings, imprisonment, shaming, force feedings, and early attempts at government surveillance.

Some years ago, in fact, I recall seeing an old political cartoon from that era criticizing the force feeding of suffragettes on hunger strike. But knowing that that happened in a general sort of way is much different than watching it and Suffragette certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the past. Throughout the film, the drudgery, poverty, and violence of 1912 is as visceral as the chauvinism.

The film’s real accomplishment though is that it shows itself to be more than just a history lesson. After all, Saudi women only recently got the right to vote in August of this year.


Livestreaming 1984

Starting January 21, the D.C. Public Library is presenting Orwellian America – Government Transparency and Personal Privacy in the Digital Age. Among the events…

– A live-streamed, 11 hour marathon reading of George Orwell’s 1984.

– A screening of Frontline’s United States of Secrets, Part 1.

– A workshop on Tor, for anonymously surfing the web.

– Downloadable propaganda posters.

Check out Orwellian America 

Watch the 1984 Livestream