The 1930s, I had always thought, were a time of ideological chasms, when countries under the sway of fascism differed profoundly from those adhering to communism, which in turn were utterly unlike the democracies. Photography appeared to reflect those chasms. American pictures made during the Great Depression seemed the epitome of straightforward, truthful documentary. Socialist Realist pictures made at the same time were manipulated--they were false propaganda.
So I was surprised, to say the least, when I stumbled upon a resemblance between the two sets of photos--when it occurred to me that the rural stoics photographed in this country by, say, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans looked intriguingly like the heroic peasants and workers captured in the USSR by, say, Yevgeny Khaldei and Mark Markov-Grinberg and others. It struck me that a shot of mighty turbines at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state had very much the same effect as a shot of a gaping cannon mouth at Kronstadt on the Baltic Sea.
I discovered these similarities by chance in the spring of 1989, when I went to Moscow to work on a National Geographic book titled "The Soviet Union Today." It was a heady time. Glasnost was still new, communism was winding down, and it seemed possible for ordinary people like myself to move freely within this once restricted and therefore exotic country.
In the course of acquainting myself with the profusion of Russian photographs, I happened to flip through an old Soviet anthology and stopped at some compelling pictures of a farm woman in a field nursing her child. Though clearly poor and hard-working, she appeared strong and confident, somehow enlarged by her burdens. This was quintessential socialist realism, yet it brought to mind American photographs of the same period, especially those generated by the Department of Agriculture's Farm Security Administration (FSA) under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker, head of its so-called historical section. During the '30s, in both countries, the subjects were people we could care about, and the photographs mingled realism with romance, albeit in varying ways and degrees.
At first blush, the comparison was an unlikely one. And yet during that era the two countries held several important beliefs in common, among them that strong actions by powerful governments could improve social conditions, that heavy industry and public works could solve economic problems, and that hard, gritty labor could be dignified and elevating, rather than demeaning. In order to advance this creed and especially the programs intended to implement it, both America's New Deal and the Soviet government set out to generate suitable photographs. During the '30s, federal agencies hired dozens of photographers to capture images that would promote Frankin D. Roosevelt's programs, while in the Soviet Union, officials sent out dozens of photographers to make pictures that would advocate Joseph Stalin's five-year plans and communism in general. (None of this is to suggest, of course, that Stalin's repressive regime was in any way comparable to the democracy over which Roosevelt presided.)
Early in 1995, I set out to study the Soviet pictures in earnest--a project that eventually led to an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, "Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US" (through Oct. 3), and a book of the same name. In this new, post-Soviet era, I thought it would be a simple matter to immerse myself in enormous, well-organized archives (everything in Russia is enormous) and feast on the rich collections. It turned out that there are great gaps in the Russian archives, and they are in disarray. There is a heartbreaking lack of resources to preserve them.
But, interestingly for a country in which private property was long suspect, much of the work is in the hands of the photographers and their families. Either they held on to negatives and prints from the start, or the pictures were returned after publication. Some photographs have made their way to dealers and collectors, although the 1930s have held less interest for them than the avant-garde 1920s or the subsequent war years. Generous Russian friends helped me track down material, putting me in touch with families and collectors in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere both inside and outside Russia. The owners' nearly boundless readiness to share photographs and stories gave the enterprise unexpected emotional meaning.
At work in the '30s, the photographers must have known about the famine and starvation, the repression and executions. But I became convinced that in spite of the tough political and economic circumstances, they believed, at least for a time, that they were helping build the greatest society on earth.
Khaldei had moved from his Ukrainian hometown to Moscow in 1936. He was young and adventurous, and he thought his pictures could make the world a better place. His specialty was photographing industry. "And of course I liked to photograph people," he said, "since it's people, our people, who create things." Khaldei sat on his bed in his one-room apartment and, over morning and afternoon glasses of cognac, let me hold his exquisite glass plates. He died in 1997 at the age of 80.
Markov-Grinberg photographed a "hero" miner named Nikita Izotov. He told me how he admired the miner's accomplishments and aspired to high achievement in photography. "I concentrated on nuance," he said. "If I had shifted, something entirely different would have come out, a different expression. I wanted a resolute head, a bit upraised, looking."
It was important for me to know whether American and Russian photographers knew each other's work. For many reasons, I discovered, they did not. Nonetheless, despite stylistic contrasts--the tight, cool heroics of many Soviet photos versus the offhand intimacy of the American pictures--their work displays a remarkable convergence of idealism and a pure love of the medium.
The paths to getting photographs published in the two countries, however, were quite different. The Soviet method was simply a matter of installing resources and procedures to ensure the desired outcome--after all, the publications, like the photographs, were directed by the government. In the United States, the government-sponsored photographs had to make their own way in the marketplace. Proudly independent magazines and newspapers were at first skittish about using government pictures, even very good ones. It took time and effort to persuade them to run the FSA photographs.
These '30s photographs are still great images aesthetically, but today, when it has become fashionable to question the neutrality of all photography, they can seem simplistic in their furtherance of governmental doctrine. The other difference, of course, is that values have changed. In both Russia and the United States, citizens have their doubts about the capability of government to solve social problems; public works and heavy industry are no longer at the economy's cutting edge; and manual labor does not seem the best way to an improved life. In this way, too, the work of New Deal and Socialist Realist photographers continues to evoke similarities between their respective countries.
Leah Bendavid-Val is a senior editor at National Geographic.