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Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

Professor David Shneer, Singer Chair in Jewish History at CU. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Although World War II is one of the most documented conflicts of the twentieth century, western audiences have had little exposure to Soviet photographs of that war. Through Soviet Jewish Eyes, based on David Shneer’s critically acclaimed book of the same title, presents over sixty images that are about Soviet aesthetics and narratives of World War II as much as they are about the Soviet photojournalists who made those images. The majority of Soviet photojournalists were Jewish, coming from mid-sized towns in southern Russia, and raised on the cusp of modernity. In Russia, throughout the 19th century, most Jews, unless granted special permits, were forced to live in prescribed regions of the Russian provinces, known as the pale of settlement, outside of major metropolitan centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Photography was a new, risky, and entrepreneurial profession, which allowed Jews who came from afar to sustain themselves in St. Petersburg, the capital of tsarist Russia, and then in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.  There, they thrived as artists and documentarians and entered an urban sphere of art, politics, and culture, previously unavailable to members of their socio-economic, cultural, and religious spheres.

Dmitrii Baltermants, Russian (1912-1990), Grief, 1942; gelatin silver print, circa 1990; 36 ½ x 43 5/8 inches; Loan from the Collection of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh; Image courtesy of Michael Mattis; © Estate of Dmitrii Baltermant

The exhibition presents 58 photographs, printed at numerous scales over six decades, by the most important Soviet photojournalists including Evgenii Khaldei, Georgii Zelma, and Dmitrii Baltermants. These photographers took aesthetically arresting war images and were also the first to document the liberation of Nazi atrocity sites, three years before better-known photographers like Margaret Bourke White and Lee Miller chronicled the liberation of concentration camps in Germany.

The photographs featured in the exhibition span the Nazi-Soviet war, from June 22, 1941 until V-Day on May 9, 1945, with an opening section that contextualizes the wartime images within the Constructivist and Socialist Realist traditions of Soviet photography in the 1920s and 1930s.  Canonical images appear side by side with photographs that have never before been exhibited.

The exhibition also highlights the central challenge to avant-garde aesthetics and to “art” itself that was posed by the war and by Soviet culture of the time. In this challenge, social and political purpose—as expressed through documentary photography, superseded or in some cases merged with avant-garde modernist sensibilities to create a new aesthetic—one that has continued to echo across art history and influenced future art movements of the 20th century and beyond.

In addition, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes places canonical images side-by-side with photographs that the curators found in the photographers’ archives currently housed in private collections and that have never before been exhibited to the public. The exhibition also draws attention to the large number of Soviet photographers who were Jewish and explores aspects of what this religious and cultural identity might have meant for the photographers when confronting the war and Nazi atrocities through Soviet and Jewish eyes.

The exhibition also features three vitrines of archival materials, including contact sheets, glass negatives, scrap books, diaries, Soviet publications, and the photographers’ personal book maquettes.

THROUGH SOVIET JEWISH EYES: Photography, War, and the Holocaust

curated by David Shneer, Director, Program in Jewish Studies and Professor of History, University of Colorado and Lisa Tamiris Becker, Director, CU Art Museum

September 8-October 22, 2011

Opening Reception, September 7, 2011, 6 – 8 PM ∙ CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder

Lecture and presentation with Professor David Shneer

Thursday, September 8, 7:30 PM Colorado Photographic Art Center, Belmar Center, Lakewood, Colorado

Lecture and exhibition tour with Professor David Shneer

Thursday, September 15, 7 PM ∙ CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder

About Jamie Polliard

Assistant Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder

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