New focus on Soviet-era
CAPTION: Bus passengers in Tashkent
view a solar eclipse, 1934 by Max Penson. Credit: Moscow House of
By Alexander Osipovich
Dec. 12 (JTA) -- Max Penson has made a comeback nearly a
half-century after his death.
At the height of his fame, the
Jewish photojournalist's work appeared often on the front pages of
Soviet newspapers. One of his pictures took a top prize at the 1937
World's Fair in Paris.
But Penson fell victim to the growing
anti-Semitism of Josef Stalin's totalitarian regime, lost his job
and spent the rest of his life suffering from illness and
When he died in 1959, it seemed his work was
doomed to languish in obscurity.
Even Penson's oldest son
didn't realize the value of the old negatives stored in his
apartment in Tashkent Uzbekistan.
``I had no idea of the
significance of my father's archive," said Miron Penson, 79, who
lives in New York.
After being approached by a Swiss
collector in 1997, however, Penson realized he was sitting on a
treasure trove, and in the decade since then, he and his siblings
have fueled a revival of interest in their father's
Combing through his archive, they have uncovered images
of Central Asia from the 1920s and 1930s that have gone on display
in Moscow, Paris and London.
The latest exhibition of Max
Penson's photography opened recently in London's Somerset House. Its
photographs reflect the overarching theme of Penson's career: the
transformation of Uzbekistan from a deeply traditional Muslim
society into a Soviet republic.
In one picture, cotton
workers plow the fields of a newly created collective farm. In other
works, Penson focuses on kindergartners and uniformed soldiers on
parade. Many of the photos feature the trademark angular style of
Constructivism made famous by Soviet propaganda and movie posters of
Olga Sviblova, a Moscow art specialist who curated
the exhibit, believes that Penson should be ranked with the leading
Soviet photographers of his era, such as Constructivism pioneer
``I think Rodchenko was a visionary and
a genius," she said. ``But if you evaluate them purely on the basis
of their photography, Penson is the better photographer."
Penson has acquired some influential friends. Billionaire
Roman Abramovich sponsored the catalog for the exhibition, which
carries the somewhat redundant title ``Classic Soviet Modernist
Photographer Max Penson and the Soviet Modernization of Uzbekistan
Penson came to Uzbekistan as something of an
outsider. He was born in 1893 to a Jewish family in a small town
outside Vitebsk, a city in present-day Belarus. Vitebsk was also the
birthplace of painter Marc Chagall, and in fact, Miron Penson
suspects that his father and Chagall knew each other, since both
studied drawing and painting from an early age.
But in 1915,
to escape the pogroms of World War I, Penson and his family fled to
Asia. They settled in Kokand, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, where
Penson taught drawing at a local school. He later moved to
It was about that time he was given his first
camera, which proved to be a life-changing event.
In 1926, he
became a photographer for the newspaper Pravda Vostoka, where his
main task was to document the radical changes taking place in
Following peasant literacy campaigns and
touring vast construction projects, Penson took photos that were
circulated around the Soviet Union by the Tass news agency. His
best-known image -- a portrait called ``Uzbek Madonna," which won
top honors at the 1937 World's Fair -- shows a liberated, unveiled
Muslim woman breast-feeding her infant.
remembers his father as a tireless worker who stayed awake late at
night developing his photographs. Director Sergei Eisenstein, who
met Max Penson in 1940 while shooting a film about the digging of
the Grand Fergana Canal, also recalled the photographer's boundless
But Penson could not escape the dark side of Soviet
rule. The demands of Socialist Realism, the official artistic
ideology of the Soviet Union, forced him to produce fewer closeups
of expressive faces and more images of people celebrating the cult
of Lenin and Stalin.
``Socialist Realism made him do things
he didn't want to do," Miron Penson said.
In his memoir,
Miron Penson also recalls how his father would light small fires in
the courtyard of their house, burning photographs of people who had
been arrested and charged as ``enemies of the
Eventually, it came to be Max Penson's turn. The
years 1948 and 1949 brought a wave of anti-Semitism to the Soviet
Union, which had once seemed like a land of opportunity to Jews like
Penson who had fled the pogroms and religious restrictions of the
In 1949, without explanation, his license to
work as a photojournalist was revoked by Stalin's secret police, the
NKVD. The move effectively ended his career.
Unable to work,
Penson became withdrawn and suffered increasingly from ill health.
During his last years he spent much of his time retouching his old
photos, occupied with a bizarre, repetitive and seemingly pointless
task in which he rubbed out people's eyes and gave them new ones.
Following his death, Max Penson's work was largely forgotten
in the Soviet Union. His archive remained a family possession, but
it was nearly wiped out when Tashkent was struck by a major
earthquake in 1966. The surviving negatives were pulled from the
rubble by his daughter, Dina, and her husband.
two sons, Edik and Miron, both became photographers. Miron Penson
also achieved success as a cinematographer at Uzbekfilm, the main
film studio of Uzbekistan. He immigrated to the United States in
Asked to compare his photography to that of his father,
Miron Penson simply laughs.
``I can't compare them," he said.
``We are people of completely different eras.''