Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US

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Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US

Zurich: Edition Stemmle, 1999. 224 pp.; 250 b/w ills. $55

Exhibition schedule: Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.July 3 to October 3, 1999; International Center of Photography, New York, October 20, 1999-February 13, 2000; Regional Fine Arts Museum, Samara, May 25-June 18, 2000; State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Moscow, June 26-August 6, 2000; State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, September 15-November 1, 2000

Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and US, an exhibition organized by Leah Bendavid-Val for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which traveled to the International Center of Photography in New York City, takes on two of the most significant state-supported photo initiatives: work produced by American photographers for the Farm Security Agency during the Depression, and by Soviet photojournalists employed by state publishing agencies. Bendavid-Val, a senior editor at National Geographic Books, selected approximately 115 American images, primarily from the FSA Archives in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, and another 115 Soviet photographs gathered largely from the collections of both Russian news agencies and from those of the photojournalists and their families themselves.

The pairing is a compelling one. Both the American and Soviet images stand as concerted efforts at political persuasion: to encourage support for New Deal policies in the United States, and participation in building the socialist state in the Soviet Union. And both function as particularly modern forms of visual propaganda, a symptom of the startling insight, catalyzed by the development of new information technologies and the extremes of post-World War I politics, that mass politics requires mass communication.

Propaganda and Dreams reminds us how unusual it is for an exhibition to have a truly comparative framework. Several multilocale exhibitions such as Berlin-Moskau and ParisMoscou have investigated the creative exchange and influence between artists working in those respective places,1 but I am hard pressed to think of an exhibition that asks us to compare simultaneous and relatively isolated practices. The specific pairing of photographic work from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's America and Stalin's Russia shown here is very much a post-Cold War product. The diminished threat of the evil empire seems to have allowed us to abandon a myth of polar difference in order to ask if we might not be much like them. Taking Socialist Realist work seriously as a type of artistic practice is likewise a relatively new thing. Propaganda and Dreams joins a handful of recent exhibitions (the Hayward Gallery's Art and Power, P.S. 1's Aesthetic Arsenal, and the Museum Folkwang Essen's Glaube, Hoffnung, Anpassung) in interrogating Socialist Realism as a problem of visual representation.2 Propaganda and Dreams distinguishes itself from these exhibitions through both its focus on the camera image and its movement between First World and Second World political spheres, and thus offers an important analytic framework for considering issues of photography as social document in both historical and national perspective.

Propaganda and Dreams's novel comparative aim is insistently asserted in the structure of the exhibition itself. Side-by-side pairings of Soviet and American images fill the first gallery; work from the two countries is separated in the next galleries; and then a small, final gallery brings them together again facing each other across the room. The catalogue offers a similar structure: a group of paired images called "A Comparative Portfolio," followed by separate Soviet and American sections.

The exhibition opens with teamed images by Soviet Arkady Shaikhet and sometime-FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, each showing a mother nursing her child out-of-doors, and not far from the site of labor. …