March 18: Heroics

Date #18March 18: The representation of the heroic tests the notion of truth in documentary photography. Photojournalism is a field in which realism, truth and hyperbole, and outright propaganda, contend.

Posters, photo magazines, book covers and photomontage represent the wide-ranging uses of photography during the first two decades of the Soviet state. Through intensive production in the period before WW2 the documentary photoessay, the fotocherki (picture-story), also evolved.

Closely watched by commentators and apparatchiks, much of the evolution in the genre was driven by the theorists and political ideologists, though that in turn can be seen to be influenced by the practice. Probably because of the relative newness of the medium, and relative to a decline in the status of painting, there was considerable investment in photography as a communication media, a means of conveying the message of the state.

Maks Vladimorovich Al’pert (his Jewish-Russian surname anglicised as Max Alpert) was born in Simferopol (on the Crimean peninsula, its dominion currently in dispute between Ukraine and Russia) on this date in 1899 (†1980), and became a Soviet photographer who from 1930 to 1950 helped shape the modern photographic essay through his narratives on huge state-sponsored projects. Made to promote Communist industry and ideology, his photographs nevertheless are remarkable for an heroic aesthetic that can be seen to develop from the constructivist, formalist imagery that he came to denounce.

The son of a carpenter, at age fifteen he was apprenticed to a photographer in Odessa. Having volunteered for the Red Army in 1919, during the ’20s he became a member and leader of the Red Army’s photographic brigade alongside Yevgeny Khaldei (1917–1997) and others. After his demobilisation in 1924 he moved to Moscow where he began his career as a photojournalist for Rabochaia Gazeta where he worked for four years.

Max Alpert Maxim Gorky at the Moscow Train Station , 1928 Gelatin silver print 14.625 x 11.125 in
Max Al’pert (1928) Maxim Gorky at the Moscow Station on his return from Italy, gelatin silver print 37 x 28 cm.

His photograph of writer Maxim Gorky (1868–1936) peering down through his heavily lidded eyes from the railway carriage on return from Fascist Italy was widely published, providing a focus for what was a major propaganda victory for the Soviets who, in return for the support of the great writer (though Gorky’s understanding of Marxism was shaky), Josef Stalin (1878–1953) personally guaranteed a comfortable existence. The angle of view taken by the then 29-year old photographer was to some extent dictated by his need to get as close as possible under the high carriage window, but it serves as a strategic vantage point in numbers of his most celebrated images.

Max Alpert - Workers at dawn, 1930
Max Alpert (1930) Workers at dawn.

Quickly hired for his talent by Pravda, and then USSR in Construction in 1931 he began to photograph the collectivisation of agriculture and construction undertaken for Josef Stalin’s now infamous Five Year Plan.

Soyuzfoto Brigade (1931). 24 Stunden aus dem Leben einer Moskauer Arbeiterfamilie (24 Hours in the Life of a Moscow Worker Family) spread in A-I-Z.

He collaborated in a special project of a Syuzfoto ‘brigade’, joining  Arkady Shaikhet (1898–1959) and Solomon Tulesov (????–????) to document Twenty-four Hours in the Life of the Fillippov Family, depicting the secure work and comfortable housing of Soviet workers intended to contrast with working-class populations in capitalist countries during the 1930s Depression. Leonid Mezhericher (1898 -1938), the critic and theoretician of the Russian Union of Proletarian Photographers [ROPF] provided editorial oversight.

Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956) had as early as 1924 assembled There, Where Money is Made, a series of photographs made at the engraving office of the Soviet treasury and in 1928 produced a photo-series Gazeta (‘The Newspaper’) of a day in the life of the editorial office of Izvestiya, but when Twenty-four Hours in the Life of the Fillippov Family first appeared in the socialist German magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (A-I-Z) — see above —its scope and thoroughness, a layout of 78 pictures, was immediately hailed in Pravda and the official photography journal Proletarskoe foto as a major innovation for agitational propaganda;

The clearness and convincing concreteness of the photograph in unity with the ‘accompanying caption’ gives to the hands of the press an additional weapon for the mobilization and organization of the masses.

Max Alpert and Arkadii Shaikhet, 24 Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family, 1931, photo-series- scenes of shoppping and chess
Max Alpert and Arkadii Shaikhet (1931) 24 Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family photo-series scenes of shoppping and chess
Max Alpert and Arkadii Shaikhet (1931) 24 Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family, photo-series; scenes of working men as reproduced in Proletarskoe foto

When reproduced in Proletarskoe foto the series is edited to lend veracity to the account by placing more emphasis on facts by including photographs of documents that would be intelligible to a Soviet audience; a grocery receipt, a savings account book, a savings bond, and a receipt for a man’s suit.

Brigade of Soyuzfoto. Den_ moskovskoi rabochei sem_i [Day in life of a Moscow worker's family]. Photomontage. 1931.
Max Alpert and Arkadii Shaikhet (1931) 24 Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family, photo-series; scenes of shopping and close-ups of receipts and bills as reproduced in Proletarskoe foto
Such detail is a product of Mezhericher’s belief, as advocate for the fotocherki, in the ‘objectivity of the camera lens’ and the superiority of photography over painting:

… in order to create an image, the author has to have it in front of his eyes (or actually, in front of his camera lens) … This is an obstacle of the greatest importance. It is not a mistake to state that this defines the outcome of the struggle between painting and photography. This obstacle, in particular, ‘allowed’ painting in its historical development to detach itself from reality and to become ‘aimless’ and ‘useless’ and because of this develop into a ‘mysterious’ phenomenon.

In line with the socialist ethos, photography was seen to accessible to everyone, including the worker (though actually the Fillippov Family series was produced by professionals), while painting was elitist; it was also subjective compared to the objective, mechanical medium. At the same time in his 1930 polemic K voprosu ob iskusstve i sovremennosti (‘On the Question of Art and Modernity’) published by the magazine The Soviet Photograph, Mezhericher recognised the limitations of photography’s “burden of flat stillness and the colourlessness of its product”, for which the remedy was the ‘contrasting comparisons’ provided by the photo sequence.

By 1930 the factualism of photographs however was being questioned in face of the often accidental captures in the snapshot, a genre being taken up more widely, and with a growing suspicion of the photomontage which had been so successful as propaganda in the 1920s as practiced by the more formalist October group, the avant-garde agitprop artists Rodchnko, El Lissitsky (1890–1941) and Gustavs Klucis (1895–1938), but was being challenged in the shift to Soviet Realism. Photomontage was not banned — it was inherent in magazine layouts — but illusionistic realism and factuality were expected.

The magazine SSSR na stroike (‘USSR in Construction’), initiated by Maxim Gorky, published in Moscow in 1930-1941 in four languages showcased Soviet achievement. Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Nikolai Troshin (1897-1990) were its designers and their use of predominantly photographic material conveyed an experience similar to cinematic montage. It was criticised in Proletarskoe foto for this fragmented presentation and its emphasis on objects rather than people.

In response, USSR in Construction published a photo-series called Gigant i stroitel [The Giant and the Builder] produced by Max Alpert accompanied only by a journalist. Intended to recruit for the huge construction projects being undertaken, it presents the career trajectory of Viktor Kalmykov, an illiterate, lumpen mason shod in peasant lapti, rope shoes, who became a great constructor at the Magnitogorsk steel foundry..

Max Alpert, Russian, 1899–1980 TITLE Beginning the construction of Magnitogorsk (Tent city) from the series Magnitogorsk DATE 1930 MEDIUM Gelatin silver print,5.4 × 11.1 cm

Max Alpert Viktor Kalmykov. Construction of the Metallurgic Plant in Magnitogorsk , 1929-1930 Gelatin silver print 10.875 x 7.925 in
Maks Alpert (1932) Gigant i stroitel [The Giant and the Builder]. Viktor Kalmykov arrives at Magnitogorsk.

To follow the village lad in his consciousness-raising as a socialist proletarian required tailing Kalmykov day and night; in the village, arriving at the vast workers’ camp where a housekeeper shows him to his bed (where for the first time he sleeps on a sheet), working with shovel, drill and pick and at rest in the dormitory, being taught to read and write, at his wedding, and at the family dinner table.

Max Alpert - Viktor Kalmykov in the first issue of the magazine USSR in 1932
Max Alpert (1932) the worker Viktor Kalmykov (left) in the photo-series Gigant i stroitel [The Giant and the Builder] in SSSR na stroike (‘USSR in Construction’)
It would seem to be a realisation of the ideal of long-term fly-on-the-wall photo-observation, promoted by writer and former LEF [the Left Front of Arts] theoretician, Sergei Tretyakov, himself a photographer. In fact the whole series was shot over a few days — a fact obvious to those who observed that Kalmykov’s middle finger on his left hand remains bandaged throughout (though some photographs are reversed; perhaps to conceal the repetition?) The details of the photographs below, and some of the quotations I have used here, are from The Second Life of Soviet Photomntage [sic], 1935 ‐ 1980s, an excellent 2012 doctoral thesis for University of Edinburgh by art historian Konstantin Akinsha (*1960) who is currently in the news over his exposure of Russian art fakes.

A heated discussion arose among critics and photographers who regarded Alpert as having, let us say, ‘given the finger’ to the founding principles of reportage, complaining that instead of recording facts he had created fiction. Alpert responded that “Kalmykov told us his biography; we recorded his tale in details…”;

It was necessary to reconstruct in detail Kalmykov’s first days of work in Magnitogorsk immediately after his arrival. I had to dress Kalmykov in those very clothes, which survived, and then we went to the railway station where I had to do some photo shooting.

The work was arranged in such a way that on one day I was shooting the episode at the railway station, and two or three days later – his studies; such ‘jumping’ shooting made the work more difficult. The later shots were taken without the participation of Kalmykov; it involved shooting the construction site and taking shots from an aeroplane.

Maks Alpert Gigant i stroitel_ The Giant and the Builder Two-page spread. 1932
Max Alpert (1932) Gigant i stroitel (The Giant and the Builder), double spread.

Mezhericher came to the defence, saying that Alpert’s ‘reconstruction’ for the photo-essay could be “justified in the interests of Bolshevik photographic information,” a “method of reconstructing a fact”;

It is obvious that long term observation, the method that was proposed by the writer Sergei Tretyakov, is a lottery or an attempt to construct a house hoping to win 200 thousand roubles… Comrade Alpert did everything correctly

I am giving you my word that those people who read or will read this issue of USSR in Construction, will not lose, but gain in political growth.

Maks Al_pert. Gigant i stroitel_ [The Giant and the Builder]. Photomontage. 1932
Maks Alpert (1932) Gigant i stroitel [The Giant and the Builder]. Photomontage. The story concludes with the completion of the first blast furnace and Kalmykov’s being awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. Newspaper announcements of his award form the background.
In his Sotsial’noe znachenie fotomontazha (‘The Social Significance of Photomontage’) Oleg Kusakov in the 5th number of  Sovetskoe foto, of 1930 shows how the heroic treatment of the worker Kalmykov fits the meta-narrative of the devotion of the masses to Soviet progress;

The shock-worker is the master and the constructor of the country. It is he, the unknown hero, who is creating the new way of life.

Ultimately awarded the Order of the Red banner, Kalmykov is represented not as an exception but as a new focus, from 1932, on the “Stories of factories and industries”, from which came the new slogan: “The nation must know its heroes”. However, the hero is depersonalized, has no character, but represents the mass individually, one of thousands that socialistic construction has re-moulded.

Maks Al_pert. Gigant i stroitel' [The Giant and the Builder]. Photomontage. 1932.
Max Alpert (1932) Gigant i stroitel [The Giant and the Builder]. Photomontage. 1932.
The actual eventual fate of Kalmykov himself is unknown and in contention; Iurii G. Petrov in Magnitka (1971) reports that he was shot as a German spy and his family ostracised and eventually deported. Stephen Kotkin, who lived in Magnitogorsk in the 1987 to conduct research for his PhD, in his Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era refers to a 1988 account by Kalmykov’s surviving wife;

“Nineteen thirry-seven was a scary year,” Emilia Bakke explained to a Magnitogorsk reporter. “My husband, Viktor Kalmykov, was working as the chair of the city’s physical culture committee. He knew well many Komsomol workers. All of a sudden, rumors began to fly that the Magnitogorsk Komsomol was preparing to do something against Stalin. Viktor was expelled from the party. He went to work as a fitter in the mechanical repairs shop. On 21 December he was arrested.”

Max Alpert, El Lissitzky Arbeiter und Bauer , 1931, printed later gelatin silver print 19,5 x 25,4cm
Max Alpert photographer, photomontage El Lissitzky (1931) Arbeiter und Bauer (Worker and Builder), printed later gelatin silver print 19.5 x 25.4cm

Later Tretyakov himself (also arrested on July 25, 1937 and sentenced to death for espionage) in Tysyacha i odin trudoden’ (‘One thousand and one days of work’) in Sovetskaia literatura, 1934, can be seen to have changed his tune in response to Alpert’s approach, equating it to montage;

If an accidentally taken snapshot is no more than one very thin scale picked off from the surface of reality, serial photography and photomontage give us the chance to feel the substance of reality, and its true weight.

There is nothing ‘accidental’ in Alpert’s imagery. He triumphs in making a hero of his subject; through direction where it was practical, and positioning of his camera for maximum effect, an instinct for the iconic form cut out in relief from the background, as well as for peak action, the heroic is a theme he pursues throughout his career, and despite the ever more strict imposition of the Soviet Realist style.

Max Alpert (1931) Group of miners at the Svoboda (Liberty) mine in Makeyevka, double page spread from SSSR na stroike (‘USSR in Construction’)
Max Alpert On the Train der Erste Zug auf der Strecke der Turksib-the First Train on the Turk-Sib Route, May 1st 1930 Gelatin silver print 21.9 x 16.9 cm.
Max Alpert (1930) The First Train on the Turkey to Siberia route, May 1 1930
Max Alpert-Building from the Fergana Canal-1939
Max Alpert (1939) Musicians playing during construction of the Great Fergana Canal
Строительство Большого Ферганского канала
Max Alpert (1939) Construction of the Great Fergana Canal
Max Alpert Bau des Fergana-Kanals : Construction site of the Fergana Grand Canal , 1939; printed 1950s Gelatin silver print 23.7 x 34.8 cm
Max Alpert (1939) Construction of the Fergana Grand Canal, gelatin silver print, printed 1950s, 23.7 x 34.8 cm
Box 038 S
Max Alpert (1938) Kirghil horsewoman, silver gelatin print.
Box 038 S
Max Alpert (1931) Tadjik man with turban, vintage toned silver gelatin print
Max Alpert Hunting with Golden Eagle, Kazakhstan Gelatin silver print 23.5 x 30 cm.
Max Alpert (1930s) Hunting with Golden Eagle, Kazakhstan. Gelatin silver print 23.5 x 30 cm.


In the history of the photo story, the similarities between his practices in the 1930s with what was being produced in America by the likes of  Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971), five years younger than Alpert, are noteworthy. That she traveled to Russia in 1930 on assignment for Fortune Magazine, opens the likelihood that influence flowed from Russian photojournalism to that of the USA to appear in the layouts and imagery of LIFE magazine (which did not appear until 1936), and not the reverse, in parallel with the impact of German documentary imagery.

Box 038 S
Max Alpert (1942) Battalion Commander, vintage silver gelatin print

During World War II, Alpert worked as a correspondent for TASS, though his imagery was rarely seen in the West. His post war years were spent as a reporter for the Novosti press agency.


He was still photographing into the 1970s, winning a 2nd place in General News in the 1974 World Press Photo Awards for a 1973 story on Soviet Russian and Ukrainian doctor, heart surgeon, inventor and author Nikolai Amosov (1913-2002). Alpert photographed during two operations when unexpectedly, the first patient died. His instinct for a picture story, and heroic depiction, is still apparent in these images.

Alpert represented the last of innovation in Soviet photojournalism before the imposition of socialist realism, having participated the Exhibition of Works by the Masters of Soviet Photo Art in 1935, and the First All-Union Exhibition of Photo Art at the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1937. Alpert died in 1980.

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