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"Max Penson: Photography between Revolution and Tradition" on View at Nailya Alexander Gallery
Uzbek Children Arrived in Tashkent to Enroll to a Technical School, early 1930s. Photo: Courtesy Nailya Alexander Gallery.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Nailya Alexander Gallery and Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation present “Max Penson: Photography between Revolution and Tradition” featuring 48 vintage gelatin silver prints from the artist’s family estate and several private collections. The exhibition runs from April 5 through May 13, 2011.

Max Penson was born in 1893 in the small town of Velizh near Vitebsk, the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Penson managed to finish four classes of the local school before moving to Vilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania) where he studied at the art school of the Antokolsky Society. To escape WWI and Jewish pogroms, the young artist fled to exotic Central Asia, and settled in Kokand, Uzbekistan. There, he helped found an art-production labor-school under the authority of the Kokand Revolutionary Committee. In addition to being the principal of the school, Penson taught draftsmanship and painting to 350 Uzbek students. In appreciation of his work in Kokand, the district of Fergana awarded him with a camera, a gift that led to his giving up a career in education to follow his new passion for photography. He moved to Tashkent in 1923 and was employed by Central Asia’s largest newspaper, Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East) in 1925.

The best photojournalists from Moscow like Arkady Shaikhet, Max Alpert and Georgy Zelma traveled to Uzbekistan to 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 alongside with other photographers and contributed regularly to TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union).

Penson 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 off 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. Penson’s photographs reflect both an awareness of the Modernist aesthetic used by European artists and an idealization of a new Soviet life. In 1934 Alexander Rodchenko used Penson’s images in the album Uzbekistan in 10 Years. In 1939, Penson contributed 300 photographs for an exhibition celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

Also, in 1939, Penson, among other photographers, documented the construction of the two-hundred-and-seventy-kilometers-long Grand Fergana Canal, which was built by hand by 160,000 people in only forty-five days and 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). During this period Penson met Sergei Eisenstein who was at the time shooting a film about the Grand Fergana Canal (the film was never finished). Later in Soviet Photo (1940) Eisenstein wrote, "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 Fergana 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... His whole artistic development is tied up with this wonderful republic."

Accused of being influenced by Western aesthetics, Penson fell out of official favor. In 1948 rising anti-Semitism forced him to leave his job at Pravda Vostoka after working there for 25 years. He died in 1959 as a result of depression and illness.

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