|Upon entering San Franciscos Jewish Museum recently an older gentleman is seated among a sea of black & white photographs. This rather large man, with thick glasses and bemedaled chest, calmly greets a steady stream of excited like-aged people who sit next to him, chat in Russian, and implore friends to snap photos of them. He straightens up each time like a soldier and grins in a shy and bemused way at the attention being showered upon him. He seems to be saying, whats all the fuss?
The fuss is that this is Yevgeny Khaldei, one of the Soviet Unions most famous photojournalists, whose many images these émigré Russians saw in Soviet magazines from the 1930s-1970s, and whose World War II images became as famous there as Capas D-Day landing or Joe Rosenthals photo of the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima.
This gathering is to inaugurate Khaldeis Exhibit in Black & White: The photojournalism of Yevgeny Khaldei running at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco through July 17 after opening previously in New York City. It is the first museum scale showing in the United States of Khaldeis over 50 years of photography.
A story of journalistic accomplishment and survival, his own talent crossed paths with some of the seminal events and people of the 20th century. He witnessed both death from invading armies, and starvation from his own governments policy.
He was first published as a photographer in 1934. Typical of Soviet art of the time, the image was that of a factory worker, and was taken in the Soviet Realist style with worker erect, smoke stacks in the background.
His photographic style of this period certainly linked him with American photographers such as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans who had begun taking photography from the staid studio setting to the environment where people lived and worked. But unlike Lange and Walker, who explored and uncovered the sadness of America in the 1930s, Khaldei chose to photograph the assigned subjects.
When asked about film type, exposures, cameras, photographic influences, he seemed mostly disinterested. He says he shot what he saw in a trial and error method. He had no teachers, and although he saw some western work such as Lifes portrayal of Japanese war atrocities, for the most part he remained isolated, going about his work, without illusions of grandeur.
As the 1940s dawned things would change. One day in 1941 the radio warned of a very important announcement that would come in an hours time.
As Khaldei looked down to the street from the TASS news agency window, he saw people gathering for the announcement. Taking his camera, he
photographed nervous people as giant speakers blared out the voice of Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov announcing, ..... At 5 oclock German troops invaded our borders from Murmansk to the Black Sea without a declaration...
The photograph War is Announced taken that day would start a 5 year odyssey as a war photographer. He was immediately sent to the Arctic post of Murmansk and shot among other photographs the haunting Reconnaissance Mission, Murmansk showing a small group of soldiers on patrol backlilt against the stark landscape. It is one of the few photographs that evokes a more abstract sense of composition, with stick-like figures marching one by one over what looks like the moon.
As the Soviet army marches through a devastated Budapest he sees a couple wandering about with yellow Jewish stars on their clothing. Approaching them he first snaps a photo; he is after all a photographer first. Then uttering a prayer in Hebrew he tears off their yellow stars and tells them that the fascists
have been beaten. This photograph, Budapest Ghetto is the only photograph in the exhibit with any Jewish content.
Khaldei, anticipating the final triumph as the Russian army moves toward Berlin, imagines photographs atop the great German monuments, especially the Reichstag, the German parliament building.
He has his uncle, a tailor, fashion a few Soviet flags from red table cloths and flys to Berlin to photograph victorious Russian soldiers. Entering the Reichstag on May 2, 1945, only a few days after Hitlers suicide, he finds German and Russian soldiers screaming at one another. Amid this chaos he recruits a young Russian Lieutenant and with the sewn flags in tow climbs onto the roof, and they produce Khaldeis most famous and one of photojournalisms most enduring images, Raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945.
The immediate post war period is spent at various international conferences such as Postam, Berlin, and Paris where he photographed Truman, Stalin & Churchill. In this period he met the photographer Robert Capa, who was so appalled by his primitive equipment that he brought back from Paris a then state-of-the-art Speed Graphic for Khaldei to have and use.
He was in Nuremberg in 1946 for the trials of the surviving Nazi leaders. He relates that any time he got near Hermann Goring to try to take his picture he would hear him mutter to his fellow defendants, Those bastard Russians. Khaldei deliberately hung around near Goring just to irritate him. Finally, he had a colleague take a photo of himself next to a Goring, who upset covered his face with his hand .
Returning to Russia he hoped to settle down after the tumultuous war years. But the Russian authorities had other plans. In 1948 TASS suddenly fired him for no reason, but it coincided with the general harassment of the Jewish
population. Although reinstated by PRAVDA in 1956 by way of the Krushchev thaw, he again lost his job in 1972 in another Jewish purge. He continues to take photographs but never again for national publications. He retires in Moscow in 1991 on a Soviet pension of around $50 a month.
Given these events anyone would be understandably bitter toward this system. But when asked whether he wishes he had been born now where there is freedom he answers, no. He appreciated the order, and although admits there were excesses prefers the Soviet system.
Asked what he thought of modern photography, he critiques a recent visit to San Franciscos Ansel Adams Museum saying he liked certain images, but the abstract ones struck him as confusing and irrational. A photograph should be accessible to people yesterday, today, tomorrow he states as a mantra that will be repeated more than once during his S.F. visit.
Khaldei appears philosophical about his life, reiterating that he feels fortunate to have witnessed historical events, and is accepting that the bad times were also part of history.
Pleased with his new recognition, and grateful that his photographs have come out of the drawers of his Moscow apartment, he gingerly rises out of his chair to speak to a crowd of young, mostly Russian speaking docents, who have patiently hung on his every word during the interview.
I ask for ten additional minutes of his time to photograph him. He turns toward me and in a booming voice says through the translator that it would be fine, if I also would take a photo of him and a pretty girl. A photographer and a man to the very end.
Bram Goodwin is a photographer/writer based in San Francisco.
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