New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Dmitri Baltermants
Photographs, 1940’s-1960’s
Dmitri Baltermants, “Grief”, 1942

There’s little doubt that Dmitri Baltermants would have agreed with Robert Capa’s dictum that “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” As a photographer for Isvestia, the Communist Party’s newspaper and for other Russian papers, Baltermants brought home the horrors of World War II to the Russian people with a series of images that redefined the meaning of “masterpiece.” In “Grief,” which was taken in 1942, he shows women grieving while they search for their loved ones after a Nazi massacre in a Crimean village. With storm clouds lingering overhead (added by the photographer in the darkroom), the photograph has a painterly feel that only adds to its impact. What’s also striking is to learn that the three images from this battle shown in this exhibition, which Baltermants worked on for a long time, were not exhibited until the 1960s; perhaps even the Soviet propaganda machine couldn’t put a positive spin on this nasty slice of history. In another famous image called “Tchaikovsky,” we see four Russian soldiers inside a house that’s almost totally destroyed, listening to one of their comrades play a piano that somehow survived the destruction all around them; the vase filled with flowers still sitting on top of the piano somehow underscores the miracle.

 by unidentified photographer.
Dmitri Baltermants, “Tchaikovsky”, 1945

Firmly established as one of Russia’s greatest war photographers, Baltermants then went on to document the last years of Stalin’s rule and the new era of Khrushchev during the 1960s. Among his most famous images from this period is one of Paul Robeson, the American singer and actor, who was embraced by the Soviets, but despised in the U.S. for his leftist politics. Baltermants also created the image in 1953 entitled “The Announcement of Stalin’s Death” which showed grieving factory workers. He created this image from three negatives; in fact he became an expert at “staged photography,” which involved manipulating negatives and adding details that weren’t in the original. He would have been at home with Photoshop.

There are many terrific images in this exhibition of 30 vintage prints, which was staged to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the end of WW II in Europe. A lot has changed since then, of course, but Baltermants’ work has earned its place in history by offering a dramatic and sometimes shocking perspective on the war as well as life under Communism in post-war Russia.

Dmitri Baltermants
Photographs, 1940’s-1960’s


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