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Chronicle of an Upheaval the World Couldn't See
The New York Times   Stephen Kinzer
25 January 1998

Девушка-лётчица у винта самолёта.

Участник знаменитого автопробега 'Москва-Каракумы-Москва' за рулём автомобиля. Июль 1933 года.
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THE 20TH-CENTURY HISTORY of this ancient Central Asian land has unfolded largely behind a curtain of silence drawn by rulers of the Soviet Union. Their radical transformation of a highly traditional feudal society into a modern Soviet republic is a stirring but almost unknown story.
This story, however, was documented by an astonishingly prolific photographer, Max Penson, whose work was first suppressed and then all but forgotten. Only now, as independent Uzbekistan opens itself to the outside world, is Penson, who died in 1959, beginning to be rediscovered, in part through a book published in Switzerland and an exhibition held in Paris.
The Penson archive, most of which is now in the hands of his children and his grandchildren, comprises a comprehensive and visually brilliant history of the political and social tidal wave that swept over Central Asia in the first half of this century. Many of Penson's photographs focus on the human face or figure, and others use smoke, light and nature to create stark and artistic images. It is a photographic treasure waiting to be catalogued, studied and
displayed.
Penson was born in 1893 in the Belorussian village of Velizh, near the ghetto where another talented Jewish boy, Marc Chagall, was growing up at the same time. Both fled when anti-Jewish pogroms swept the region, Chagall to
acclaim in Western Europe and Penson to the exotic wilds of Central Asia.
Before fleeing, Penson had studied art, and in Uzbekistan he found work as an art teacher. In 1921, at age 28, he won a camera as a teaching prize and quickly began spending hours on the streets taking pictures. Soon he quit his
teaching job and began working as a photographer for Russfoto, one of the first Soviet photo agencies, and for the largest Central Asian newspaper, Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East).
For years Penson's pictures appeared regularly in Central Asian newspapers and occasionally in other parts of the Soviet Union. Many depict the dramatic modernization of Uzbek society as it emerged from backwardness and
entered the era of machines.
The photographs document a sweeping social transformation. Women in some of them are clothed in horsehair veils so heavy and all-encompassing that they resemble sturdy tents, while in others they wear pants and perform until then unheard-of, tasks like driving tractors and operating machinery. Men are shown digging vast irrigation canals, attending literacy classes and watching sports events or theatrical performances.
Penson produced most of his finest work in the years between 1925 and 1940. He fell from official favor after being accused of succumbing to the influence of Western esthetics, and when the persecution of Jews intensified after 1948 he was dismissed from Pravda Vostoka after 25 years of service. He died impoverished and deeply depressed.
Several dozen Penson images surfaced in the West recently and were published last year in Switzerland in a largeformat book titled ''Usbekistan: Dokumentarphotographie 1925-1945 von Max Penson.'' Several books of Penson's pictures had been published in Uzbekistan and Russia, but this is the first in which reproductions are fine enough to do justice to the work.
In an introduction to the book, Erika Billeter, a Swiss art historian, compared Penson to modern photojournalists like Sebastiao Salgado. She called Penson ''a photographer between revolution and tradition'' and described the collection as ''a document of the photographer's time, which emanates, even today, a certain explosive quality.''
The pictures in the Swiss book, however, represent only works published in Pravda Vostoka, and they have a certain propagandistic feel. Workers are always happy and dignified, participants in meetings at collectivized farms always intent, giant projects always awe inspiring. Ms. Billeter acknowledges in her introduction that the book shows only a tiny sampling of Penson's vast output, and she notes that ''the archives looked after by Penson's family comprise thousands more negatives, which may contain further undiscovered aspects of Penson's photographs.''
That archive is here in Tashkent. An ocean of Penson's negatives and prints, perhaps 30,000 pieces in all, are in the hands of one of Penson's four children, Dina Khojaeva, and her husband, Faizullah Khojaev. They rescued many from the ruins of their family home, which was destroyed by the shattering Tashkent earthquake of 1966. Others came from a local photo agency, which was about to destroy them in 1977.
In their modest apartment, Mr. and Mrs. Khojaev recently showed a visitor large samples of their collection, which few outsiders have seen.
''What Penson created was not only a chronicle but an epic novel or poem in photographic form,'' Mr. Khojaev said.
''Penson was our version of the American photographer Edward Steichen. He produced many pictures that were simple reportage and lost their value over time, but others are extremely creative and reach out across the decades.
''Today Penson is a man without a country. The Uzbek Government is not interested in promoting him because he was not Uzbek. But the Russian Embassy told us they wouldn't sponsor a show because he wasn't Russian, and the Israelis told us they weren't interested because he didn't concentrate on Jewish themes.''
After producing thick folders of prints, Mrs. Khojaeva, who has herself worked as a photographer, recalled what it was like growing up with such an obsessed father.
''He was too devoted to his work,'' she said. ''He worked from morning to night, and then as soon as he got home he would disappear into his darkroom to print pictures for the next day's paper. He never took a vacation. Mother did everything in our house; Father didn't even know what grade we were in at school. The only thing they ever quarreled about was the amount of money father spent buying photo paper.''
ANOTHER PORTION OF THE Penson archive, perhaps 8,500 pieces, is owned by his grandson Maxime Penson, who is one of Uzbekistan's leading commercial photographers. In his modern studio in a loft overlooking Tashkent, Mr. Penson works under a portrait of his grandfather.
''Many of the pictures that are known, especially those published in the Swiss book, are socialist sloganeering,'' Mr. Penson said. ''Some of them are very good, but they were taken in response to political and social demands. To look at them you could guess that my grandfather was a simple-minded person who saw Soviet rule as a great blessing to Uzbekistan. Now I think his name is coming back, but we are still looking for a way to bring him to world attention in the fullness of his talent and vision.''
The latest sign that Penson's work is reaching a broader audience is an exhibition of his work at the Carre Noir gallery in Paris that opened in November and runs until March 7. Photos in the exhibition reflect the attention Penson paid to composition and design, often inspired by paintings from his personal library of art books.
''Working independently and without teachers, he attained the summits of photographic art,'' Olga Sviblova, an expert on Russian photography, wrote in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue. ''He loved and understood his era, but he also feared it.''

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