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On Exhibit: pictures too perfect


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What readers saw in the pages of the official Soviet news weekly Ogunyuk was not terribly interesting. Its photo editor for nearly half a century, Dmitri Baltermants, was a prolific photojournalist himself, but his images and the pictures he selected mostly served as indicators of ideology. Soviet history may be better illuminated by discovering why certain Baltermants shots were censored--then later published--than by dwelling on the historic details they purport to preserve.

The Eye of the Soviet Union: The Photography of Dmitri Baltermants, now at the DePaul University Art Gallery, selects 63 photos from the collection of Paul and Theresa Harbaugh. Paul Harbaugh, a high school biology teacher from Colorado, befriended Baltermants while arranging a photo exhibit in Russia. Baltermants died in 1990.

The exhibit opens with snapshots of Baltermants with Ho Chi Minh in 1955, with Castro in 1962, and with Ansel Adams in 1983. His portfolio of political personalities includes pictures of Khrushchev with Mao, Nixon with Brezhnev, and Castro on a snowy sleigh ride in Moscow. "He was allowed to see things the average Soviet citizen wasn't permitted to see," says Harbaugh. "He decided what the Soviet people saw beyond the Iron Curtain." In 1955 he showed Vietnamese peasants executing local landowners.

Attack, dating from 1941, wasn't published for 21 years because censors didn't like the way the trench-vaulting infantrymen looked. Baltermants's framing cropped the limbs off these blurry silhouettes, which editors deemed an insult to Soviet soldiers. ("What is this, half a man running?" was one official's response at the time.) Harbaugh suspects this shot was staged, having discovered a similar shot of the same soldiers in Baltermants's archives. He also thinks Tchaikovsky was staged: taken in the Berlin ruins of 1945, it shows a soldier at an upright piano giving his comrades an impromptu recital.

Baltermants's best known photo is Grief, a Goya-styled record of the aftermath of the Nazi slaughter in the Crimea. It shows survivors hunting for loved ones in a bleak field near Kerch. By displaying different versions of the photograph, the exhibit demonstrates how Baltermants heightened the mood of the scene by adding tempestuous clouds over the heads of mourners.

Assembling a roster of workers with politically correct reactions, Baltermants grafted three separate shots to produce Dynamo Factory Hears of Stalin's Death, March 6, 1953, 6 a.m. But the next issue of Ogunyuk didn't run this photo, nor another Baltermants shot of Stalin lying in state. Harbaugh says it was the only time that no photo appeared on the magazine's cover. In a panic over how to render the despot's passing, the editors feared everything except a blank page.

Scrupulously attuned to Kremlin currents, Baltermants survived five different regimes. Yet he still risked exile to Siberia. Even the most innocent images were open to misinterpretation. Harbaugh says the photo Steel Worker (1955) was never shown in the USSR because the subject's "sweaty face was an affront to true Soviets, for whom work was always easy and pleasurable." The exhibit captions sometimes take liberties, leaping between communist and capitalist scenarios. The photo Moskvich Auto Factory (1948) carries the legend "It's easy to imagine these same men seated around a table in Detroit, with a corporate portrait of Henry Ford looking down on them."

Harbaugh is now turning his attention to another Ogunyuk photographer, Gregor Zelma, who documented women in Tashkent demonstrating against the Muslim custom of wearing a veil. One Zelma photo from 1924 was originally captioned "Old Takhtabu showing her face in public for the first time."

The Eye of the Soviet Union: The Photography of Dmitri Baltermants is at the DePaul University Art Gallery, 802 W. Belden, through March 18. Gallery hours are 10 to 7 Monday, 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 4 Saturday; admission is free. Art historian Mark Pohlad will give a free lecture, "In the Name of Art and State: From Avant-Garde to Socialist Realism, the Artistic and Political Sources of Soviet Photography," this Thursday, February 16, at 6 in DePaul's Cortelyou Commons, 2324 N. Fremont. For more information on the exhibit or related events, call 362-5253.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos: "Attack" by Dmitri Baltermants, "Dynamo Factory Hears of Stalin's Death, March 6, 1953, 6 a.m.", photos copyright Tatiana Baltermants and Paul Harbaugh.

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