Max Penson- Viewing An Eclipse

Copyright © by Kate Fitz Gibbon, 2009

Max Penson – Viewing an Eclipse – 1934

The photographer most closely associated with the early Soviet period in Central Asia is Max Penson. For this discussion, I have chosen a well-known, untitled photograph by Penson of five people viewing an eclipse from a city bus. (The image is neither signed nor dated. A print published in 1934 remains in the Penson family collection.) The five figures are all seated in the bus, but some have raised themselves to reach through the windows towards the sun. Each is caught in the same gesture, raising a piece of smoked glass to their eyes. The photograph presents a deliberate fragmentation of the scene; a small section of the bus takes up almost the entire photographic space; the background is visible only at one side and the top edge, and it appears hazy and fogged.
This photograph may be analyzed through several critics’ approaches to photography.  In particular, the idea expressed in Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen’s, “Photography, Vision, and Representation,” Critical Inquiry 2 (Autumn 1975) - that photography is an advance on other visual arts in picturing the real but not in being any more real than a painting or drawing is very pertinent to this photograph. Everywhere we look we see limits: the base of the bus becomes only a dark colored rectangle sharply angled against a lighter ground; the bus windows create an interior space that we cannot see far into; the soft flesh of the figures hangs only in the in-between space, not interior/not exterior; the metal is an artificially segmented, rigid, machined surface, and only half of the name of the bus service is visible. We could only see the world this way if, to paraphrase Allen and Snyder, we were color blind, wore blinkers, and opened our eyes for an instant while leaning over sideways.
In S. Kracauer, “Photography,” in The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography, vol. 2, P. R. Petruck, ed., New York: Dutton, 1979 [1960], Kracauer gives greater emphasis to how the photograph is made. He is not so much concerned with the specifics of camera, lens, or the medium on which light is recorded, as with the discovery by the photographer of elements that exist in the process, and that come to be present in the photograph as a result of process. They are more like revelations than something that the photographer sets out to achieve, and in reference to scientific photography, Kracauer calls this phenomenon “accidental beauty.” It seems, for him, to be present in all sorts of photographs. ”In portraiture,…,” he says, “even the most typical portraits must retain an accidental character – as if they were plucked en route and still quivered with crude existence.”
Snyder and Allen consider this ‘accidental beauty” important, but emphasize that looking at art, whether photography or painting, through the lens of ‘how it is made’ shows only a fraction of the possible critical perspectives. This photograph is clearly documentary of a moment in time, descriptive of the variety of peoples living in Central Asia, and explanatory of their actions in viewing the sun in eclipse through smoked glass. What is key here, however, is the way in which aesthetic values are merged with political values. The photograph is not particularly well made and certainly not beautifully presented. Its edges are crumpled, and there is a long scratch across one of the figures. But these photographs were never made for sale, and Penson was only allowed enough paper to make one or two prints were made of any photograph. (Personal communication, Dina Penson, 2005).
Yet for all its humble qualities, during the early Soviet period, photography became the most effective propaganda tool available to Soviet administrators and the medium of choice for spreading the Bolshevik message to the Soviet Union’s multilingual, multi-ethnic, and often non-literate population. Penson chose his assignments from among what was offered to him, but could not choose what the assignments were.
The visual arts of early Soviet Central Asia were charged with communicating the transformation of Tsarist Russia’s Muslim colonies into Soviet states. The message of photography can be summed up as “New is good, old is bad, there should be new angles on old ways, new arenas of scientific thought equal new approaches to art with the new tool of photography.”  In Penson’s work, the struggle for control of the message is between the photographer as artist and as official propagandist. Penson’s photographs were visual proof of social progress and Marxist theories of linear social development. Generally, in photographs of Uzbeks and Russian together, especially in scenes having to do with science or technology, the Russian is shown teaching the Uzbek. The eclipse photograph is unusual in that there is not a hierarchy between the figures in the photograph based on ethnic biases, except perhaps of the most subtle sort. The central figures and the woman at the top are clearly Russian – the figure below, on the left, is Uzbek. Much of the false feeling that comes across in Soviet photography is the result of the subjects looking like they are playing a part. In the eclipse photo, for once, the subjects are so eager to catch the moment that they are not aware of the presence of the photographer. However, an eclipse would seem to be a politically neutral event. The photograph celebrates the scientific progress of all ethnic groups under socialism.
The valorization of modernity also takes place on a graphic level in this photograph. Form becomes as important as content. The framing is modernist in style; the photograph includes only a slice of what the eye would see, the angle of the shot is exaggerated and artificial, the window frames thrust dramatically toward the upper corner. This is pure Soviet dynamism, showing forward thinking. The heavy contrast and grainy surface embrace a rough-hewn, get real, Soviet attitude, and are a rejection of bourgeois weakness and effeminacy. The inclusion and emphasis of the lettering on the side of the bus is another deliberate citation of the powerful Soviet graphic style. Snyder and Allen say that relationships and meaning in photography are multi-layered and often ambiguous. There are multiple layers of meaning and message in this photograph, all working together towards a unified end. Penson’s notion of pictorial beauty is built from robust, sturdy forms. His job is not to fake health or vigor, but to utilize very great selectivity in choosing the models and the moments that give solidity to the Soviet vision.
Yet I believe that Penson’s formal training as an artist in the academy style has also affected his choices in this photograph. As a youth, Penson was trained as an artist in the classical academic tradition in Vilna, Lithuania. Before Penson was given a camera and became a photographer, he taught drawing and painting in Central Asian schools.  I can image this photograph as related to a triptych with Mary and Joseph in the center, their arms shielding and framing the child, with patrons (or shepherds) on either side, their formal alignment suddenly disarranged by an unexpected celestial event which causes them to whip out their smoked glasses to view the unusually brilliant star in the sky. The framing of the child by the raised arms of the figures on either side is the puntum – the arms form a more wonderful, living frame than the surrounding window – the three figures are organically united, like a plant for which the child is the living flower. It would have been unthinkable for Penson to overtly celebrate religious tradition or to display the rawer aspects of the human body; “naturalism,” i.e. too much flesh, was formally banned as a subject for art in the Soviet Union. But he comes close to the edge here in the graceful arching of the arms and the heavenward gaze. This image, called “Uzbek Madonna,” is Penson’s most famous photograph, and won a prize at an international competition. It is an updated, forward thinking mother-and-child composition; the woman wears traditional Uzbek costume but is unveiled, and her bare breast is exposed.
The importance of decisions made by an artist is central to Allen and Snyder’s arguments. They state that an image is a crafted, not a natural thing, and argue against allowing any “automatic” causal relationships of photography (light to lens to negative) to dominate the discussion of a single photograph or to photography in general. The peculiarities of the angle shot in this photograph are not as we would have seen the scene, but we do visualize the photograph as resulting from the  “inevitable outcome of a certain series of events,” and those event are at least in part the result of choices made by the artist. Allen and Snyder give primacy to the photographer’s choices, decisions, and fundamentally determinative role. Even if a photographer just dropped a camera, setting off the shutter, the decision of the photographer to utilize that opportunity becomes determinative. This photograph clearly shows Penson’s decisions about subject, focus, angle, and lighting. It happens that two images from this negative are known, and that this one is cut down slightly from a wider original, removing a person and another window of the bus. Knowing that the photograph was different when it was originally taken, and that it has been cut also tells us something about the photographer’s comfort with manipulating his work in the enlarger and about his practices in general, as do the pencil marks and notations for cuts written on the backs of other photographs. Snyder and Allen would find this useful information.
Metz perhaps would not. (Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” Over-Exposed: Essays in Contemporary Photography, C. Squiers, ed. New Press, New York, 1999) He seems to be less open to the interference of contextual information into the meaning of a photograph for the viewer, and his concern is with time and memory. How can I  understand time in this photograph? One way is the expected Soviet interpretation: this photograph represents a moment in the linear progression towards communism; the photograph shows not only present reality but also the future of the state. Another is to allow the objects and the people in the photograph to delimit their own time – the antique bus, the women’s cheap calico dress, the Uzbek worker’s jacket, worn despite the heat of the day. Still another way is much more personal, and does not require knowing anything of the photographs historical, social , and political context. This is Metz’s way, to make the photograph the focus of our individual, personal concern, to eliminate it from historical time and insist instead on its existence as part of our consciousness. How can the photograph do this? In part, by capturing us and bringing us in as participants. There is great intensity in the central figures; the two men framing the boy are sheltering him yet sharing his excitement. The woman on the right side watches, but seems almost lethargic, the brow of the man on the left is furrowed. The viewer can tell how preoccupied they all are by the eclipse, but one wonders what will happen when it ends. Will they share their experiences? Will they ignore each other? What is their relationship? The photographer has selected them, chosen them as subjects and put them in a group in the picture frame. Part of the photographer’s (and the propagandist’s) message is that the Soviet people are a family – the only family that counts. A happy family? No, but one that makes demands on one another, just like a real family. When this thought is allowed to become the dominant theme, then the concerns of Metz begin to make some sense to me.
For Metz, photography is tied to family - and therefore very much to the private, inner and secret world of fetish. Photographs establish an empathy between the viewer and the people in the photograph. They appeal to us or repulse us: we find them intriguing or dull. Metz’s intensely personal approach to photographs, and his appropriation of them to himself as “fetish” is very different from Allen and Snyder’s reasoned discourse. Allen and Snyder point to the relationship between objects and persons in the photograph as an internal dialog that takes place in counterpoise to the dialog between the viewer and the photograph. Metz directs our attention to this dialog and heightens its emotional importance to us, rather than treating it as something we can observe with dispassion. The photograph is telling us something true and absolute (even if the scene is false and contrived) and we must respond to it by internalizing the tensions and the relationships, and most especially by feeling our own mortality in the time-caught moment of the photograph.
I find Metz’ assertion that film captures life, but photography confirms death very interesting, but not very convincing when I examine my own responses to photography. To me, the people in the Penson photograph are not as they would be now – long dead, or in the case of the child, in his eighties. Rather the photograph refreshes memory and makes the dead live again, as memory carries the scene of the photograph onward past the moment. The Soviet citizens in the photograph become alive and real to me with a force much stronger than film, which insists on holding my attention within its fixed capsule of time, rather than allowing memory to flow forward or back. In fact, Metz himself seems to be saying this when he states that, “Where film lets us believe in more things, photography lets us believe more in one thing.”
All the essayists examined photographic works of art on multiple levels: the artist’s influences and intent, the technology used to create the work, the context in which it was made and viewed, and the effect of the artist’s work on the viewer and on other artists. Although Snyder and Allen, Kracauer, and Metz take very different approaches to how photography works, each takes as a given that a photograph can have a deep personal impact on the viewer. It is not enough that we feel a call to engage with the photograph. As each writer explores the interaction that ensues from this initial engagement our responses – intellectual and emotional – seem to parallel those we experience in viewing other forms of visual art.
Is the depth of our reaction what makes a photograph real? This rapid shot of a group – all focused on the same eclipse – is clearly an unposed moment in a society that was characterized by watchfulness and concealment. The photograph strongly supports a historically based analysis, but not everyone knows or cares about the history of Soviet Central Asia. Neither we nor the photographer are innocent or unbiased, and as Metz makes very clear, we bring this bias to bear when we make or look at art. We take something different from the photograph than a viewer from another time and place, and there is no way to remove that bias from our assessment. This photograph is all the more powerful because it contains equal amounts of ambiguity, mystery, concealed and revealed intent, multiple layers of message, and a “channel of transmission” that does not remain static, but alters with time, and place, and the viewer.