Friday, June 17, 2011

Max Penson: Uzbek Photography between Revolution and Tradition

Max Penson photo of Uzbek telephone operator 1938
Telephone Operator 1938, Photography: Max Penson
The Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York, which specializes in Russian vintage photography, recently held an exhibition of 48 vintage gelatin silver prints from Penson's family estate.

Born in Belarus in 1893, Max Penson moved to Tashkent in the 1920s. His remarkable images cover the modernization effort: formation of collective farms, irrigation of arid lands for cotton growing, development of the paper industry and silk production, liberation of women, and the education of children. Penson recorded these historical changes and contributed regularly to TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union).

He created a unique visual chronicle, an epic poem in photographic form of the radical transformation of life and colossal engineering projects in the region. His images show men digging vast irrigation canals, attending literacy classes, women rid of their traditional horsehair veils to wear contemporary clothes and pursuing new professions, as telephone operators or tractor drivers. In 1937 Penson was part of the World Fair in Paris, winning an award for his "Uzbek Madonna," a portrait of a young woman unveiled and publicly nursing her child.

In 1939, Penson, alongside other photographers, documented the construction of the 270-kilometers long Grand Fergana Canal, which was built by hand by 160,000 people in only forty five days. It was one of the most remarkable achievements of the Soviet Union. The images of the construction conjure a pharaonic impression, as enormous numbers of peasants are called to work under the heat of the sun by karnai (musical elongated horns).

Max Penson Uzbek Red Caravan photograph
Red Caravan 1939, Photography: Max Penson
Accused of being influenced by Western aesthetics, Penson fell out of official favour. In 1948 rising anti-Semitism forced him to leave his job at Pravda Vostoka after working there for 25 years. Penson died in 1959 after a long period of depression and illness. His archive was nearly destroyed in the great earthquake that struck Tashkent in 1966. His family rescued more than 50,000 images and negatives that form the basis of an important collection that has led to a traveling exhibition and the Max Penson website.

A bilingual German/English publication Usbekistan, 1925-1940: Dokumentarfotogrfie 1925 - 1945 von Max Penson was published in 1997 by Benteli, ISBN3716509973.

Other publications include The Unknown Penson: The Archive of the Photographer's Daughter, published in 1995 and Max Penson: Photographer of the Uzbek Avant-Garde 1920s-1940s, 2011.

Related posts:
Khudaybergen Divanov - Father of Uzbek Photography
Jacques Dupâquier's Images of Tashkent, 1956
Chronicle of an Upheaval the World Couldn't See 
Paul Nadar's Images of Turkestan 1890 
Yulia Drobova’s "End of Winter" Exhibiiton, Tashkent: Until 31 May