Max Penson figured prominently in the dramatic evolution of Soviet photography in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, for twenty years following adoption of the Soviet Union’s policy of Socialist Realism for works of art, he photographed the heroic men and women of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Last week in Tashkent, I had the good fortune to visit the home of Penson’s youngest daughter Dina, herself a well-respected photographer.
My travel companions and I crowded into a dining room lined with tschotske-stuffed cabinets, around a table set with tea and sweets. Our co-host was Dina’s granddaughter, illustrator Yulia Drabova. We sipped tea and nibbled on cookies while being treated to a lively description of the stories behind the images on view. It was a personal, intimate introduction to a major player in 20th century photography.
Dina used images from the family archive to illustrate the impact her father, a transplant from Belorussia, had on photography in Uzbekistan in the early days of Soviet empire. She also showed us some of her own works, a sampling of the images to be featured in a photographic exposition in Tashkent later this month. Living modestly in a Soviet era housing block, Uzbekistan’s first female photojournalist is just as modest about her own achievements.
Uzbekistan’s transition from feudalism to socialism was a central theme for ideological propaganda, documented by some of the best photographers in the Soviet Union. Max Penson’s perspective, as a witness from within a society in transition, was unique. His “Uzbek Madonna”, awarded a gold medal at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, brought international recognition. Many of the images we viewed had first appeared in the pages of Pravda and other leading Soviet publications. After she had taken us down the decades with her father’s and her own photographs, Dina quietly brought out a glass negative, a fragile piece of her family history.
In 1966, Max Penson’s archive was buried in the ruins of the earthquake that devastated Tashkent. The works were rescued by Dina and her husband Fazulla Khodzhaev who likened Penson to America’s Edward Steichen. In 1996, a selection of Penson’s late photographs were exhibited in Switzerland, and more recently, a broader array was showcased alongside those of Alexander Rodchenko at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition “Modernism: the New World Designed. 1914-1939”. Apparently the two men never met, but their lives—and art—paired well to exemplify the dynamism of early Soviet art.