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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet, U.S. Photos Capture 1930s Hope




WASHINGTON -- 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 exhibit of more than 200 photographs showing how photographers in the United States responded to the hard times of the Depression and how those in Russia responded to Josef Stalin's ideas about a "heroic" socialist future 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 in Washington, D.C.


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.


Comparisons haunt the whole show.


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 counter-revolutionary selfishness by making everybody the same, everybody replaceable. Power and glory belong to those who sacrifice their sweat and selfhood to the state.


The United States photographers, on the other hand, aren't selling a dream, they're busting one. 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 Kolomenskoye."


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, Connecticut, its white paint and steeples glowing in the winter sun.


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.