Every picture tells a story, but each photograph in this exhibit has more than one story to tell. The images in "Renewal and Metamorphosis, Russian Photographers From the Late Soviet Era to the 1990s" also tell about artistic and cultural resilience, the political climate at the time a photo was taken, and an artist's struggle and accomplishment. Most of all, the photos' subjects set an impressionistic tone.
In the early 1900s, explains Murray Forbes, whose Navigator Foundation put together the exhibit, photographers and other artists flourished in Russia despite war and revolution. Then came Stalin who, in the late 1930s, squelched artistic endeavor.
Stalin relented when Nazi Germany invaded Russia, and Soviet photographers were allowed to document the struggle against Hitler in order to dramatize and popularize it. But Stalin clamped down again at the end of the war. Restrictions on photography gradually lessened under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Then, slowly, clubs began to pop up, and despite censorship, photography started to grow in Russia. Its growth coincided with a "general reconstitution" from the wellsprings of Russian society, Mr. Forbes says.
As he put it: "The fortunate fusing of distant supervision and mild organizational sanction may have given these individuals breathing space" to revive their craft. They turned to the ideals of old Russia, when the artistic elite had "joined a moral orientation to society ... with a sense that the distilling of artistic beauty strengthens the soul."
In the 1980s, Soviet photography picked up steam, Forbes explains, and began to be more daring. Some artists experimented with color montages.
The exhibit is at the Fitchburg (Mass.) Art Museum through March. Among the memorable images is a 1941 photo by Jakov Khalib of a family evacuating their home in "Flight From War in Ukraine." Some 13 years later, we see a powerful photo by the same photographer of a "Grieving War Veteran." Not all the images are political, though "Moscow Coup" (1992) is eerily exquisite. Among the images are landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and some experimental work.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based Navigator Foundation was established to improve understanding among peoples and nations through photography. It has sponsored Polish, Czech, and Slovak photography exhibits. Its ongoing commitment to acquiring and showing such collections is to be commended.
* 'Renewal and Metamorphosis, Russian Photographers From the Late Soviet Era to the 1990s' is on display at the Fitchburg (Mass.) Art Museum from Jan. 19 through March 30.