The '30s. Two great nations undergoing extraordinary social upheavals. In each case, the government mobilizes photographers in support of its campaign to lead its people toward a brighter future. The photographers employ similar techniques, using the new lightweight 35mm camera to document the drama of everyday life. They compose their pictures like artists, shooting scenes from unusual angles and carefully arranging the different elements for maximum visual effect.
Viewed superficially, from a distance of more than half a century, the photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's America and Joseph Stalin's Russia have much in common. They are all priceless historical documents. At first glance -- as in the pictures in "Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US," an exhibit opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art -- it can be difficult to tell if the weather-beaten peasant or grimy-faced child in these grainy, black-and-white pictures is American or Russian. Factories look much the same, whether they are capitalist factories or communist factories. A drunk is a drunk, in America or Russia.
But look more closely and you begin to see differences that sum up two contrasting social experiments. When the Farm Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent photographers out into the American heartland, it gave them a very specific task: Chronicle life as it is. The government hoped that the images of poverty-stricken farmers, unemployed workers and barefoot children would shock the rest of the nation into endorsing the New Deal. In Roosevelt's words, in a radio address in 1932, "It is high time to admit with courage that we are in the midst of an emergency at least equal to that of war. Let us mobilize to meet it."
The great Soviet photographers of the '30s had a rather different mission. Like their American counterparts, they were meant to depict life as it was. But they were also meant to show, very explicitly, how life was getting better under the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. Such were the canons of "socialist realism" that Stalin made binding on all the arts at the same time he ruthlessly eliminated opposition to his rule. Photographers were propagandists. In the words of the Soviet photography magazine Proletarskoye Foto, in 1932, "Photography does not simply reflect reality, but lends it a transfigured aspect . . . The photographic lens has never been objective."
In most of these Soviet photographs, there is an element of explicit optimism missing from many of the American photographs. When Dmitri Debabov photographs the great steel mill at Magnitogorsk -- the symbol of Stalin's crash industrialization project -- he puts a worker wielding a shovel in the foreground. The worker is performing a menial job. Shot from a different angle, this could be a depressing picture. Seen through Debabov's eyes, the worker is a hero, helping to build a socialist society.
Sometimes, much the same picture can be interpreted in different ways in different societies. There is a celebrated picture by Arthur Rothstein of a family of migrating fruit workers from Tennessee, shot in 1937. In the American context, this is a gloomy picture. The family looks sad and worn down, burdened by a life on the road. Viewed through Soviet eyes, the family would seem secure and well fed. Most important, these people have a car -- an unimaginable luxury in the Soviet Union of the '30s.
Propaganda can be stronger than reality. During the '30s, the Soviet Union was held up by many people, progressive Americans included, as the land of the future. When the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White went to Russia, she shot images that were as upbeat and inspiring as those of her Soviet colleagues. There seemed to be a sense of purpose about life in Russia that was missing in the capitalist West, with its bewildering contrasts and contradictions.
In the '30s, America seemed in danger of losing the propaganda war. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the American way was not only more honest, but also more conducive to building a successful society. The Soviet system, for all its propaganda triumphs, was based on a lie: There was another reality about the Soviet Union of the '30s that is not photographed here -- the labor camps, the terror, the purges, the man-made famines, the deliberate destruction of the independent peasantry, the suppression of any form of political dissent.
Through terror and iron discipline, Stalin created a society that was able to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. But he also led Russia into a dead end from which, 60 years later, it has still not escaped. Roosevelt used the power of government to rescue America from the greatest depression in its history. Although he borrowed some ideas from Soviet Russia, he never interfered with basic freedoms. Allied with Russia during World War II, America went on to win the Cold War.
In the end, honesty was the better way.
Michael Dobbs is a reporter on The Post's Investigative staff. These pictures are taken from "Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US," which will be at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from Saturday through October 3.
CAPTION: Arkady Shishkin, Gleaning, 1932
CAPTION: Marion Post Walcott, Coal miner in his home, a company house, Scott's Run, W.Va., 1938
CAPTION: Yakov Khalip, Guard, Kronstadt, Baltics, 1936
CAPTION: Marion Post Walcott, Sunday afternoon, New Orleans, 1941
CAPTION: Dmitri Debabov, Construction of Magnitka, 1930
CAPTION: Walker Evans, Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill, Bethlehem, Pa., 1935
CAPTION: Walker Evans, Bud Fields and his family at home, Hale County, Ala., 1936
CAPTION: Arthur Rothstein, Room where migratory agricultural workers sleep, Camden County, N.J., 1938
CAPTION: Viktor Bulla, Pioneers in defense drill, Leningrad, 1937
CAPTION: Unknown photographer, Woman applying lipstick, Soviet Union, early 1930s
CAPTION: Elizar Langman, Youth commune Dinamo at morning tea, 1930
CAPTION: Jack Delano, Family of FSA client Peter V. Andrews, near Falmouth, Mass., 1940