Propaganda, the Sly Art That Makes Opposites Look Alike

New York Times
October 30, 1999


Compare and contrast. They had Five-Year plans. We had the New Deal. They had the White Sea Canal. We had the Boulder Dam. They had forced collectivization. We had dust bowls. They had state-sponsored Socialist Realist photography. We had the photographic realism of the Farm Security Administration. They had Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Elizar Langman and Arkady Shaikhet. We had Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and Walker Evans. How different could they be?

Ten years ago, Leah Bendavid-Val, a senior editor for National Geographic Books, was riffling through an old anthology in the Novosti Press Agency in Moscow when she saw an image from the 1930s that stopped her in her tracks. It was a picture of a farm woman nursing her infant in the field.

Despite the rough conditions, writes Ms. Bendavid-Val in the catalog for "Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.," an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York, the woman "still managed to appear confident and purposeful, somehow enlarged by her gritty work." Remind you of anyone? How about Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," that worried but resolute farm woman from Nipoma, Calif., who sits outside her tent, planted insecurely in the dust-bitten world before her, and nurses her infant?

After spending four years digging in Russia's archives and galleries and studying the collection of Farm Security Administration photographs at the Library of Congress, Ms. Bendavid-Val found a striking pattern: a lot of the pictures taken as propaganda shots for the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin resemble the photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression.

In 1936, Walker Evans photographed a cabin's kitchen in Hale County, Ala., that could almost pass -- right down to its oilcloth and oil lamp -- for a communal kitchen in Leningrad captured in 1937 by an unknown Soviet photographer. A dramatic, gushing shot of the Boulder Dam might be briefly mistaken for a photo of the Dnyeproges hydroelectric power station. In 1933, Dorothea Lange took a shot of Filipino farm workers cutting lettuce in Salinas, Calif., that resembles Arkady Shishkin's 1931 photo of farmers in a commune in the Karelia Region: both show the same bent figures breaking the cracked soil and the horizon line at the same time.

Sometimes the only way you can tell the Soviet shots from the American ones is by their angles. The Americans tended to be straight-shooters, looking at their subjects at eye level. The Soviets often shot on the diagonal, from underneath or from above. In 1936, Carl Mydans caught a line of identical houses in Manville, N.J., by shooting straight through one porch to another and another, producing a set of concentric squares. In 1933, Boris Ignatovich shot the balconies around a Moscow atrium from above and at an angle, producing a vertiginous repeating triangle.

But this rule of thumb has exceptions. Not all Soviets loved the diagonal and not all Americans hewed to the straight line. While the Russian filmmakers, designers, architects and artists who formed the avant-garde group October loved the diagonal as an exciting, forward-looking mark, Stalin condemned it as a formalist affectation, art for art's sake. He tried to ban all odd angles in 1932. Mark Markov-Grinberg, who was a photographer for the Union of Russian Proletarian Photographers, explains why in the catalog: "Usually their strange angles did not appeal to us realists; how can you walk on a diagonal horizon?"

Americans, for their part, occasionally embraced the diagonal as a heroic device. If you look at Lange's 1940 portrait of a migratory cotton picker covering his mouth with his long, dusty hand, smiling at the photographer, you can imagine the influence of Georgy Petrusov's "Field Worker," a 1935 portrait of a smiling, brave-looking girl. They are both shot from below, with an uneasy result: the subject is looking both straight at the camera and down at it.

Despite the photographic parallels, the Soviet Union and the United States were worlds apart and their documentarians were making vastly different points. In the Soviet Union, where millions died because of government-induced famine, disastrous construction projects and political purges, the 1930s photographs were intended to show "that socialism was succeeding," Ms. Bendavid-Val writes. In the United States, where the government was trying to measure poverty and famine rather than hide it, the 1930s pictures were used to show that even though "something had gone badly wrong with the American way of life," the individual spirit survived.

Thus, the Soviet icons were individuals happily laboring for the nation: Pasha Angelina, smiling on her tractor, and Aleksei Stakhanov, the tireless miner. The American icons were individuals struggling against all odds to make their own way.

What accounts for the similarities? In both cases, the photographers were looking for the most persuasive images. In both nations, editors were determining, to some degree, the form and content of the photographs. And they were keenly aware that no matter what the message was, certain subjects and forms were more persuasive.

Roy Stryker, the head of the Farm Security Administration's documentarians, who was known for making his photographers turn over all their negatives to him and for punching holes in the ones he didn't like, once wrote to Arthur Rothstein, a photographer working in Iowa, suggesting that it was "very important" that he hunt "good pictures of corn uncut in the field." He said, "These pictures should give some sense of corn as a lush crop" and should tell of "the good life that is built around this good land." It sounds almost Soviet, doesn't it?

"Emphasize the state fair as a farmer's fair," Stryker told Rothstein, adding a note that suggested he was asking Rothstein to bend the truth: "I am under no illusion about the state fairs. They have become very smart and have a decided urban tinge. . . . Keep your camera pointed at the rural side of it."

In the Soviet Union, no one leader was quite like Stryker. The closest, Ms. Bendavid-Val suggests, was Leonid Mezhericher, the manager of SoyuzFoto's foreign department. And he, like Stryker, knew the power of certain kinds of shots. Although he found "the strange angles and diagonals of the photographs taken by Elizar Langman and Rodchenko" too concerned with form at the expense of content, he loved the formal techniques used in American advertising photographs: the "sharp resolution," the "colorful, contrasting and energetic treatment of tones" and the "active, concentrated, directed" lighting. He liked the use of close-ups, too. Mezhericher "wasn't the only Soviet official who saw Socialist Realist applications for Western advertising techniques," Ms. Bendavid-Val notes. The fact was, many Socialist Realists "thought much more of advertising than of American documentary photographs of the day."

The influence worked the other way, too. The editors of American magazines and newspapers noticed Soviet-sponsored picture essays like "Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family" in 1931 and Rodchenko's famous propaganda work on the White Sea Canal in 1933. "The impact of the approach inspired the editors of Life magazine when they started up in 1936," Ms. Bendavid-Val writes. By 1940 many American magazines, once "skittish about using government pictures," began running Farm Security Administration photographs and even photo essays. In 1937, for example, The New York Times Magazine assigned someone to write a story to accompany Rothstein's pictures of Gee's Bend, Ala. And, of course, in 1941 there was Walker Evans' and James Agee's book about the rural South, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." What finally came out of this strange era of propaganda photography? Ultimately, Ms. Bendavid-Val writes, "the glow of idealism dimmed" on both sides. America's attention had turned to war and so did the photographers. Some of the best Soviet photographers and editors -- particularly those with an interest in experimental photography -- had more tragic ends. Mezhericher was fired as a "saboteur and a Trotskyite." And by 1945, Rodchenko, despite his serious concessions to Stalin's socialism, had been marginalized. "I'm already as good as dead," he wrote in his diary. "I'm an invisible man."

What remained of that decade in photography was a detailed knowledge of the ways photographs can both serve and bend the truth. As Lincoln Kirstein said in 1938, "The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family."

"With its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth," he added, it presents "an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real face of what is going on than to explode it."


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