In one of the photographs there is a brass band, marching and playing some impassioned march from those far off days of the 1930s (perhaps the ‘March of the Enthusiasts’?). We observe the concentration on the musicians’ faces, their coiled instruments, the conductor in his white shirt, his arms upraised: ‘One, two! one, two! Keep in time, lads! We were born to make the dream come true...’ And the wind whipping around in unruly eddies. And the sun, reflected in the brass instruments. ‘A little orchestra of hope...’ — of the hope in which the people in the USSR lived during those years.
‘March of the Enthusiasts’ is a photograph from the Kalinindorf Jewish national region in Ukraine. It was taken in 1936 by P. Ganin, special correspondent of the Tribuna yevreiskoi sovetskoi obshche-stvennosti (Tribune of Soviet Jewish Community). From one point of view, this photograph bears the clear stamp of the times in which it was taken. Although the photographer did not include any overt signs of its historical setting — it is a marching band such as can be photographed in any provincial town today — all the components of the image, from the heavy, ‘baggy’ appearance of the musicians to the awkward asymmetry of the whole composition, with its starkly accented areas of light and darkness, are expressive of the time to which it belongs. From another point of view, this apparently cheerful photograph is imbued with a feeling of disquiet. Maybe this is because of the wind inflating the players’ white shirts, maybe it is a matter of the historical context: after all, we know today how it ended, this ‘March of the Enthusiasts’ in which a whole nation took part, with its organised love for the Soviet state and the person of Stalin. So this photograph by Ganin can be regarded today as a symbol of that age’s enormous hopes.
Among the hundreds of similar photographs in the ORT and OZET archives are many which combine value as historical documents with indisputable artistic achievement. It does not matter whether they are by acknowledged masters of Soviet photography, or by ordinary newspaper photographers, or by amateurs — all of them are imbued with the enthusiasm which seized the whole Soviet state during the early years of its existence.
It is worthy of note that the majority of these photographic images date from the period between 1927 and 1937. This decade, in fact, was a ‘Sturm und Drang’ period in the history of Soviet photography. It was in these years that publicistic photo-reportage became an important component of Soviet photographers’ activity, enriching the art of photography with new methods and forms of expression and defining, for years to come, the further development of Soviet photography. The main events which marked the beginning and end of this period were the two photographic exhibitions held in Moscow in 1928 and 1935.
The first of these — a grandiose anniversary exhibition entitled ‘Ten Years of Soviet Photography’ — opened in the spring of 1928. It contained some six thousand photographs by 107 photographers. The exhibition’s twelve thematic sections provided an opportunity for all the artistic tendencies and technical achievements of Soviet photography to be displayed. On the exhibition’s numerous walls a real creative rivalry was acted out between the masters of the so-called ‘old school’, whose work was characterised by its ‘pictorial’ or ‘artistic’ qualities, and the younger photographers, devotees of ‘factual art’, who went in search of new expressive forms and bold, radical experimentation. In contrast to the soft-focus technique of the ‘pictorialists’, which lent their images a mistiness and under-statement which recalled the aesthetic of Russia’s ‘Silver Age’, the young photographers offered a factual precision, a ‘proletarian’ vision of the world. And although, in the critics’ opinion, artistic and technical primacy still belonged to the representatives of the ‘old school’, the days of pictorialism in Russia were numbered. In the course of the debate which unfolded in the Soviet press in the years 1928–1930, the representatives of this tendency were accused of ‘losing touch with reality’, of ‘being unmindful of the cultural tasks set by the Soviet state’, and their activity was branded as ‘socially pernicious’. As a result, many organisations with which the pictorialists were associated — for example, RFO (the Russian Photographic Society) and GAKhN (the State Academy of Artistic Studies, which had, incidentally, organised the 1928 exhibition) — were closed down.
As for photo-reportage: this, in spite of the ‘insufficient mastery and crude immaturity’ evident in the works by the younger photographers in the exhibition, was precisely what became the keystone of the cultural revolution proceeding in Russia under Stalin at that time. However, the young enthusiasts of Soviet photo-reportage did not, at first, rush to heed the persistent advice of
the Communist Party leaders on how they wished to see the ‘face of Soviet photography’. Among exponents of photo-reportage there began a process of demarcation. There arose various craft unions, aiming at their own aesthetic and ideological conceptions of photo-reportage and conducting incessant conflict among themselves. In the history of Soviet photographic art the clearest path was laid by the members of the ‘radical-left’ group ‘Oktyabr’ (October) A. Rodchenko, B. Ignatovich, E. Langman and L. Smirnov, as well as their ideological opponents S. Fridland, A. Shaikhet, R. Karmen and D. Debabov, who belonged to the more moderate ROPF (Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers). This short but uncommonly fruitful period in the development of Soviet photographic art, which the contemporary press scornfully dubbed the gruppovshchina or kruzhkovshchina (factionalism) period, was brought to an end by a Party resolution of 23 April 1932 headed ‘On the reconstruction of literary and artistic organisations’. Under this resolution craft unions such as RAPP (the Association of Proletarian Writers) and AKhRR (the Association of Russian Revolutionary Artists) were dissolved. And although the resolution did not formally apply to ‘left’ photography or photo-reportage groups like ROPF or ‘Oktyabr’, their existence was also discontinued.
The Moscow ‘Exhibition of Works by Masters of Soviet Photographic Art’ of 1935 was significantly smaller in scope than the anniversary exhibition of 1928. Twenty-three photographers took part in it, among them representatives of the ‘old school’ such as A. Grinberg, A. Shterenberg and Yu. Eremin, as well as practitioners of photo-reportage such as A. Rodchenko, S. Fridland, R. Karmen and M. Alpert. About 500 photographic images were submitted to the judgment of the public. The introduction to the exhibition catalogue stated that ‘the task of the exhibition is as follows: to show the face of Soviet photography today, and to demonstrate that it is fulfilling its artistic duty to the country: in other words, to show how, while some photographic masters are reconstructing themselves, others are studying and perfecting themselves; and how photographic art as a whole is putting its figurative language, its creative and technical armoury at the service of Socialist propaganda.’1 After many appeals — addressed mostly to photo-reporters — to finally ‘throw out the old Adam of official impartiality, of mechanical, neutral “chronicling” of hard facts’2, the introduction ends with the following passage, in the spirit of the official newspaper of the Communist Party Pravda (The Truth) leading articles: ‘The main thing is that we are witnessing the introduction into Soviet photography of a Socialist realist style, a style which, while incorporating various creative methods, does away with the old division of “art photography” and “photo-reportage”. … The new style is a successful search for new, joyful themes on the part of the representatives of the old “art photography”. … Fortunate is the art which finds itself with the power to reflect this time, to portray such a country, such people, such a leader, teacher and friend!’3
The 1935 exhibition also provoked a series of reactions by critics in the press, among them one in Pravda which was directed against ‘formalism’ and ‘naturalism’ as manifestations of a bourgeois aesthetic in Soviet photography. The historian and theoretician of Soviet photographic art S. Morozov recalls: ‘The questions posed by Pravda found a lively response among workers in the field of photography. Discussion of these vital creative questions was carried on not only in Moscow, but also in Leningrad, Kiev and Rostov-na-Donu. In Moscow the discussion continued through six evenings — an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of photography.’4
The result of these discussions, which did not finally fall silent until the beginning of 1936, was the extermination of all creative tendencies in Soviet photography — ‘right’ as well as ‘left’ — which for some reason did not correspond to the ‘Party line on the development of art in a Socialist country’. Photographers found guilty of ‘right or left deviation’ were forced to repent in public, and the most intransigent of them, such as the excellent photographic artist A. Grinberg, were arrested. In photography, as in the whole of Soviet culture, the principle of Socialist Realism was established for many years; a principle which, as the modern art historian B. Groys accurately puts it, represented ‘the realism of a dream, concealing behind its popular, national form a new socialist content: the grandiose vision of a harmonious world, being constructed by the Communist Party, a total work of art, brought into being by the will of its true creator and artist — Stalin.’5
At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, photo-reportage, apart from appearing in exhibition halls, was establishing itself in the pages of the press. Towards 1927 the Soviet printing industry underwent a complete technical renewal, as a result of which illustrated magazines began to be published on a large scale in the USSR; photographs also started appearing in newspapers. In Soviet publishing a great demand arose for photo-reportage, ‘for the visual education of the masses in the spirit of Communism’.
In 1930 there appeared the first issue of the magazine SSSR na stroyke (Building the USSR), founded on the initiative of Maxim Gorky. This new journal, in which photographs were printed throughout, took upon itself the wide-ranging propaganda mission explicitly set out in an editorial in the first issue: ‘Photography should be put at the service of the task of construction, not accidentally or haphazardly, but systematically and steadily. Photographic representations of the construction of our new society, as well as motion-picture portrayals, should be available to all who are interested in this construction work of ours.’6 Gorky, in one of his letters to the editors, mentioned the necessity of distributing new issues of SSSR na stroyke (which was published in five languages — Russian, English, French, German and Spanish) to all diplomatic and trade missions throughout the Soviet Union and to various organisations abroad.7 Thus the magazine was aimed primarily at foreign readers, for whom the high level of the photographs published in it, and of the magazine’s artistic format, would constitute a basis for their judgment of life in the USSR. For this reason the best photographers and artists of the time were enlisted to work on SSSR na stroyke. For example, from 1932 to 1940 one of the graphic artists on the magazine was the world-famous Constructivist artist El Lissitzky.
About twenty issues of SSSR na stroyke were prepared by the outstanding photographer, designer and master of photomontage A. Rodchenko, whose artistic goals were also closely bound up with the aesthetic of Constructivism. It was by him that the particular capacious and laconic artistic language was developed by which today we unmistakably recognize publications from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rodchenko played an important role in the development of Soviet photographic art. Many methods of capturing an image which were characteristic of his work became part of the arsenal of photographers all over the world. It is not surprising that the OZET photo archive contains many photographs executed in the characteristic Rodchenko manner, for Rodchenko’s influence in those years could not be avoided even by those who were his ideological opponents.
In 1933 there appeared an issue of SSSR na stroyke devoted to the development of the Far East. Almost half the pages were occupied by photographs taken in the Jewish Autonomous Region (photo 1, photo 2, photo 3). These photographs embrace just about every type of Soviet photo-reportage. Here, accomplished by the montage method (fully in the spirit of Rodchenko), are impressive images of the first steps in the settlement of the Jewish Autonomous Region. There are wide-ranging landscape photographs of remote corners of this Far Eastern region, and panoramas, taken from the cabin of an aeroplane (the only aeroplane in the Jewish Autonomous Region with a Jewish crew?), of newly settled areas, where, in the words of the famous historian and theoretician of Soviet photography S. Morozov, ‘by the labours of man nature was enriched through a five-year plan of construction.’8 Especially outstanding in their expressiveness are the foreshortened portraits of the leading production workers, the Stakhanovites of Birobidzhan: tractor drivers, bee-keepers, fishermen, the builders of this region’s new life. The makers of these images were the distinguished masters of Soviet photography M. Alpert and S. Fridland.
M. Alpert was a talented photo-reporter who before the appearance of SSSR na stroyke worked for several years as a photo-correspondent for the Rabochaya gazeta (Workers’ newspaper) and Pravda. At the anniversary exhibition of 1928 the critics unanimously praised his photographic works, counting them ‘among the clearest and most expressive examples of the forward-looking tendency in Soviet photo-graphic art’9. Worldwide fame came to him with his monumental photographic essay ‘24 hours in the life of the Filippov family’, executed in 1931 to a scenario by L. Mezhericher, together with A.Shaikhet and S. Tules, and first published in the German magazine AIZ.
The photographer and cameraman S. Fridland was no less well-known than his co-worker on the Birobidzhan series of photographs. Before coming to work on SSSR na stroyke, he had worked for many years on the magazine Ogonyok (Light) and sub-sequently on Pravda. He was regarded as ‘a master of the realistic portrayal of actuality, striving to achieve a dynamic harmony in subject and composition’, for which his photo-reportage images displayed in the 1928 anniversary exhibition were awarded a first-class diploma.10 From 1931 he was leader of the ROPF group; following its dissolution, he became head of the Moscow Photographers’ Association. Fridland’s portrait of a Birobidzhan leading bee-keeper was probably displayed in the 1935 exhibition of masters of Soviet photography.
Alpert and Fridland also published their images from Birobidzhan in the Tribuna, published by OZET. Other well-known Soviet photo-graphers also contributed to this widely circulating illustrated magazine, for example R. Karmen, whose expressive image ‘Youth in a Jewish kolkhoz in the Zaporozhie region of the Ukrainian SSR’ appeared in the thirteenth number of the Tribuna in 1929; and A. Shterenberg, whose photo-reportage from the Crimea was published in the magazine in1935.
Although the participation of these leading lights of Soviet photography in the creation of a photo-chronicle of these Jewish agricultural colonists was somewhat sporadic, the mere fact that they were engaged with this topic was of great importance. They were envied, they were imitated, they attracted disciples. From the beginning of the 1930s photography became more and more accessible to ‘the broad mass of workers’. Soviet industry began producing easy-to-use, compact cameras such as ‘Fotokor no. 1’ and ‘FED’. By the beginning of 1935 the number of cameras in the country had reached half a million. Hundreds of young amateurs, who understood no more than the bare rudiments of photography, sent in their by no means perfect pictures to newspapers and magazines, in the hope of someday becoming professional photo-journalists. The influence of photography at this time was of such proportions that the Soviet state resolved to bring it under its control. At the end of 1928, possibly under the impression made by the exhibition ‘Ten Years of Soviet Photography’, the Fourth All-Soviet Conference of Worker-
Peasant Correspondents discussed the topic of amateur photography among the workers. As the papers wrote at the time, ‘the union of pen and photograph was cemented’ at the conference: it was resolved that groups of photo-correspondents be established, attached to newspaper offices, and that photographs taken by amateurs from among the ranks of worker-peasant correspondents be published. A number of them ultimately became professional photo-reporters. In this connection it is significant that in 1935 LenOZET organised special photographers’ courses, on which eleven people studied, for the Jewish Autonomous Region.11
Party functionaries themselves were not immune to the attractions of photography. On the pages of the magazine Tribuna there often appeared pictures taken by Yu. Golde, a prominent figure in Evsektsia (the Jewish section of the CPSU), who at the beginning of the 1920s had occupied the post of chairman of the committee of the All-Russian ORT. It is possible that he was striving to show in practice what true Soviet photo-reportage should be like; and maybe he was envious of Ya. Rudzutak, a member of the Politburo and deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, who was regarded at that time as ‘an outstanding photographic artist’. Incidentally, at the Moscow exhibition of 1935, where Rudzutak was chairman of the exhibition committee, his photographs made quite a large display. But as for Golde’s photographs, they were — to put it mildly — far from perfect.
It is fortunate that the professional photographers of the Tribuna, working either on missions from the editorial offices or permanently out in the field, laid the foundations of the photographic section of the OZET archive. P. Ganin (mentioned above) and Kh. Volfson photographed mainly in Ukraine, the Crimea and Belorussia. L. Gershkovich, Kh. Grinberg, G. Royzman, Ya. Smertenko, N. Sokolov and P. Rusanov worked in Birobidzhan. Striving to record in images of the radical socialist transformation taking place on the ‘Jewish street’, they worked confidently, at times virtuosically, in all branches of photo-reportage: from photographs of Jewish Stakhanovites taken on the factory floor, at the workbench, in the fields, or in the cabin of a tractor, to large-scale photo-essays about working days and proletarian holidays in a Jewish kolkhoz or commune. And, although these photo-reporters did not achieve wide fame or win for themselves every possible title or award, it is thanks to their work, performed day-in, day-out, that today we can see how the Jewish agricultural settlements in Ukraine and the Crimea looked, and how people made themselves at home in the taiga of Birobidzhan; we can look into the faces of the Jewish settlers, those enthusiasts working to build a new ‘Jewish homeland’.
The most talented photo-reporter on the Tribuna was P. Ganin, whose work regularly appeared in the journal’s pages. As examples of his original, creative style we may cite, on the one hand, works showing a characteristic striving after a clear, almost epic quality, like the factory portrait ‘A worker in the Lenin mechanical engineering plant, Odessa’ — an impressively strong, self-confident man in a worker’s cloth cap and grease-stained overalls; or his large-scale photo-series, taken in the workshops of the Vinchevsky Jewish vocational college ‘The Metal-worker’ (1929). On the other hand, Ganin’s work may also be characterised by a delicate lyricism, as in his photo-essay ‘A shtetl in Belorussia’ (1929), or by a note of humour, as in ‘Director of the Larindorf library — comrade Shturman issuing a book to a young reader’ (1936). Ganin’s photographs, while showing now and then a slight influence of the Constructivist aesthetic, are always dynamic and well-judged in their composition, and never look posed or stage-managed; everything is utterly authentic, everything is captured by his lens directly from life. Moreover, there are in his photographs features of traditional Jewish everyday life which in the not so distant future were to be completely transformed in the new reality of Soviet existence. These traditional features, at least, soon disappeared entirely from the pages of the Soviet press.
The series of photographs taken (presumably) by L. Gershkowich in the workshop of the Dimitrov wooden furniture factory in Birobidzhan are quite different in conception (photo 1, photo 2, photo 3, photo 4 1936). These are large-format photographs which unite the principles of photo-reportage with almost pictorial compositional features, borrowed from the creative experiment of ‘democratic re-presentational art’. In the picture ‘The bentwood furniture section’ the monumental figures of the workers, openly posing before the camera, fully correspond to the ‘method of figurative enrichment of reality’ which, in the words of the Soviet theoretician of photography L. Mezhericher, ‘should be utilized in the photograph together with the compositional language of realist painting.’12
The picture ‘A woman worker of the bentwood furniture section’, despite the almost Rodchenko-esque construction of its frame, is much more akin to a painting than a piece of photo-reportage. Nevertheless this work by Gershkovich is imbued with sympathy for the girl captured in the photo, slightly embarrassed by the lens pointing at her. Although the photo-series as a whole is quite interesting, the deliberate placing of their frames deprives many of them of that true-to-life quality which, by definition, should be a feature of true photo-reportage.
Kh. Grinberg’s pictures, taken in 1936 and 1937, of factory work among the settlers of Birobidzhan are entirely faithful to the canons of socialist realism. It is as if he had almost literally followed the advice of the authors of popular brochures for photo-correspondents, which recommend that one should ‘photograph a worker, engineer, farmhand and so on when the subject is not actually working; their surroundings, their working clothes, their tools, pens or brushes held in their hands are details which will serve to indicate the subject’s occupation.’13
Such portraits as ‘A Stakhanovite kolkhoz worker from the kolkhoz “Kirov” of Stalin region — Haya Rubalskaya’, pictured pressing a sheaf of wheat to her breast; or ‘Stakhanovite senior rail guard Samuel Gulub — a settler from Vinnitsa region’, pictured giving a signal with a lamp to a passing train, will be taken today as being interesting and self-evident examples of 1930s Soviet photography. At that time the image of a kolkhoznitsa with a sheaf in her hands had not yet become what it would later be: a cliche associated with the fulfilment of Stalinist dreams, a demonstration of the achievements of the national economy, rather than a portrayal of actual work in the kolkhoz fields. A cliche which reigned supreme in the pages of Soviet newspapers and magazines right through to the end of the 1980s; a cliche which, in the words of the contemporary theoretician of photography S. Daugovish, ‘is bad precisely in that it can do everything; for to the photographic cliche-monger the world appears fully explained and potentially already photographed in its entirety.’14 Back then the world was not yet fully explained and photographed, the ‘March of the enthusiasts’ was still continuing; but it seems that we can catch, in the black and white expanses of these old Birobidzhan photographs, an echo of its last dying chords.