Max Penson – Man and Machine, 1924-1944

Exhibition: July 11 – August 27, 2003

During the political and social turmoil of the decades surrounding the Russian revolution, Central Asia served as a refuge – or a place of temporary respite - for modernist artists and writers. They came with a variety of ambitions; seeking sun, an exotic locale or a relaxation of the political attention of the center. Almost every Russian photographer of note worked in the region. Shaikhet, Shagin, Debabov focused on monumental construction projects, Giorgi Zelma, born and raised in Tashkent, returned for lengthy stays, producing extraordinary work that reflects his familiarity with the region’s native culture. The artist Max Penson fled the Byelorussian pogroms of the teens and made Central Asia his permanent home, becoming by far the most important photographer to record the transformation of Tsarist Russia’s Muslim colonies into Soviet states.

There were no important photographers of Muslim background during this period. Despite the rhetoric of the day, Lenin’s "comprehensive and informative chronicle of photo-journalism" was a purely Russian projection, a falsification of Central Asia’s past and a vision of the future that was closer to advertising than to the "truth of photography".

The innovations that characterized modernism in both East and West are most apparent in the work of the 1920s. The early Soviet photography has real vitality; revolutionary fervor jolts the picture plane to an acute angle, figures and action spill over the frame. There’s an excitement that cheap paper and murky developer can’t restrain. Men and women are in love – not with each other – but with wonderful machines: locomotives, tractors, cranes. In a factory, a worker is surrounded, embraced by his machine. A placard on the wall exhorts them both to greater productivity. In an affectionate gesture, he has placed a star on the wire that feeds it.

Penson was the son of a Byelorussian bookbinder. His father found employment in a school that did not ordinarily admit Jews, and Max was enrolled. The young Penson moved on to the school of ceramics in Mirgorod, in the Ukraine, and then entered the school of arts and crafts in the city of Vilna, Lithuania. He completed his studies in 1915 and returned to his hometown of Velizk. Velizk was one of the first town subjected to the Russian pogroms in the same year, and Penson fled to Central Asia, where he worked as a cashier in a tobacco factory in Kokand. He soon found work teaching drawing and painting in the local schools, and in 1917 he became head of the educational institutions under the department of general education. In 1921 the district of Ferghana presented him with a camera as a prize. The gift of the camera completely changed his life. He gave up painting and became more and more interested in photography. In 1923 he moved to Tashkent, where he began working as a professional photographer. In 1925 he was employed by Pravda Vostoka, the most important newspaper in Central Asia, a relationship that was maintained throughout his working life.

Penson worked primarily for newspapers and weekly magazines disseminated locally and throughout the Soviet Union. Usually, only one or two prints were made of an image. Many that remain have penciled notations for the presses on the verso. Photographic artists crafted their work into collages that were featured prominently in public places. Extra prints might be given to colleagues and friends, but they weren’t placed on public sale except as postcards printed by the State. There is a peaceful, circular character to it all. Uzbeks gather in crowds to read at kiosks or to listen, with rapt attention, to a Russian reading Pravda Vostoka, Truth of the East, the same newspaper in which their pictures are printed, showing them listening raptly to a Russian reading the newspaper…

Penson, who rarely left Central Asia, became the most important chronicler of Central Asian life for more than two decades. According to one biographer, Penson focused on certain themes at certain periods; 1926-1928 on collective farms, and on land and water reform, in 1930 on the textile industry, from 1931 to 1937 on new machinery factories and the development of the paper industry in Tashkent. This may have reflected his various assignments, or the issues of greatest political importance of the time, but Penson was much more versatile than this short-list indicates, and sought his own subjects. Penson took part in the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, winning the Grand Prix for his "Uzbek Madonna" portrait of a young woman, unveiled and publicly nursing her child. In 1939 Penson (along with Arkady Shaikhet and Max Alpert ) documented the construction of the Ferghana Canal. In the same year he and Alexander Rodchenko created the publication of the exhibition commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, to which Penson contributed over 300 photographs. In 1940 Sergei Eisenstein 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." .


Eisenstein, writing in the magazine, "The Soviet Photo (1940, I., pg7).


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