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Max Penson - Soviet Modernist Photographer

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Max Penson remains largely unknown in the west although he is an equal of the great Russian photographers such as Rodchenko, Zelma, Shakhet and Grinberg. I went to see an exhibition of his work at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, London. The exhibition is organized by the Moscow House of Photography and sponsored by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Penson was born in Velizh, near the city of Vitsyebsk in 1893. Vitsyebsk, now in Belarus, was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Owing to Jewish pogroms during the First World War, Penson moved to Kokand in Central Asia in 1915 where he worked as a cashier in a tobacco factory. He soon found work teaching drawing and painting in local schools and in 1921 the district of Ferghana presented him with a camera as a prize. This was to change his life as he more or less gave up painting and drawing and set to learning the art of photography.

In 1923 he moved to Tashkent where he mixed with other photographers and acquired his own photo studio. From 1926 to 1949 Penson worked as a photographer for the newspaper Pravda Vostoka [Truth of the East] and his work provides an interesting chronicle of Uzbekistan's transition from feudalism to socialism. Penson was unique in that he witnessed these changes as an insider. Through his photography we are able to follow the evolution of Soviet photography from pictorialism through modernism and emerging into socialist realism.

The new Uzbekistan is shown here with its industrialization, collectives and Soviet constructivism. His photographs come across as carefully constructed, with diagonals, echoed shapes, and innovative positioning of the camera.

In 1940 the film director Sergei Eisenstein, whom Penson met during work on the Ferghana canal, wrote:

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 Ferghana 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.

In 1949 a new anti-semitic wave led to Penson having his photographic permit withdrawn and as a result he lost his job with the newspaper. He spent the last ten years of his life depressed and seriously ill, touching up his old photographs. Penson took his own life in 1959.

In 1966 Max Penson’s archive was buried by an earth-quake in Tashkent. It was saved, thanks to the efforts of Dina and Faizulla Khodzhaev, the photographer’s daughter and her husband.

Examples of Penson's photos can be found here .

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