Around 1923 Rodchenko acquired a camera to make enlargements and reproductions for his collage and design work, and in April 1924, anticipating further work with Mayakovsky, he made a series of six studio portraits of the poet--his first lasting achievement as a photographer. In 1926 he used two of the pictures in collages for the front and back covers of Mayakovsky's book, Conversation with the Finance Inspector about Poetry.But Mayakovsky's death in 1930 (recorded as a suicide) created a new role for the portraits.
In 1935, Stalin proclaimed Mayakovsky a hero of the revolution, adding ominously that "indifference to his memory and to his work is a crime." Printed larger than before, often softly, in warm, romantic tones, Rodchenko's portraits became icons of the mythic propaganda that accrued to the poet. Rodchenko often printed his photographs differently to serve different functions; for example, he distinguished an exhibition print from a print for reproduction in a magazine. The new role that his Mayakovsky portraits took on in the 1930s occasioned the most prominent example of this difference.
The unadorned directness of the portraits corresponds to the geometric simplicity of Rodchenko's earlier work in painting. It also corresponds to the unpretentiousness of the ordinary identity photo. This short circuit between the vocabulary of advanced art and the most elemental qualities of vernacular photography is characteristic of the photographic modernism that Rodchenko and his contemporaries developed in the 1920s.