In our earlier blog post about the writer John Steinbeck’s journey to the Soviet Union in 1947, we quoted his response to the question of why he wanted to travel with the photographer Robert Capa although there were “lots of cameramen in the Soviet Union”: “But you have no Capas,” Steinbeck said.
Steinbeck was wrong, if by ‘Capas’ he meant photographers who were capable of combining the documentary impulse with emotional attachment, without sentimentality, to the victims and survivors of war, civilians and combatants alike.
In 1983, for example, the Los Angeles Times labelled Dmitri Baltermants “the Soviet Capa.” (We will write about Baltermants and his most famous photograph, Grief, later in this series.) Whatever the merits of looking at the work of a photographer with reference to, in comparison with, or through the lenses of another photographer – referring to a photographer as a ‘Capa’ in the context of photojournalism is surely meant to acknowledge the quality of her or his work in terms of authenticity and proximity to its subject matter (while at the same time, quite inadvertently, questioning the photographer’s originality).
The conventional understanding of photojournalism in terms of detached, objective, neutral documentation is hard to reconcile with the role assigned to Soviet photography in the Great Patriotic War. Photography was seen as a contribution to the war effort – how could it have been otherwise given the threat to survival the country and its people were facing? Soviet photography reflected the vicissitudes of the war but, following strict political instructions, it was always dedicated to Soviet victory. This approach did not, however, prevent the best Soviet photographers from producing images, the meanings and importance of which went far beyond mere propaganda.
Valery Faminsky (1914–1993), a staff photographer for the Military Medical Museum of the Red Army in Moscow, arrived in Berlin on April 22, 1945 and stayed there for one month, covering the transition from war to its aftermath. While meticulously archiving his photographs, he never published them.
In 2016, Arthur Bondar, a Ukrainian photojournalist residing in Moscow, acquired these images, and a selection can now be seen in an important online exhibition organized and hosted by Verlag und Galerie Buchkunst Berlin (until May 31), curated by Ana Druga and Thomas Gust. In this exhibition, the visitor can virtually move around in the digital exhibition space and regard the images from different perspectives. The design of the exhibition and the technical facilitation allow a viewing experience remarkably close to the actual in person visit of an exhibition. In terms of artistic quality, the organizers suggest, Faminsky’s work is on Capa’s and Yevgeny Khaldei’s level.
However, photographers designated as ‘Capas’ are often facing the reduction of their work, in public discourse and perception, to war photography. Capa himself, although he photographed all sorts of things, is almost exclusively remembered as a war photographer. It is, therefore, extremely interesting from our point of view that the curators stress the peace dimension of Faminsky’s work, thus rhetorically moving it from war photography to peace photography.
Reclaiming Faminsky’s photographs from the archive by showing them publicly and in a book promises, like every such reclamation, what John Roberts calls “a practice of counterproduction, of counterarchiving, of interruption and reordering of the event” depicted. Archives are “structures of meaning in process” and this meaning can change in accordance with discursive engagement, connecting in a new way the event and the photograph – from war to peace.
Every war photograph negatively references peace by showing its absence. Soviet war photography visually anticipated peace by showing the inevitability of the Soviet victory as posited by the political and military leadership.
Faminsky, while occasionally showing gestures of military triumph, seems to have been more interested in the longing or the desire for peace on both sides. He shows exquisitely peaceful and fragile moments. There are victors and there are defeated but almost everybody is exhausted; everybody loses in and suffers from war, including the victors. And the city itself.
This is the humanistic impulse underlying Faminsky’s work, stressing the commonalities of being human in a city in ruins. Or in Arthur Bondar’s words, quoted in the New York Times: ‘You can hardly imagine today that Berlin looked like that. People’s memories are so short and we forget the value of peace so fast. Maybe these photos will help remind people of that before the next war starts.’
Until 31 May 2021, Galerie Buchkunst Berlin – prolonged until 15 July 2021
James Estrin, ‘Rare Photos Show World War II from the Soviet Side,’ New York Times, 29 November 2016, available here
John Roberts, Photography and Its Violations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)