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Genius uncovered
The British Journal Of Photography   Simon Bainbridge
20 December 2006

Зал заседаний Верховного Совета. Ташкент.

Конюх с лошадью в конюшне.
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Max Penson’s singular fascination with Uzbekistan is reason enough for his relative obscurity. But although his work was known and praised by Sergey Eisenstein, among others, his contribution to Soviet Modernism was largely forgotten until his re-emergence a decade ago, nearly 40 years after his death.

Perhaps his willingness to bend with the major artistic forces of the day – from Pictorialism through to Socialist Realism – blurred his distinction as one of the most dedicated photographers of the early revolutionary era, but a new retrospective at the Gilbert Collection attempts to redress this. And even if his newfound status as one of the lost geniuses of Soviet Modernism is exaggerated, that should not detract from the importance of Penson’s remarkable life work.

From 1926 to 1949, he created a vast and exhaustive archive of images chronicling daily life in Uzbekistan whilst working as a photographer for Pravda Vostoka, which Eisenstein commented is ‘unique in every way’. As curator Olga Sviblova writes in her essay: ‘From the 1920s to 40s, Central Asia, above all Uzbekistan, was an important theme in Soviet ideological propoganda. The transition from feudalism to socialism, which took place over an extremely short period, was expeced to illustrate the infi nite potential of the new power.’

Many photographers and filmmakers were sent to do so, but only Penson captured life there from an Uzbek point of view. Even more noteworthy, however, is that while photographers were usually required to shoot straight, with no ‘artistic improvement’, Penson was a dedicated experimentor, who made large exhibition prints of his work on a daily basis. He employed Pictorialist techniques to shoot historical subject matter, while adopting a Modernist perspective to shoot the heroic changes underfoot. And it didn’t go unnoticed, because his work was published throughout Russia in the 1930s, fi lling almost a whole issue of legendary magazine USSR under Construction.

After the war, he fell out of favour. Despite adopting the prescribed Socialist Realist aesthetic, and burning pictures of those ‘erased’ by Stalin, the anti-Semetism that had first forced him to leave Vilnius for Tashkent caught up with him again. His photographic permit was withdrawn in 1949, and he died a decade later. Only the dedication of his daughter and son-in-law brought his work back to our attention, having been buried in the ruins of a 1966 earthquake – a fi tting concurrence in Penson’s remarkable story.

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