Early Soviet Photography in Central Asia

Early Soviet Photography in Central Asia

Copyright (c) 2004 Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale

During the political and social turmoil of the decades surrounding the Russian revolution, Central Asia served as a refuge – or a place of temporary respite - for modernist artists and writers. They came with a variety of ambitions; seeking sun, an exotic locale or a relaxation of the political attention of the center. Almost every Russian photographer of note worked in the region. Shaikhet, Shagin, and Debabov  focused on monumental construction projects like the Turksib and the Ferghana canals. Giorgi Zelma, born and raised in Tashkent, returned for lengthy stays, producing extraordinary work that reflects his familiarity with the region’s native peoples and culture. The artist Max Penson fled the Belorussian pogroms of the teens and made Central Asia his permanent home, becoming by far the most important photographer to record the transformation of Tsarist Russia’s Muslim colonies into Soviet states. It is not surprising that there were no important photographers of Muslim background during this period. Despite the rhetoric of the day, Lenin’s “comprehensive and informative chronicle of photo-journalism” was a purely Russian projection, a falsification of Central Asia’s past and a vision of the future that was closer to advertising than to the “truth of photography”.

The innovations that characterized modernism in both East and West are most apparent in the work of the 1920s. The early Soviet photography has real vitality; revolutionary fervor jolts the picture plane to an acute angle, figures and action spill over the frame. There’s an excitement that cheap paper and murky developer can’t restrain. Men and women are in love – not with each other – but with wonderful machines: locomotives, tractors, and cranes. In a factory, a worker is surrounded, embraced by his machine. A placard on the wall exhorts them both to greater productivity.  In an affectionate gesture, he has placed a star on the wire that feeds it.

Georgi Zelma (1906-1984) had left Tashkent when he was quite young. The death of his father had left the family impoverished and he and his mother spent five weeks riding in boxcars to Moscow. Zelma joined a photo-club in his primary school, and began photography using an old box camera. He was encouraged by the filmmakers of the Proletkino (Proletarian Film) film studio, and hung around the older artists, taking photographs of the action. His early work appeared in the magazine Theatr and other entertainment oriented periodicals. Zelma is best known in the West for his WW2 images of Stalingrad and Odessa. For Zelma, as for many other Soviet photographers, the unofficial rules governing subject and style were set aside during wartime. However, much of Zelma’s most deliberately artistic work was produced between 1924 and 1929, when he was correspondent for the Russfoto agency in Central Asia. In addition to the standardized photographic set-pieces illustrating progress, Zelma made use of less politically charged Oriental subject matter (veiled women, men in turbans and chapans, minarets and domes) in photographs that are about formal composition, not socialist achievement.  This variety of approaches, of intents, gives Zelma’s work greater breadth and artistic integrity than that of many other photographers. His photographs of ordinary Central Asian people can be easy, even intimate. There is even a touch of irony in his photographs of the new Uzbek theater – the costumes are tawdry, the postures unconvincing, and after all, there was nothing to explain when everyone already knew the plot.

Max Penson was born in Byelorussia, the son of a bookbinder. Max’s education was furthered when his father found employment in a school that did not ordinarily admit Jews, and after completing his courses, the young Penson moved on to the school of ceramics in Mirgorod, in the Ukraine, and then entered the school of arts and crafts in the city of Vilna, Lithuania. He completed his studies in 1915 and returned to his hometown of Velizk. Velizk was one of the first town subjected to the Russian pogroms in the same year, and Penson fled to Central Asia, where he worked as a cashier in a tobacco factory in Kokand. He soon found work teaching drawing and painting in the local schools, and in 1917 he became head of the educational institutions under the department of general education. In 1921 the district of Ferghana presented him with a camera as a prize. The gift of the camera completely changed his life. He gave up painting and became more and more interested in photography. In 1923 he moved to Tashkent, where he began working as a professional photographer. In 1925 he was employed by Pravda Vostoka, the most important newspaper in Central Asia, a relationship that was maintained throughout his working life.

Zelma, Penson and other professional photographers working in Central Asia worked primarily for newspapers and weekly magazines disseminated locally and throughout the Soviet Union. Usually, only one or two prints were made of an image. Many that remain have penciled notations for the presses on the verso. Photographic artists crafted their work into collages that were featured prominently in public places. Extra prints might be given to colleagues and friends, but they weren’t placed on public sale except as postcards printed by the State. There is a peaceful, circular character to images of the twenties, the thirties, and the forties. The same photographic style appeared in newspapers, on kiosks, in magazines, and in the history books.

Regardless of who employed them, however, photographers still saw their work as their own. For most, employment by one photo agency or another was transient; they worked on contract, or by assignment. The agencies often kept the prints, but the negatives belonged to the photographer. Some artists took extraordinary measures to try to preserve their work. During WW2, Zelma’s wife was evacuated from Moscow, and having nowhere safe to store her husband’s work, she destroyed the prints, packed all the negatives – even the glass negatives – into suitcases and carried them with her to the Soviet Far East, moving from place to place. In consequence, most available prints by Zelma were made by him in the 1960s, often from damaged and scratched negatives.

Penson, who rarely left Central Asia, became the most important chronicler of Central Asian life for more than two decades. According to one biographer, Penson focused on certain themes at certain periods; 1926-1928 on collective farms, and on land and water reform, in 1930 on the textile industry, from 1931 to 1937 on new machinery factories and the development of the paper industry in Tashkent. This may have reflected his various assignments, or the issues of greatest political importance of the time, but Penson was much more versatile than this short-list indicates, and sought his own subjects. Penson took part in the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, winning the Grand Prix for his “Uzbek Madonna” portrait of a young woman, unveiled and publicly nursing her child. In 1939 Penson (along with Arkady Shaikhet and Max Alpert ) documented the construction of the Ferghana Canal. In the same year he and Alexander Rodchenko created the publication of the exhibition commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, to which Penson contributed over 300 photographs.

In 1940 Sergei Eisenstein wrote,
"There cannot be many masters left who choose a specific terrain for their work, dedicate themselves to it completely and make it an integrated part of their personal destiny… It is, for instance, virtually impossible to speak about the city of Ferghana without mentioning the omnipresent Penson who traveled all over Uzbekistan with his camera. His unparalleled photo archives contain material that enables us to trace a period in the republic's history, year by year and page by page. His whole artistic development, his whole destiny, was tied up with this wonderful republic."  .

Penson was a superb photographer, obsessive in his commitment to composition and form. His daughter Dina said, “He worked from morning to night, and then as soon as he got home he would disappear into his darkroom to print pictures for the next day’s paper. Mother did everything. Father didn’t even know what grade we were in at school. The only thing they ever quarreled about was the amount of money father spent buying photo paper.”  The family archives reveal a greater breadth of vision and direct communication with his subjects than is revealed by newspaper and magazine images.

When WW2 began, Penson, like all other Soviet photographers, concentrated on photographing the Red Army. His years of dedicated work and success as a propagandist could not protect him from the anti-Semitic activities encouraged by the “Doctor’s Plot.”  Penson lost his job for Pravda Vostoka in 1949, and the KGB forbade Penson to continue working as a photographer. He was deeply depressed and ill for the rest of his life, and died in 1959.

The photographs of Central Asia were actual, visual proof of Marxist theories of linear social development. (Today, similar theories justify the vilification of Chechens and other Muslims, and explain the complete failure of the center to grasp minority nationalities’ aspirations for self-rule.) Marxist theory proclaimed equality, but at the same time established a hierarchy of class in which the peasantry ranked below the proletariat in social development. Nationhood could exist in an industrialized society, but only in a rudimentary form among people who were primarily agricultural, and certainly not in a nomadic society.

Photographs depicted a dead Central Asia coming to life through Communism. The subordinate relationship of periphery to center was tremendously important, not just in confirming the Central Asians in their subordinate position, but also in reassuring Soviet Russians of their absolute right to govern. This primary function of supporting the communist program is also crucial to understanding the prominence of images from the peripheral states of the Soviet Union in national and international-market newspapers and magazines of the period. Russians were suffering too, but they had the consolation of their achievements in vanquishing the feudal landholders, removing the veil and educating the ignorant in the provincial Soviet republics. In Soviet period photographs, Central Asia’s 2500 years of rich cultural history and of literary, scientific and artistic achievement have completely disappeared. Most often, Uzbeks, Tadjiks and Kirgiz are shown reading the works of Stalin. But if not Stalin, by God, they are reading Pushkin!

As time passed the pressure to reiterate these themes grew stronger.  A few images from the Penson family archives include figures whose faces have been blacked out by the photographer. Many more have been completely destroyed.  Penson’s daughter Dina remembers her father burning his prints – even his negatives – in response to purge after purge of party activists. Possession of prints showing non-persons, traitors to the cause  – especially in proximity to others still in power - was cause for arrest, deportation or even a death sentence.

Portraits of anonymous workers are often more individual than those of officials, but they remain essentially character studies. In series depicting the establishment of collective farms, kolkhozes, Penson’s work is excellent, the compositions superb, the artistic ideas sound and also fresh. Yet all is tinged with a pathos engendered by deceit, with exploitation disguised as beneficent paternalism. “Development” is achieved at an unbelievable cost in human lives and human suffering.

The initial, genuine enthusiasm for socialism expressed by many among the Central Asian intelligentsia was dissipated by the mid-1920s, as every initiative for self-rule among the natives was met with ruthless, usual violent reprisal. By 1939, the “singing workers” at the Ferghana Canal are clear kin to the black prisoners breaking rocks on Parchman Farm, Mississippi, whose chants were recorded by Alan Lomax in the USA in the 1930s.