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Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg premieres important gifts of Soviet photography in exhibition
Georgi Zelma, Fitness Parade on Red Square, 1935, Gift of Janice Tuckwood in memory of Donald A. Tuckwood.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- Picturing a New Society: Photographs from the Soviet Union 1920s–1980s explores how photography was used in the development and propagation of communism. It also raises larger questions surrounding the perception and interpretation of photographs, which are often viewed as strictly representing reality. The exhibition opened Saturday, April 14, and continues through Sunday, August 19, in the second-floor Works on Paper Gallery in the Hazel Hough Wing.

Artists in the early days of Soviet rule redefined their role in society. No longer creators of paintings, drawings, and sculptures for the elite, many artists embraced photography as an art for the masses. They advanced the cause of the October Revolution of 1917 by experimenting with avant-garde processes and points of view.

With the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) only five years later, photographic experimentation was abandoned and the realism inherent to the medium was embraced to promote party goals. This exhibition explores the contradictions between the idealistic images of a new social order and the reality of the Soviet state.

These photographs, created between the late 1920s and mid-1980s, reinforce Soviet ideology and are closely related to Socialist Realist paintings. They are propagandistic, extolling socialist virtues and picturing a model order that never came to fruition. The approximately 35 images in the exhibition collectively characterize exemplary communist workers and their perceived role in the creation of a new society. Four general themes emerge: agriculture and rural areas, industry, the military, and Soviet youth.

Industrial development was key to authoritarian Premier Joseph Stalin, who, with the first of his Five-Year Plans from 1928 to 1932, prioritized the creation of heavy industry and the electrification of the entire country. Farmers in rural areas, which represented most of the USSR, produced food for those who lived in the city. To portray happy, productive farmers and industrious workers maintained the illusion of bountiful resources for the Soviet Union.

Military photographs from World War II picture Soviet soldiers as the USSR prepared to expand its territory and influence. Finally, images of children at school or in state-sponsored parades capture the next generation finding their place in the new society.

Photographers represented include Alexander Ustinov, Max Alpert, Emanuel Evzerikhin, and Georgi Zelma, among others. All were war correspondents and photojournalists, but their images can also have an artistic dimension. Both Alpert’s and Zelma’s photographs were occasionally part of photomontages in the state-sponsored magazine, USSR in Construction, published in five languages between 1930 and 1941. The photographs and the journal were designed to advance communism worldwide. Ustinov was a photographer for the newspaper and the party organ Pravda and the official photographer for the Kremlin beginning in 1945.

The photographs in this exhibition are selections from recent donations by Howard Schickler and Janice Tuckwood of more than 200 Soviet photographs. To Soviet photographers of this period, their images were tools to inform the public. Many were discarded after their message was disseminated.

These images, the first of their kind to enter the collection, illuminate history and explore the manifold uses of photography. They encourage us to question the photographer’s point of view and to look more critically at all images. At the same time, these photographs can be admired for their power, composition, and technical accomplishment. They are a rare and important addition to the Museum’s photography holdings.

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