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Images of a lost time and place

Review by Corinna Lotz

Max Penson’s outstanding and poignant images of Soviet Uzbekistan have survived against all the odds. His son Miron recalls how his father spent many nights in his garden, burning the negatives and prints of men and women who became victims of Stalinist purges.

Not only Stalinist oppression but even nature seems to have had it in for him. In 1966 the building in Tashkent, Uzbekistan where his archive was stored was destroyed by an earthquake. But thanks to his daughter and her husband, some 50,000 negatives were pulled from the rubble. Few people until now have been aware of the scale of his contribution to 20th century photography.

Penson: Water and Man
Water and Man, 1935. Private collection. 38 x27.8cm

But destroying his photographs did not save Penson from the anti-Semitic attacks unleashed by Stalin at the end of World War II. His photographer’s license was withdrawn and he was sacked from the newspaper where he had worked for 20 years. As Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography Museum, explains: “For several decades, the oeuvre of Max Penson vanished from the history of Soviet photography, just like the first leaders of the Soviet Regime, later labelled enemies of the people."

So who was Penson? Born near Vitebsk in today’s Belarus, the birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall, Penson at first studied to become an artist. But he was forced by the tide of anti-Jewish pogroms to move east to Kokand, in Fergana province, eastern Uzbekistan in 1915.

He taught himself to read and write, going on to master the art of photography after being given a camera in 1921. In 1923 he moved to Tashkent and became a photo-reporter for the Soviet newspaper, Pravda Vostocka (Truth of the East), later working for TASS, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union.

Penson: Sports Day in Uzbekistan. Racing Finish
Sports Day in Uzbekistan. Racing Finish, 1935. Private collection. 28.4 x 39.1cm

After Uzbekistan joined the Soviet Union in 1924 it became Penson’s second homeland. He learned the local language and history and travelled the length and breadth of the country to document its transition from a feudal land to a modern state. Some of the most exciting shots in this varied show are of athletes, gymnasts, cyclists, javelin and discus throwers, including women who had until then had worn yashmak veils. Sports Day in Uzbekistan (1935), for example, has an astonishing immediacy and dynamism, as a runner stretches to break the tape. The diagonal lines, the white walls, with dark poplars thrusting up to the sky, their shapes echoing those of the excited spectators, form a brilliant composition.

Penson: In the Meeting Hall of the Uzbekistan Central Executive Committee
In the Meeting Hall of the Uzbekistan Central Executive Committee, 1935.
Private collection. 25 x 37cm

Penson: Pushkin Street in the Evening, Tashkent
Pushkin Street in the Evening, Tashkent, 1934.
Private collection. 28.1 x 39.1cm

Whatever his subject matter, he discovered rhythmic repetitions and angles which create an abstract pattern enhancing and emphasising his chosen theme. Water and Man (1935), for example, is a classically simple image of a man digging in a pool, framed to highlight the curves of the back and the light filtering through the muddy water. The mood is neither Modernist nor Social Realist but totally akin to the forbidden Pictorial style. Amongst the most outstanding is In the Meeting Hall of Uzbekistan’s Central Executive Committee (1935), the most unlikely subject for a lyrical capturing of light, shade and pattern. Similarly, Pushkin Street in the Evening (1934) takes the eye into depth with a plunging perspective and strong contrasts of light and shade. Penson was deeply attached to the Old Masters and deployed their chiaroscuro to heighten the drama of his scenes.

Penson: Open-Pit Coal Mine, Angren
Open-Pit Coal Mine, Angren.1950 Private collection. 16.8 x 23cm

Untitled, Franz Kline, 1950.
India ink and gouache on paper.
28.6 x22.6cm

By way of contrast, one curious photo from the 1940s, called Physical Fitness Test, has an entirely posed atmosphere. Worried teenagers look on as a student goes through his paces on the parallel bars. The rigid unease of Penson’s work of the 1940s and 1950s is in sharp contrast to the formal beauty of his earlier style. There are bizarre, propaganda set-pieces, such as the hideous Greetings to Dear Stalin. But it is fascinating to see a return to a Modernist aesthetic in Open Pit Coal Mine in Angren from 1950. Dark smoke billows over a huge excavator, in a composition extraordinarily evocative of Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline.

Sviblova notes that whilst he worked for newspapers, which were mainly interested in reportage, Penson made exhibition prints for himself, experimenting with different techniques and styles. “His goal was not just to record the radical changes that took place in Uzbek life. . . . [but] rather to turn each shot into an artistic metaphor, giving it perfect aesthetic form.” Using the rhythms and themes of Modernism with its daring angles and lighting, Penson never loses sight of a painterly, classical approach to his subjects.

Last year, an exhibition called Quiet Resistance, also at the Gilbert Collection, highlighted Russian Pictorial photography, which was driven underground in the 1930s. But even Modernists like Penson and Alexander Rodchenko used the style within their own more realist work. In the end, the “old fashioned” Pictorialists and Modernists like Rodchenko and El Lissitsky were denounced in equal measure as Socialist Realism became the state dogma.

Even though we know that the industrialisation of Uzbekistan, the building of the Fergana canal, the growth of cotton monoculture were all carried out in the most brutal way causing untold ecological damage, Penson’s photographs go beyond simple propagandism. They celebrate the lives of ordinary people, sometimes in an idealised way, but also hinting at a darker reality. The complexity of the images simultaneously conceals and reveals the ominous political and social turmoil of the period. They are images of a lost time and place.

12 February 2007

Classic Soviet Modernist Photographer Max Penson and the Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan 1920-1930s is at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, Strand until 24 February. Admission £5/£4, students free. Exhibition book: £18. The catalogue is published by Multimedia House of Actual Arts, Moscow. A condensed version is available £10

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