All the coal miner faces, the nursing mothers, the big-country furrows and horizons, the factory stacks trailing smoke like banners of progress, the posing children in winter Leningrad or migrant-worker Florida, the hunger, the lonely cities: This show of more than 200 photographs is called "Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.," and it's at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
For the United States, heavy hitters include: Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott and so on, the great Farm Security Administration lineup of the 1930s.
And representing the Soviet Union: Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Elizar Langman, Mark Markov-Grinberg and so on--a lot of them swing-for-the-fences guys until the Soviet government started arresting and shooting photographers, thereby encouraging a more cautious approach.
The Soviet works show a locomotive momentum toward the inevitable triumph of communism over all false doctrine and Trotskyite saboteurs. A big-chinned miner stares into the future with head tilted back in the approved cast-iron Lenin pose, as if he's about to put Murine in his eyes. Hero laborers rend the old earth into new canals with shovels. Parades redeem counterrevolutionary selfishness by making everybody the same, everybody replaceable. Power and glory belong to those who sacrifice their sweat and selfhood to the state.
The American photographers, on the other hand, aren't selling a dream, they're busting one. Free enterprise and the myth of the yeoman farmer have left us in the dust-storm migrant-worker bewilderment of the Depression. In Dorothea Lange's "Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded Couple Inside Car, San Joaquin, California," the man knows he has to do something about it, and the woman knows he will, but he'll just have to do it again and again, the two principles on their Depression faces being:
1. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
2. It is like this.
Independence has become diaspora, a sort of national in-house exile. There's a beautiful marrow bleakness to things. The Dust Bowl Theatre's billboard advertises "Tarzan's Secret Treasure" in the middle of a wasteland recorded by Russell Lee. No smoke rises from a steel mill watched over by the stone cross in Walker Evans's "Bethlehem Graveyard and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pa."
Curator Leah Bendavid-Val begins the show with brilliant pairings of pictures that tempt you to turn the two cultures into two sides of an equation. You can't, but you keep trying.
In Lange's famous "Migrant Agricultural Worker's Family, Nipomo, California," a haggard mother sits in a canvas lean-to nursing her baby. She frowns with more patience than you hope you'll ever need. Her virtue is defined by her persistence, her stubborn selfhood in the face of an uncaring and failed free-market system that believes America's Calvinist God is still on its side and not hers because it is rich and she is poor.
In the Russian side of the pairing, Arkady Shaikhet's nursing mother sits in a field while a man plows in the background and another child stares. She nurses a 2-year-old with a concentration that suggests she's using the latest state-approved nursing technique. She looks ready to sprint back to feeding the masses rather than one child. Though she and the child dominate the picture, its title refers to the plowing: "Tillage, Hamlet of Kolomenskaye."
Comparisons haunt the whole show.
The Soviet photographers exhort the workers to serve the state. The Americans exhort the state and the ruling establishment to serve the workers. Soviet citizens are supposed to exercise their power as producers of the steel in Ignatovich's furious "Furnace (Steel Casting)." Americans should be able to exercise their rights as consumers of steel in the form of luxury cars in advertisements pasted on the wall of Arthur Rothstein's "Room Where Migratory Agricultural Workers Sleep, Camden County, N.J."
The Soviets shun the relics of the past while the Americans try to capture them before they are lost forever. Ignatovich aims down at the dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Leningrad, demolishing it thematically, philosophically and politically with a little shadow of an airplane, the new deity of the proletariat, on the courtyard to the left (of course) of the cathedral. On the other hand, Jack Delano shoots over a picket fence (modernist repetition!) toward the old sea town of Stonington, Conn., its white paint and steeples glowing in the winter sun.
The Soviets condemned what they called "formalism," which could be something as simple as tilting the camera to add the drama of diagonals to a dull scene. The great Alexander Rodchenko, a demon camera-tilter, was criticized for his repudiation of content. He was shunted aside, and though his angular and exciting style influenced other photographers through the '30s, it didn't find as much favor as the straight-on cast-iron-Lenin technique of Mark Markov-Grinberg, photographer of "Nikita Izotov, Distinguished Miner, Donbass."
In one of many paradoxes demonstrated by this show and its catalogue, the Soviets looked for inspiration not to Western art photography but to our commercial work. A 1936 copy of Soviet Foto showed the crossed legs of a hosiery ad as inspiration for state propaganda. Lazar Mezhericher, who managed SoyuzFoto's foreign department, would write that Western "commercial photography's best works achieve a higher level of photographic art" than art for art's sake because it "has been infused with certain realistic juices from its contact with applied functions."
He failed to discern that advertising is the religious art of capitalist societies. And he seems to have missed the fact that both advertising and propaganda forsake something that separates photography from other graphic arts: time. Great photographs have the sense of an irrecoverable point in time. The Soviet photographs are full of history, in the Marxist sense, but they lack time. The posing is preposterous, the repetitions are conspicuous.
Time adds poignancy and irony. There's little of that in the Soviet works. Their power is the power of good propaganda, like some of our old Life magazines. Just as nonbelievers can appreciate both the horror of Flemish crucifixion paintings and the sensuality of Italian ones, they can appreciate techniques of communist persuasion as applied to Russian culture for the purpose of creating belief. The people who made them believed in what they were doing.
So did the American social realists, but there's a wild and asymmetric difference between them and the Soviets.
Lincoln Kirstein, critic and friend of Walker Evans, among other photographers, said: "The facts of our homes and times, shown surgically, without the intrusion of the poet's or painter's comment or necessary distortion, are the unique contemporary field of the photographer. . . . It is the camera that today reveals our disasters and our claims to divinity."
Could the Soviets of the time have even begun to understand what he was saying?
The Soviets shared the idea of keeping the artist out of the picture, but for reasons of avoiding the heresy of art for art's sake. Our notion of the distant artist sprang, in part, from that tradition, harking back to the notion of "objectivity" as defined and practiced by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot.
The sort of truth the Americans photographers show is the truth of reality, not of philosophy. Of course, in the Depression, reality itself was in question, life was in grim progress toward nothing much at all, and so the Americans looked for truth in both irreducible moments and in the human quick that is beyond glory or inevitability or any philosophy at all. They're not teaching you something, they're just showing it to you.
In both countries, the fascination of new creative technology and technique came together with national crisis, a sense of futures to be gained, and an artist's ethic of self-abnegation.
Whatever the force behind these pictures, it cleared a lot of moral masturbation, laziness and political kitsch out of the way--the kind of condescension that you see now in coffee-table books that "ennoble" the lower classes in the name of "humanism" or some other replacement for moral and political reasoning. These '30s photographers were tough, smart people, and this is a tough, smart show full of endless provocations. It will be up through Oct. 3.
"Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is an exhibit of more than 200 works showing how photographers in the United States responded to the hard times of the Depression and how those in Russia responded to Joseph Stalin's ideas about a "heroic" socialist future. The Corcoran is at 500 17th St. NW, between E Street and New York Avenue, one block from the White House. The gallery is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursday. The exhibition, sponsored by Chemonics International Inc., continues through Oct. 3.
CAPTION: Men at work: Dmitri Debabov's 1930 "Construction at Magnitka," above, and Jack Delano's "TVA Drillers, Fort Loudon Dam, Tennessee," from 1942.
CAPTION: Angles on reality: Ben Shahn's 1935 "Children of Rehabilitation Client, Maria Plantation, Arkansas," left, and "Boys in a Boat," a 1933 shot by Alexander Rodchenko, criticized in his Soviet homeland for his camera-tilting.
CAPTION: Tales of two cultures in which persistence was a virtue: Ivan Shagin's 1932 "Sports Parade, Red Square, Moscow," top, and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Agricultural Worker's Family, Nipomo, California," part of the "Propaganda & Dreams" exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery.