THE POWER and treachery of photojournalism have seldom been so evident as in the current Corcoran exhibition of the work of Soviet and American government photographers during the 1930s. Much of the show's strength lies in what the pictures and text conceal or don't tell.
The exhibition compares and contrasts the Great Depression photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration with those ordered by Soviet authorities during Stalin's brutal and bloody drive toward industrialization.
The projects were superficially similar: Both governments sent talented photographers in search of scenes that would energize their citizens in support of a great national crusade. Both American and Soviet photographers focused with respect and sympathy on farm workers laboring under harsh conditions and on ordinary people engaged in extraordinary public works. In both cases the teams were selectively and consciously creating propaganda, seeking to depict what they regarded as higher truths.
The show opens with paired photographs such as Dorothea Lange's famous portrait of a migrant worker nursing her child in a makeshift tent and an equally compelling one by Arkady Shaikhet of a farm worker nursing her toddler on a hay bale in an open field. Ben Shahn's picture of a pair of dirty, ragged and delightful boys on an Arkansas cabin porch dovetails perfectly with Alexander Rodchenko's pair of dirty, irrepressible urchins in a dugout canoe. Next to Russell Lee's square-jawed Oklahoma oil-field worker pouring slurry down a drill pipe we see Anatoly Skurikhin's portrait of "distinguished miner" Akim Ivanovich Terekhov drilling at a coal face.
The similarities are profoundly deceptive, and it is a serious failing of the show that the accompanying wall texts gloss over the underlying reality. Patrons unfamiliar with the murderous practices of the Soviet regime -- many millions of its citizens were executed, worked to death or deliberately starved to death during the 1920s and '30s -- may go away thinking that times sure were tough back then, but with the aid of benevolent government, the dedication and hard work of their people pulled both countries through.
"Propaganda & Dreams," the book on which the exhibition is based, is less wishy-washy. Author and curator Leah Bendavid-Val spent four years searching out the pictures and interviewing surviving photographers, and the book -- but not the exhibition text -- recounts in sympathetic detail the Kafkaesque conditions under which the Soviet photographers worked. The biographical sketches in the book of the two dozen of them whose work is included in the show are often chilling:
Viktor Bulla (born 1883) was shot in 1937 "for unspecified reasons."
Dmitri Debabov (1899-1949) died during surgery; his son believes he was murdered.
Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976) was temporarily expelled from the party in the 1920s for nonconformity (use of techniques such as foreshortening and tilted perspectives).
Elizar Langman (died 1939), widely admired and respected by his peers, was officially censured as a "formalist." The court found that when Langman was sent to photograph a construction project, "The shoot did not provide a complete depiction of the activities of our socialist industrial complexes; atypical individual aspects of the construction were provided; illustrations of people heroically building the socialist complex were lacking."
Leonid Shokin (1896-1962) in 1930 also was labeled a formalist and his magazine was shut down. During the Great Patriotic War (WWII), while he was at the front with the Red Army, secret police agents went to his house and destroyed much of his archive. Thereafter Shokin photographed and taught in the approved style.
The Soviet editor who probably came closest to being the counterpart of FSA Director Roy Stryker was Lazar Mezhericher. Like Stryker, he fostered artistic freedom and was an early and innovative advocate of the photo essay.
"It is not, of course, the editor's place to tell you how to take pictures in a new style," Mezhericher wrote. "That, only your creative sense, your understanding of life, can tell you, and an editor should not interfere with your search; what can help you in your search is an editor working more `liberally,' if we may use that word."
Such an attitude could not be countenanced under the Soviet system, and by and by Mezhericher was arrested, at least in part over a picture of a goose. "Toward who or what did Mezhericher orient photographs as he selected them for the presentation of the Soviet Union abroad?" asked an official magazine (all Soviet magazines were official, save for hand-copied and secretly circulated samzidat. "From piles of pictures showing the struggle of collective farmers Mezhericher selected and displayed a casual picture of goslings just because a gosling in the photograph seemed stirring. Such distortions have been employed by the Trotskyist saboteur Mezhericher in his own interests."
What ultimately became of this goose-gandering subversive Bendavid-Val doesn't say, but as the revolution devoured its children an even more energetic and outstanding editor fell fatally afoul of the savage and mercurial Soviet system. Mikhail Yefimovich Koltsov (1898-1939), took part in the October Revolution and was sufficiently prominent in the Soviet contingent in the Spanish Civil War to be mentioned by Ernest Hemingway in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Koltsov founded a dozen magazines and was director of the Soviet Magazine and Newspaper Association. He was popular and powerful, but black and white were interchangeable under Comrade Stalin, and in 1938 Koltsov was arrested as an enemy of the people; he disappeared into one of Stalin's torture centers and was shot the next year.
The approved style of Soviet editing was exemplified by the boss of Max Alpert (1899-1980). One afternoon while working on a photo layout, Alpert was summoned to the editor's office, but was so engrossed in his work that the command slipped his mind. A few minutes later the editor appeared in the doorway; a trembling and abject Alpert stammered apologies. Throughout his long career in Soviet service, Alpert recalled this as a near-death experience.
Bendavid-Val marvels over the ability of photographers to remain creative under such circumstances. Well, as some of these photographs show, not all of them did. Some gloried in a collectivism that led to pictures so predictable that, as one Russian expert says, "different photographers, different places and different subjects looked identical."
Others paid a high psychic price for stifling themselves. Vladislav Mikosha, ordered to document for Stalin's personal pleasure the 1931 dynamiting of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, produced the film through a film of tears, and ever afterward sought to be assigned to the hinterlands. Rodchenko's last big assignment was depicting a project that connected the White Sea to the Don River, at the cost of the lives of 200,000 slave laborers. The pictures he brought back are ambiguous, and his career went into decline.
Young American photographers sometimes felt scared to death in the presence of the ebullient and occasionally bullying Stryker, but only because his photographic preferences were assertive and his standards were high. Get arty with him and you'd better be excellently arty.
Stryker often gave his employees detailed instructions that specified such shots as a lush cornfield and an empty corn crib. And he was arrogant enough to punch holes in negatives he rejected, ending any possibility of debate. But the overall similarity of the FSA portfolio is not so much a result of his dictation as of the team's dedication to the same ideal: A straightforward, truthful portrait of the American underclass that was designed to stir sympathy for the victims of the Depression and build support for the New Deal programs designed to help them. The standard of veracity was such that several of the FSA photographers raised hell with a colleague for moving a cow skull from grassy to barren ground to enhance a picture.
James H. Billington, who as Librarian of Congress is responsible for preserving the FSA photographs, sums up the difference between the Soviet and American projects in his foreword to Bendavid-Val's book:
"The USSR was using photography to create utopian hopes that masked massive repression that verged on governmental genocide against large numbers of its own people. The USA was trying to rediscover its better self in the wake of an economic depression by commissioning artists to depict the real face of their country. While many images from one country may appear similar to those in [sic] the other, the photographers who made them worked under radically different systems."
Some of the pictures in the American section have never been published, giving a well-deserved look at some of the lesser known FSA artists. Among the 14 in the show are Marjory Collins, Andreas Feininger, Theodor Jung, Beaumont Newhall and John Vachon. Bendavid-Val's book is on sale in the museum gift shop for $55 clothbound or $29.95 paper.
The closing paragraph of the exhibition text reads: "Looking back, it is now impossible to peel away the layers of editing to uncover any sense of raw reality. It is also not feasible to unravel the complex tensions created between similarities and differences in these Soviet and American photographs. They remain enigmatic forever."
This is wimpy, a historical newspeak that equates misfortune with murder, and undermines the integrity of the show. The cold war may be over, but the era of good feeling is no excuse for retouching the Soviet nightmare into a dreamscape.
PROPAGANDA & DREAMS: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US -- Through Oct. 3 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West or North). 202/639-1700. Web site: www.corcoran.org. Open 10 to 5 Wednesday through Monday and till 9 Thursdays. Suggested donation adults $6, students and seniors $4, families $10. Wheelchair accessible.