Despite their prominence and prolific photographic profiles, the names Maks Vladimirovich Alpert, Mark Stepanovich Redkin, Yevgeny Ananevich Khaldei, Dmitry Nikolayevich Baltermants and Vsevolod Sergeyevich Tarasevich are largely overlooked and unknown outside of the former Soviet Union.
Though Khaldei’s photograph Raising a Flag over the Reichstag is one of the most renowned images of Soviet victory in the Battle of Berlin (made infamous and anecdotal because the original photograph was edited to remove a second wrist-watch from the arms of one of the Soviet soldiers), the notoriety of the photograph fails to reflect the important and sometimes conflicted role photojournalism played in the Soviet Union both before and after the Second World War.
Alpert, Redkin, Khaldei, Baltermants and Tarasevich were all photojournalists before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the immediate prewar period, throughout the 1930s, military themes – tank and airborne exercises, paratroopers, and infantry drills – were popular with editors at illustrated journals and magazines. Yet the first days of World War II demonstrated that, while photojournalists were prepared to photograph military exercises, they were less than prepared for actual wartime photojournalism.
Photographers went to the front with instructions to document what they could, but particularly military action. This was easier said than done, and as Soviet regiments retreated, photojournalists moved in small groups between various military units, attempting to stay as close as possible to active military engagement. Apart from the obvious dangers associated with documenting activity on the front, photojournalists also faced suspicion from Soviet troops as they moved between divisions. The circumstances of war were also limiting in terms of equipment, and photographers were often unable to crop or edit their own work.
The question of what was acceptable to photograph was decided by political and military leaders within the first few months of the war. Taboo subjects were photographs of retreat, refugee evacuations, and military defeats. Photographs of Soviet soldiers in battle, Red Army victories, broken German tanks and equipment, and dead and defeated Nazi soldiers were encouraged. Under no circumstances were photojournalists to submit photographs of any “defeatist” subjects that could raise doubt about the Soviet Union’s military prowess. Furthermore, whenever possible, military officers kept photojournalists away from Soviet defeats, ordering editors to station photojournalists elsewhere, to help strengthen a narrative of Soviet victory.
Thus, Soviet military leadership viewed photojournalism as a mechanism to boost civilian, and more importantly, troop morale, and priority was placed on including photographs in military newspapers intended for distribution at the front. During the war, photojournalists were not meant to document war atrocities, but to buttress Soviet ideological slogans.
Some photographers, including Baltermants, were able to capture war crimes, genocide, and the devastating effects of the Nazi regime. But the Soviet government was wary of publishing this material, and when these images were published, they followed a set narrative of Nazi criminal activity, highlighting German immorality and ruthlessness. Many photographers kept these images to themselves, and the central press only distributed and officially recognized images that showed the fallibility of the Soviet army or the grief of the war years after World War II ended.
This confluence of circumstances, themes and subjects set by editors, the perceived purpose of photojournalism as a propaganda mechanism, and the photographers’ limited ability to edit their images, led to an increasing reliance on staged images. Despite a nominal discouragement of staged photography in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, many of the photojournalist’s photographs were staged both during and after the war. Though staging itself was acceptable to a certain degree, it was unacceptable that a photograph look like it was staged.
The intentionality behind staging a photograph, to enhance the documentary or aesthetic features of the image, did not matter if the photograph looked as though it were an unaltered document. Though Khaldei admitted to staging photographs throughout his career to create a more powerful effect and atmosphere, including Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, the implications of falsifying documentary images could be extremely severe: In 1942, while working for Izvestia, Dmitry Baltermants was accused by the newspaper of falsifying photographs of the Battle of Stalingrad. He was demoted and a military tribunal sentenced him to a military penal company, battalions that were stationed in the most dangerous areas of the front lines. Baltermants was lucky. Shrapnel wounded his leg; he was rescued and sent to a hospital in Moscow before returning to the front as a photojournalist for a military newspaper after his recovery, presumably due to a shortage of qualified photojournalists available at the time.
According to Yekaterina Vikulina, photographer and associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, the Cultural Thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s led to the development of a new style of reportage photography, even among the old guard photojournalists of World War II.
“Photographers like Dmitry Baltermants, Vsevolod Tarasevich, Maks Alpert, Yevgeny Khaldei and Mark Redkin,” Vikulina said, “already had the experience of military photography, but at this time they freed the camera from the excessive stagnation of these images,” which were largely dictated by editorial demands.
Baltermants, Tarasevich, Alpert, Khaldei and Redkin were able to develop not only as photojournalists but as artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Artistic photography did not occur in the immediate aftermath of the war, but instead, Vikulina said, “only in the 1960s, due to the changing cultural and political situation. Changing the framing of images and the displacement of compositional centers became a signifier of ‘Thaw’ photography, where photojournalists tried to get away from the deliberate nature of staging.”
During the Cultural Thaw (1956-1964), while photojournalists were able to explore the more artistic aspects of photography, they were not considered “artists.” Though the timeline is debated by art historians, it is difficult to consider art photography a category in the Soviet Union after 1935-1936.
This is not to say that art photography did not exist, but even in the more relaxed environment of the Cultural Thaw, the state failed to recognize photographers in the same way it recognized painters and poets who were members of artist’s unions that offered greater prestige and higher pay grades. Though many prominent photographers and photojournalists participated in international art photography exhibitions, at home in the Soviet Union their status as artists was unrecognized and confined to photography communities. Thus, while Baltermants, Tarasevich, Alpert, Khaldei and Redkin produced artistic works that were recognized at art photography exhibitions abroad, their status in the Soviet Union remained that of photojournalists, rather than photo-artists.
Nevertheless, the Cultural Thaw offered the opportunity for the diversification of styles within Soviet photography. After the war, as the wartime correspondents returned to positions at peacetime periodicals, their images began to focus more on everyday life and less on industrial subjects, which was the case before the war, and military campaigns. The general focus of images in the press expanded to include a wider range of themes.
While industry and collective farms remained integral to the narrative of building Socialism espoused in newspapers and journals, beginning in the mid-1950s, the work of Baltermants, Tarasevich, Alpert, Khaldei and Redkin also began to incorporate daily occurrences: laughing children, university students studying for exams, citizens strolling through parks and pursuing leisure activities.
While these images may seem mundane or ordinary depictions of Soviet life, they were also more accessible and representative of the peacetime Soviet experience, recovery from the destruction of World War II, and subsequently, a new paradigm for Soviet photojournalists.
Alpert was born in Simferopol in 1899. He first worked as an assistant in a dress shop before becoming an assistant for a local photographer. He was called up for military duty in the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) in 1918. After demobilization, Alpert began his career as a photojournalist at the Moscow based Rabochaya gazeta. Later in his career he was employed by the newspaper Pravda, the Russian news agency TASS, and the Press Agency Novosti (APN). Between 1931 and 1932 he was a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), a group whose work emphasized the importance of the photograph as a document, as a means of capturing reality.
Working as a wartime correspondent during the Second World War, his images were known for their emotional impact. For his service during the war he was awarded the Order of the Red Star (1943), the Order of the Patriotic War (1945) and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.
After the war, Alpert returned to industrial themes, but also focused on other subjects, including portraits. Alpert is perhaps best known for his photo essays (he completed around 50 photo essay projects as a professional photojournalist) – a series of pictures united by a theme or event. In many images Alpert juxtaposes large figures in the foreground of his photographs, the background composed of imposing industrial scenery. Characteristic of Alpert’s photographs are unique shooting angles from above or below, and images that confront the viewer’s sense of perspective, such as his 1961 image of the construction of the Bukhara-Ural gas pipeline. Throughout his career, Alpert authored numerous texts and pamphlets on photojournalism. In 1966 he received the title Honored Worker of Culture of the RSFSR. He received multiple prizes at photography exhibitions in the Soviet Union and abroad, and was on the selection committee of numerous Soviet photography exhibitions.
Born in Astrakhan, Redkin started his career working for the small local newspaper Kommunist after his father, a fisherman, bought him a glass plate camera. He studied at the Leningrad Fotokinotekhnikum (The Photography and Cinema Technical Institute), choosing photography over more popular courses in cinematography and projection work, completing his studies in 1932. He then worked as a welder before joining the crew of a whaling vessel where he traveled the English coast, Cuba, Jamaica, and through the Panama Canal to Hawaii.
Upon returning to Vladivostok in 1933, he was called up for military service, and was offered a position at the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda in 1934.
Redkin became one of the first military photojournalists to experience World War II, and was promoted and sent as a special correspondent to an aviation division of the front. After an injury kept him hospitalized for two months, he began working for the magazine Frontovaya illustratsiya. Redkin was stationed in Krasnodar and Kerch, and also documented the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, before arriving in Berlin. After being released from his Red Army position, Redkin began working for the magazine Sovetsky soyuz. He later worked as a traveling correspondent for TASS and the Planeta publishing house in Moscow, photographing some of the Soviet Union’s most remote locales in the Arctic Circle, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Siberia. In the postwar period his favorite subjects included landscape and nature photography and exploring the unique geographical features of the Soviet East, including the Rock Pillars along the Lena River in Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Siberia.
Baltermants was born in Warsaw, Poland. His family moved to Moscow in 1915, shortly after the Russian Empire became involved in World War I. During the October Revolution of 1917, Baltermants and his family were confined to one room in a communal apartment. Baltermants worked as a printer for the state newspaper Izvestia before studying mathematics at Moscow State University. He was then hired as a math instructor by a Military Academy, where he taught until 1939, when he returned to Izvestia as a war correspondent.
Despite complications over his chosen themes and the political content of his war photography, Baltermants went on to work for the illustrated journal Ogonyok, where he became one of the most prominent photojournalists of the postwar period. In 1965 he was promoted to photography editor at Ogonyok. His photographs in Ogonyok were primarily of Soviet and international diplomats, Party Congresses, People’s Deputies, parades, and Soviet holidays.
Despite this very official position, Baltermants’ photographs often emit an air of spontaneity. In contrast to Stalin era press images, in which leaders were depicted as solemn and serious, his postwar images are humanizing, portraying the complex personalities of his subjects, as can be seen in his 1954 photograph of Soviet leaders visiting the People’s Republic of China. A similar image of Soviet delegates laughing and smiling would have been impossible to circulate during the Stalinist period. Baltermants held personal exhibitions in Moscow, New York, London and Prague. He also held a number of honorary titles, including Honored Worker of Culture of the RSFSR and Honorary Artist of the International Federation of Photographic Art (FIAP).
Khaldei was born in Yuzovke (now Donetsk). His mother was killed in a pogrom shortly after his birth and he was raised by his grandmother. Khaldei began his career early on, working as an apprentice in a Ukrainian photography studio. At twelve, he is rumored to have made his first camera. In the early 1930s he worked at a locomotive depot, snapping photographs of his fellow workers as a hobby. He was noticed by the editor of the local worker’s newspaper, and was offered the opportunity to photograph regularly for the wall newspaper (bulletins that contained short stories, news snippets, and photographs produced by workers and unique to the employing institution). His work was noticed by the editors of the newspaper Sotsialistichesky Donbass, where he worked until 1936, when he was hired by TASS.
During the Second World War Khaldei was stationed across the Eastern Front, in Kursk, Sevastopol and Murmansk, where he photographed Soviet scouts in the Pestamo region in 1944. He then traveled to Berlin, photographing the fall of the Reichstag and the Nazi surrender. He also photographed the Nuremberg Trials. He received numerous medals for his wartime photographs, including the Order of the Patriotic War 2nd class, as well as the Order of the Red Star. Despite these awards, he lost his position at TASS in the late 1940s. Because he was unable to find work, his images disappeared from Soviet periodicals for nearly a decade. He returned to photojournalism when he was hired by the newspaper Pravda, where he worked for fifteen years, and in 1972-1973 he joined the editorial board of the newspaper Sovetskaya Kultura, where he worked until he retired. Yet, unlike other wartime correspondents, and likely because of his dismissal from TASS, Khaldei struggled to parlay the success of his wartime images into a prominent career after the war. While he was able to continue working as a photojournalist, he remains primarily known for his powerful images of the war and its aftermath. His postwar images predominantly depict everyday life in the Soviet Union.
Tarasevich was born in Moscow during the Russian Civil War. He began publishing images in the journal Smena and newspaper Leningradskaya Pravda as a student at the Leningrad Electro-Technical Institute. In 1940 he became a wartime correspondent for TASS, photographing the Leningrad Blockade from 1941 to 1943.
Despite his contribution as a wartime photojournalist, Tarasevich is perhaps best known for his postwar photography. He was considered to be extremely energetic and easily bored, at times conducting up to seven shoots in a single day. The political shift that occurred in the mid-1950s, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality, significantly impacted Tarasevich’s career. The easing of restrictions on photographers, particularly revisions to the appropriate themes and subjects for photojournalists, coupled with Tarasevich’s insatiable need to photograph, led him to become one of the most prolific photojournalists for illustrated journals. In 1961 he was hired by APN, where his work was regularly featured in Ogonyok, Sovetsky soyuz, and Rabotnitsa. He also regularly published in Soviet era editions of Russian Life, then known as Soviet Life, in the 1960s and 1970s. His subjects ranged from everyday depictions of life in Moscow or Leningrad, photographs of heroes of the Soviet Union, and collective farm workers, such as his 1961 photograph of the grain harvest in the Stavropol krai. In 1963 he received accolades for his submission to the World Press Photo exhibition.
According to his daughter, Baltermants was not responsible for the publication of the image in question. One of his photographs of German prisoners of war, taken in Moscow, was substituted for his image of soldiers in Stalingrad at the last minute without his knowledge, and included a caption about Soviet military successes. The error was immediately noticed upon publication, and Baltermants was blamed for fabricating information about military operations. (V. T. Stigneev, Vek Fotografii: Ocherki Istorii Otechestvennoi Fotografii 1894-1994.)
The ROPF formed in opposition to the photography association Oktyabr (October), led by Aleksandr Rodchenko, whose modernist work supported photography as a versatile medium that could surpass its documentary processes to produce new ways of seeing and viewing the world. Ostensibly both Oktyabr and the ROPF were dissolved in the mid-1930s.
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