Index World Press Photo
January 2007 | Edition Six     

Max Penson was a photojournalist who left a unique record of the Sovietization of his adopted homeland, Uzbekistan. Like many who suffered from the widespread anti-Semitism of the time, Penson had to overcome huge obstacles in his work.

For this edition’s Close Up, Bill Kouwenhoven profiles a man whose life was a study in survival.

"There cannot be many masters left who choose a specific terrain for their work, dedicate themselves to it completely and make it an integrated part of their personal destiny… It is, for instance, virtually impossible to speak about the city of Ferghana without mentioning the omnipresent Penson who traveled all over Uzbekistan with his camera. His unparalleled photo archives contain material that enables us to trace a period in the republic's history, year by year and page by page.” Sergei Eisenstein, 1940.

Born in the Belarusian village of Velizh, the son of a Jewish bookbinder, Max Penson studied art but by 1915 was forced to flee anti-Semitic pogroms at the beginning of World War One.

Settling in Tashkent, the capital of the Tsarist province of Uzbekistan in Central Asia, he taught art in local schools and in 1921, at the age of 28, won a camera as the result of his teaching abilities.

From then on, he became immersed in photography and followed the rule of “one roll a day.”

Penson learned Uzbek and threw himself into his work as a photographer for the local Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East).

He documented the abrupt transformation of Uzbek society: the unveiling and education of women, the creation of massive civil engineering projects, the establishment of the industrialized cotton industry and the Sovietization of his new home.

His images were distributed by the Soviet news agency, TASS and were included in the legendary 1933 volume USSR Under Construction, edited by Alexander Rodchenko.

He produced art prints of much of his work - his image Uzbek Madonna received the Grand Prize at the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris - and he had one solo exhibition of more than three hundred images in 1939 in Tashkent. But his relative isolation prevented him from becoming as well known as his contemporary Rodchenko.

After 1949, when Stalin purged all Jews from professional life, Penson - disillusioned and banned from working professionally - burned many of his prints and negatives.

Penson used various styles. Images of traditional scenes of canal workers, harvesters, older people, and festivals in a soft Pictorialist manner, though out of fashion and frowned upon by Soviet authorities, which lent a quality of timelessness to his subjects.

Using early generation Leica cameras, his images resemble those of Rodchenko and his contemporaries in Nazi Germany such as Leni Riefenstahl with their emphasis on mass forms of workers drilling, soldiers training, and people at group athletic events.

His javelin throwers and tennis players, for all their "Constructivist" use of camera angles and repeating patterns, do more than show masses of people in action. They actively portray the new realities the Soviets intended to show the world.

And, although staged for the cameras, these images of sport allowed an element of chance to be present. They do not always present an idealized world so often seen in propaganda pictures of the era.

Penson’s study of art history and painting helped him create graceful images that served aesthetic and propaganda purposes such as the woman, with a badge of Lenin on her blouse, reading by a new electric light illustrating Lenin’s declaration that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

Penson’s work recorded the hopes and dreams of the early days of the Soviet Union and the bitter disappointment of the later Stalin years.

After his suicide in 1959, 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 website.

Penson's dedication was legendary. His daughter Dina said that: ''He was too devoted to his work. He worked from morning to night, and then, as soon as he got home, he would disappear into his darkroom to print pictures for the next day's paper.”

Above all, he was a humanist. Once reprimanding his son Miron, himself a photojournalist, he told his editor at the paper: “My son is using a flash in his photos very often. Tell him to use his heart instead....” This is plainly visible in all his images.

Max Penson is the subject of a major retrospective, curated by Olga Sviblova of the Moscow House of Photography, entitled Max Penson (19893-1958) Photographs of Uzbekistan. It is sponsored by Roman Abramovich, at Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, London.

Bill Kouwenhoven

Leni Riefenstahl
Max Penson.
Alexander Rodchenko
The Gilbert Collection
pdf of Gilbert Collection exhibition details (requires Acrobat Reader)

Max Penson. © Maxime Penson 2006

Mohamed Amin (Kenya)
Sergio Larraín Echeñique (Chile)
Yevgeni Khaldei (Russia)
Eduardo Masferre (the Philippines)
Malick Sidibé (Mali)

Copyright 2007, all rights reserved by the photographers