With the advent of glasnost, the invisible materializes; the forbidden is tasted for the first time. We expect a great deal from Soviet photography—the sweeping passions of the October Revolution and Anna Karenina, the redoubtable spirit that has kept an underground artistic culture alive, the colossal determination that from a feudal culture has led to the exploration of space.
Dmitri Baltermants achieved worldwide fame with the moving combat photographs he made during World War II. Since then he has continued to occupy a leading position among photojournalists in the Soviet Union, and today serves as a member of the editorial board of the leading news publication Ogonyok.
No More Heroic Tractors: Subverting the Legacy of Socialist Realism
What is it that makes recent Soviet photography so fascinating to a Western audience? Is it that, for the first time, Soviet people and Soviet society look familiar to us? Or that these photographs show the same kind of loneliness and emotional emptiness characteristic of any modern industrialized society?
"My impressions of life are expressed in snapshots of towns," Boris Savelev has written, adding: "I believe that one can get the best idea of the life of a person from his environment and the objects that surround him." Savelev’s work in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad offers insights both into his art and into contemporary Russian society.
What is Soviet photography? The term is purely geographical: a convenient name for all photographs produced in the fifteen unions and twenty autonomous republics of the Soviet Union, whose rights to self-determination as individual nations were disregarded by Stalin’s expansionist policies.
A little more than a year ago I had a show of my photographs in Moscow. A few days after the opening, my interpreter, Svetlana Makurenkova, told me that several photographers wanted to meet me and show me their work in a studio that belonged to one of them.
After more than seventy years, Soviet citizens are permitted to remember. Under glasnost, each individual has gained the right to a personal view of the past. At the same time, the easing of censorship is providing an ever-widening knowledge of that past.
The nude as orthodox expression of social realism was an international impulse in the 1930s. Witness Thomas Hart Benton’s murals, Paul Manship’s heroic reliefs in Rockefeller Center, or even Dorothea Lange’s field hands—all homage to the heroism of the common man.
I took the series “Night Landscapes” in the autumn of 1987. I don’t myself know why I chose to use the old German Praktica camera together with the 20 mm. wide-angle lens and to shoot only at night, in pitch dark, with a flash. To me, the light of the flash is part and parcel of photography.
Two opposing trends coexist in Soviet visual culture: idolatry and iconoclasm. The adulation and destruction of images has dominated Soviet official photography since the early days of the state, and has created a visual environment of approved images, while at the same time there are gaps because of forbidden images.
This past spring a group of Soviet documentary filmmakers visited New York in conjunction with the opening of the "Glasnost Film Festival," a U.S. tour of twenty-two recent documentary films from the Soviet Union. The festival was assembled by Citizens’ Exchange Council, an organization which fosters cultural exchanges of various sorts, including photo workshops and film programs, between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Vanishing Presence, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, January 29—April 16, 1989. This expansive, ambitious exhibition examines how a certain set of formal effects, including blurring, multiple exposure, and selective focus, achieve aesthetic effects in photographs.
Photems: A Collaboration by Gerlovina/Berghash/Gerlovin, Art Institute of Chicago, April 29—June 25, 1989. Few things are more disarming than seeing multileveled and complicated concepts presented and defused in a direct and openhanded way.
America Worked: The 1950s Photographs of Dan Weiner, by William A. Ewing, with an introduction by Lionel Tiger. Published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1989 ($39.95 hard cover). America Worked is funny enough to make you laugh aloud while looking at the pictures.
DIETRICH BALTERMANTS, born in 1912, is a Moscow photojournalist who serves on the editorial board of the weekly magazine Ogonyok. OLGA ANDREYEV CARLISLE is an artist and writer who lives in San Francisco. She is the granddaughter of Leonid Andreyev and has published a translation of his short stories, Visions (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987).
NOTE: In the following credits, dimensions are given for prints 20 x 24" or larger, with the height listed first. Special or unusual processes involved in making the work are also listed. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are courtesy of, and copyright by, the artists.
For their invaluable advice and assistance in assembling work for this issue, we thank especially Daniela Mrazkova, Leslie Goldman, and Inge Morath. In addition we wish to express our grateful appreciation to S. Abramov, Fred Baldwin, Miles Barth, Bill Buford, Michael Brainerd, Carol Doerflein, Susan Duca, Carolyn Forché, Birgitta Forsell, Jon Gartenberg, Paul Good, Robert Haller, Daniel Halpern, Josef Koudelka, Paul Lin, Esä Melametsä, Jay Nubile, Gilles Peress, Christopher Phillips, David Shok, Agnes Sire, Robert Stevens, Holger Thoss.