Hints of humanity in the face of conformity

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The Gilbert Collection’s current exhibition of the work of Max Penson, with its almost comically unappealing subtitle, is the second in a strikingly fruitful collaboration with the House of Photography in Moscow. The House of Photography, a 10-year-old municipal museum paid for by the office of the mayor of Moscow, is led by a dynamo of a woman. Under Olga Sviblova’s inspiring leadership, it is becoming the Russian national photographic cultural centre. More than that, it is becoming a model that other countries might begin to envy.

The Gilbert Collection’s first Sviblova-curated show was the marvellously eye-opening “Quiet Resistance” which closed in April, sketching a history of Russian Pictorialist photography that was unknown to all but a handful of experts. A period that photographic historians had given over almost entirely to the Soviet photography of the likes of Alexander Rodchenko was reclaimed in that one exhibition in the name of some very un-Rodchenko image-making. That was some scholarship, and Olga Sviblova has done something similar here (and again, incidentally, sponsored by Roman Abramovich, to whom goes all credit for his unemphatic but no doubt vital support of these interesting and original shows).

Penson is a new photographer to me. Born in 1893, he went to art school in Vilnius in Lithuania before he was forced east by the anti-
Jewish pogroms of the first world war. He settled in Uzbekistan and worked from 1926 until 1949 as a photographer for Pravda Vostoka, the “Truth of the East”.

His pictures were circulated by Tass, and he had more than one spread in the famous Soviet magazine “USSR under Construction” (another comically uninspiring title, but an important journal for anybody interested in the history of
Russian photography). Penson thus found himself in the privileged (and dangerous) position of being paid to chronicle the upheaval as Uzbekistan was dragged kicking and screaming into the Soviet century. The clash of cultures between the traditional Uzbek and the Soviet is the subject of Penson’s work.

Penson’s manner was modest. His compositions are strikingly graphic, sometimes in a kind of rough homage to Soviet social realist tendencies, although he never seems quite to commit himself to those in full. A picture of collective gymnastics does not show the kind of perfect harmony that we expect from such displays. Instead, the acrobat nearest to us has visibly lost his balance and his supporting partner is within an ace of dropping the ladder.

In a view of some swimmers about to compete, the classic constructivist geometry of the picture (aerial viewpoint, strong diagonals, powerful dividing lines across the picture space) is deliberately undermined by Penson including just a little more than he perhaps was supposed to: the beach is rough, the spectators are milling about, more than a little bored, and the background is just scrubland.

In the catalogue essay, Olga Sviblova draws attention to the way some of Penson’s retouching work seems so exaggerated as to be ironic, and the same impression comes from much of the photography itself. We see a photographer who knew how to make the images that his masters required, but who seems to build into them a degree of pastiche. Is it only hindsight that imbues these pictures with the seeds of their own parody? It may well be, but it’s fascinating all the same.

Penson had a gift for composition. He did simple eye-catching things with traditional Uzbek trumpets, with shepherds’ crooks, with the booms of earth-moving equipment. In the wonderful “Quarry” (1935), the photographer stationed himself – in the proper heroic-statuary manner – below the feet of a quarryman posed high on a rocky face. We know he’s posed because no hose is connected to the long pneumatic drill that he holds as an emblem of honourable toil. But above the quarryman’s head is not the blazing sun of future prosperity, but a large and threatening overhang. Penson’s gift for undermining his own compositions is almost the most striking thing about these pictures.

And sometimes, he just gives it to us straight. In “Construction of A Mountain Road” the composition goes like this: pale grey sky, in a band across the top of the picture. Paler grey mountains, snow-covered, the next band. Darker grey valley beneath. Foreground, speckled grey stony ground. And across the speckled stones and the darker grey valley, eight figures neatly spaced across the full width of the photograph dance with picks and shovels a stately minuet of progress through labour.

This is not one of London’s blockbuster shows, but a scholarly and very compelling introduction to the work of an interesting and sometimes much more than interesting photographer. Anybody who takes the slight trouble of strolling down to the Embankment will be glad that Penson’s archive did not perish in the Tashkent earthquake that nearly obliterated it a few years after his death.


‘Classic Soviet Modernist Photographer Max Penson and the Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan, 1920s-1930s’, Somerset House, London WC2, until February 24 2007. Tel +44 020 7845 4600

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