THE traveling exhibition "Photostroika: New Photography from the Soviet Union and the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia" was undoubtedly intended to provide new insight into the aesthetic concerns of photographers in the former Soviet Union. Nobody expected that once beginning its tour of American museums, the political structure of that nation would completely unravel, making the work at least as interesting for its visions of Soviet life.
Organized well prior to the monumental restructuring of recent weeks, but within the context of glasnost (openness), the 115 photographs in this show make it obvious that we know far more about Soviet newsmakers than we do about her ordinary citizens. Here is an opportunity to redress this imbalance, to see beyond the news photographs of the protagonists in the political power struggles.
For decades it seemed as though the only photographs of Soviet life seen in the West have been the annual May Day pictures of weightless, smiling cosmonauts. Encountering the images here in "Photostroika," one is more likely to be impressed by those that provide the clearest description of people going about the often difficult business of daily life with hope and dignity. Description is of course at the root of all photography, and these pictures have much to share about the small details of living in t his ethnically complex land.
Viewing this fine exhibition of work by about 30 photographers with considerable differences in style and vision yields a rich and much needed additional vein of information about this former nation grappling with the freedoms of perestroika. For many Soviets, it is clear that the current struggles for greater freedom and a more democratic government will continue to occur in the background of the grueling toil for the necessities of life.
Juazas Kazlauska's images of workers at sea and in the fields offer palpable evidence of such struggles, as well as reminding us of the stark beauty of life in the harsh climate of the northern reaches of this vast country. In "The Long Way" (1975) a herdsman drives a team of livestock in a swirl of energy through a barren landscape streaked with patchy snow. For once we see not some idealized and heroic socialist worker, but simply a single farmer contending with the elements the same way a dairy farmer
in Vermont must.
By any contemporary standards regarding the boundaries of the medium of photography, this is not a groundbreaking exhibition. Most of the pieces in the exhibition are gelatin silver prints (that's museum talk for straight black and white) with little variation in surface or tonal coloration. A welcome exception is Roman Pyatkov's quirky, hand-colored images of street life.
Whereas it is becoming increasingly uncommon these days to encounter a contemporary museum photography show that does not contain a number of industrial-strength prints four or five feet high, the prints here are all quite small (16 by 20 inches or less). However, it is likely that the difficulty and expense of obtaining materials, as well as the limited access within the Soviet Union to original foreign work, probably have both mitigated against more adventuresome modes of presentation. It is a bit surp rising, though, that there is so little conceptual work, no self-consciously autobiographical work, and hardly any constructed-to-be-photographed tableaux - all of which have become important sub-genres of contemporary American and European photography.
All of that said, we are still provided an unusual opportunity to experience the work of a nation of photographers who are still probing the limits of their new-found freedoms of expression. It is a show where the content is simply compelling enough to overcome any limitations in form. Indeed, such an exhibition makes us realize how much we have lost with the passing of our own weekly news magazines of the 1950s and '60s.
Magazines with concisely edited photo essays that documented the ebb and flow of daily life in America with insight and affection provided an important vehicle, as well as the principle livelihood, for a whole generation of concerned photographers such as Eugene Smith, Dorthea Lange, and Walker Evans. The only photographs we seem to see in print today are those depicting the celebrities of entertainment and sport, or the dull news photographs of politicians in carefully choreographed "photo opportunities ."
This is not to say that there are no images of recognizable people here. Alexander Grek, well known for his "Party Pictures" critical of the Communist leadership, offers a humorous vignette with Gorbachev's larger-than-life likeness, as well as other party officials, in a hall of (overly) heroic portraits.
Like many of their Western counterparts, a number of Soviet photographers in this exhibition work in series. Vytautis Stanionis's marketplace pictures from the 1950s and Romualdas Pozerskis's documentation of the Lithuanian religious traditions are two strong examples of the extended series of related images. In "The Hill of Crosses," with its thousands of densely packed wooden crosses, Pozerskis, perhaps the best known of Soviet photojournalists, records with extraordinary eloquence the smoldering embe rs of religious traditions, never quite extinguished by the repressive policies of pre-perestroika Russia.
A more allegorical approach to the extended series is Romualdus Rakauskas's lyrical "Blossoming" (1976-85) in which flowers are utilized as both a recurring motif and as a metaphor for the passage of time.
In one, an old woman stands impassively in a blizzard of what appears to be apple or cherry blossom petals. Dressed in dark clothing except for the ubiquitous white babushka, her bare arms and hands, as well as her expressionless face, seem to float in the dark tones of the photograph and her luminous features emerge almost like a radiant 15th-century Russian icon.
"Photostroika," focusing as it does on the past 20 years, provides an illuminating example of the efforts of Soviet and Baltic photographers to explore their recently found political and aesthetic freedoms. It also reminds us of how much we have lost by the muffling of the artistic voices of the Soviet writers, artists, and composers during these past 70 years - voices that had for centuries contributed so much to the world's cultural commonwealth.
If there is a single image that best symbolizes the hope and promise of this newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States, it is probably Lyalya Kuznetsova's photograph from her "Gypsy Life" series of a hand-released bird frozen in time and space. Caught as it is in that awkward faltering moment between capture and freedom, it tests its wings again. In spite of its obvious vulnerability, it retains considerable magic and potential energy. Photostroika: New Photography from the Soviet Union and the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia' will be on display at the Worcester Art Museum, in Worcester, Mass., until Feb. 23. The exhibit can also be seen at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., from March 6 to April 5.,