The Soviet Period

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(last updated 02/12/02)

The October Revolution of 1917 radically affected the visual arts in every part of former Tsarist Russia. By the mid-twenties, the style, content and message of photography had completely changed. In Central Asia, pre-Soviet photography had been about Central Asian people and culture, whether the photographer's intent was romantic or scientifically documentary. The subject of the new Soviet photography was the dynamics of change. Photojournalism or "action photography" was widely recognized by Soviet leaders as a powerful tool to convey new political ideas. Photographs depicteda moribund Central Asia coming to life through contact with progressive Soviet forces. Soviet society might be represented as a live Russian, a Russian newspaper, a tractor or a smokestack, but the Russian element was always dominant and the Central Asian subordinate. The Russians were teachers and the Central Asians willing pupils.

The best-known early Soviet photographers working in Central Asia were Russians. The artist Max Penson fled his hometown of Velizh in Belorussia during the pogroms of 1915, and settled in Kokand, where he taught drawing. By 1925 he had become a professional photographer working at the newspaper Pravda Vostoka. Penson was friendly with Rodchenko, Zelma and Sergei Eisenstein, and his work reflected the same modernist concerns. Eisenstein wrote in 1940:

"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 Fergana 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." From Erika Billeter, Usbekistan, Documentary photography 1925-1945 by Max Penson, Benteli Verlags AG, Wabern-Bern, 1996.

At the start of World War II, Penson's career was affected by growing anti-Jewish sentiments and he was given less important newspaper work. His dismissal in 1948 effectually ended his career as an artist, and he died in 1959, a deeply disappointed, broken man.

Georgi Zelma was born in Tashkent in 1906. In 1921, when he was fifteen, he and his mother left Central Asia for Moscow, making the five-week journey in a freight car. He joined the photography club in his primary school, and found work first for the Proletkino studio, and then for Russfoto, the agency supplying photographs to the foreign press. He returned to Central Asia as correspondent for Russfoto in 1924. Georgi Zelma's work in Central Asia is often focused on the decisive moments of emancipation and achievement or the crucial instant of contact between the old world and the new. His artistic concerns are thoroughly modernist, and his sense of composition is both dramatic and seemingly effortless. Zelma's photography for Izvestia in the 1930's brought him attention for his work on construction during the first Five Year Plan, but he is best known in the West for his exceptional work as a war photographer during World War II. In later years he worked for the magazine Ogonyok and the Novosti Press Agency. He died in 1984.


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