“Max Penson: Photography from Uzbekistan”
Nailya Alexander Gallery through Friday, May 13, 2011
41 E 57th Street, Suite 704
New York, NY 10022
Gallery Hours: 11am-5:30pm, Tuesday – Saturday, and by appointment
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 of interest in drawing and painting 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.
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.
As many other artists of the time accused of being influenced by Western aesthetics, Max 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. During the last ten years of his life, until 1959, Penson, very depressed and seriously ill, was engaged in retouching his photographs. Censorship and self-censorship taught the Soviet people to keep silent. Max Penson also kept silent, even when he was alone with his family. He died in 1959 after a long period of depression and illness.
In 1966 Max Penson’s archive was buried under the remains of a building destroyed by a terrible earth-quake. The whole of Tashkent was lying in ruins. The archive was saved owing to the heroic efforts of Dina and Faizulla Khodzhaev, the photographer’s daughter and her husband. Although relatively unknown until quite recently, Max Penson’s name deserves to be mentioned alongside of other great Soviet Photographers of the 1920s-1930s. 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.”
Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, Mission of Uzbekistan to the UN and Nailya Alexander Gallery are pleased to present “Max Penson: Photography between Revolution and Tradition” featuring some 50 vintage gelatin silver prints from the artist’s family estate and several private collections.