The '30s In Black And White

"Photography was magic," explains Leah Bendavid-Val, who organized a new exhibit at Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art. "It was a way of expressing yourself, as well as documenting the world."

"Propaganda and Dreams" showcases photography of the 1930s from both Russia and America. And as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jim Stewart reports, the pictorial juxtaposition shows what these two drastically different nations shared in common.


"Magic" isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think back to the 1930s. In the United States, it meant the Great Depression. It was the dust bowl that put hundreds of thousands of poor Americans on the road as migrant laborers.

A world away in Soviet Russia, the '30s meant persecution and famine as Joseph Stalin built his new socialist dynamo by brute force and mass execution. But for photographers, Russian and American, these were magical years.


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Leah Bendavid-Val: drawing parallels


Bendavid-Val spent four years collecting photographs from the 1930s all over Russia. They are hung side by side with American photographs made for President Franklin Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration.

She saw some remarkable similarities. "I do think that the photographers in the Soviet Union, first of all, loved photography," she says. "That's one quality that both American and Soviet photographers had."

"In both countries, it was believed that industry meant progress, that hard work was not demeaning, but it could be elevating," Bendavid-Val says. "So those beliefs were shared in common."

Sometimes it's hard to tell who made the photographs. Compare American Jack Delano's picture of drillers working for the Tennessee Valley Authority with Dimitry Debabov's 1930 portrait of a Russian construction site, or Russell Lee's "Oil Field Worker" and Anatoly Skurikhin's "Distinguished Miner."

In Russia, Bendavid-Val began her search at the state archives.

"It seemed like it was going to be easy. I'll say that. But it turned out that, in fact, the archives were in real disarray. All the lack of resources that have affected every part of the economy affected the arts there, too," she explains.

So she was forced to seek out the photographers' families. Sometimes their widows or children had pictures piled up in a corner. Today the man who photographed the communists blowing up Moscow's main cathedral is 90 years old.

"He was the only one assigned to document the event," Bendavid-Val xplains. "He was a religious man. He didn't know...that was what he was getting himself into."

"And he went home and told his wife about it, and they were just both shaken. And so he requested, in fact, that he be transferred to Siberia to work there as a photographer," she says.

Many of the pictures were never seen in Russia, as they were deemed not socialist enough. "It was preferred to show pictures in the newspaper and magazines of people actually working," she says.

She describes one photo: "To look at that photograph, it was like a Breughel painting. And at that time it was a photograph of pride, these young pioneers, children who were defending the motherland. We look at it in horror."

"Our thought about Soviet photography is that it's the height of staged, fabricated propaganda, that it's a falsehood in every way. It's completely manipulative in every way," she says.


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The exhibit appears at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.


Until now, American critics have written off Soviet-era photographers as propagandists. But seeing them alongside the work of American depression-era photographers like Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks made Bendavid-Val think again: American dreams were political, too. And American photographs were also made to persuade.

"The idea for the Soviet photographers was to engage the population in the belief that the Soviet system was a good system," she says.

"The American pictures showed that the American dream had somehow gone off on a wrong course perhaps, that the American people needed helpÂ…and that the government was in a position to offer that help," she says.


In November, Russians should get a chance to see these photographs when Propaganda and Dreams is scheduled to move to Moscow's Tretyakov Museum. While this is contingent upon the Russians' willingness to finance the project, Bendavid-Val is hopeful, looking forward to peering over the shoulders of Russians viewing these images.

"What I hope that they would feel is the power," she says. "That the power of a good photograph somehow goes beyond what's directly seen in the photograph. And I think that these photographs live up to that definition of great photography."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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