Our Notes & References
A fine series of beautiful portraits and scenes taken by one of the most significant female photographers of her time: first edition of this large-format album published to raise funds for the war relief.
The work opens with an introduction that stands in contrast to the often-hostile messages propagated against the Soviet Union by the West around World War Two: “The USSR often has been called the “family of nations”, because more than 150 nationalities live there in harmony. This album will serve as an introduction to a few of these peoples – our Soviet allies”.
It was published by the Russian War Relief, which was the largest American agency for foreign war relief established in July 1941, one month after Germany’s attack on Russia. For this publication, they worked with the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904–71), who is best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan and the first American female war photojournalist.
In the early 1930s, Bourke-White travelled to the Soviet Union three times, taking hundreds of photographs of people and the industrial revolution rolled out by Stalin. Later she wrote: “Nothing invites me so much as a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have opened that door”.
She went back to the Soviet Union again in the spring of 1941 and spent six weeks taking pictures of the Soviet people preparing for war.
Bourke-White’s album shows the Soviet people under a rather bright light, echoing, in its subject-matter as well as its technique, some of the best Soviet propaganda photography. Bourke-White however does also introduce some nuances, such as a heavily industrialised background. The emphasis is given to the variety of the Soviet people, with an atmospheric photograph of an orthodox priest (while the Church wasn’t especially in favour under Stalin’s regime) and some great frames of Central Asian people.
Philadelphia Library, USA (Discrete library stamps to margin of the first plate, library sticker to first fly-leaf, and institutional bookplate on pastedown “Gift of the American Society for Russian Relief”).