Soviet photography from 1941 to 1945 occupies a unique and extraordinary place in the history of photography globally. For four years, a team of professional photographers was assigned to visually document an event of unprecedented and previously unimaginable scale, one that affected millions of people from all walks of life across enormous expanses of territory, from the Arctic Ocean to the Caucasus, and from the Volga River to Berlin.
The photographs made during this era belie the naïve notion that interesting shots come easily to war photographers – that the reality is so dramatic that it “speaks for itself.” But once they had appeared in the press, thereby fulfilling the role for which they were intended, photographs that merely documented the war went no further: with no lasting value of their own, they did not make it into the archives. Those that did live on possessed something above and beyond their prescribed function – perhaps a quality of abstraction or an innovative composition, an unconscious personal reaction on the part of the photographer or an unforgettable revelation of the emotions gripping their subjects.
These photographs clearly bore the marks of the Soviet mentality, and some obviously echoed the propaganda of the era. But the importance of official dogma faded in the light of the truths they revealed about the war and the people who fought it, lived through it, and died in it. Their work went beyond graphic conflict to encompass all the varied dimensions of war – soldiers breaking for lunch, sleeping on each other’s shoulders, and getting shaves from the trench barber; sailors performing a traditional dance performance on the deck of a naval vessel; the home front, where factories churned out mortars and shells; the unspeakable human toll of the siege of Leningrad; and the tearful reunions as soldiers returned home.
Soviet war photographers made these images under extreme circumstances, embedded with soldiers in the trenches and on battlefields, shooting their small cameras at close range while men were killed and wounded all around them, or navigating explosions and skirmishes in burned-out city streets. Yet the compositions they created were often revolutionary for their time, and give a sense of both intimacy and immediacy to the scenes they depict while also appearing strikingly cinematic from today’s perspective. Reflecting on the work of a photojournalist, the poet Konstantin Simonov wrote: “When I think about the profession of the photojournalist at war, I think of how difficult this profession is. We writers can write later, after the event: we don’t have to write at the time. We can jot things down in our notebooks – two or three words – and then expand this into a complete picture, using our memories. They, however, can photograph only when the event is actually happening...”
Perhaps the most important feature of Soviet war photography was the undeniable humanism of each photographer’s response. This quality was not diminished by the brutality of the scenes that were shot or by the well-known and well-enforced official mandate to shoot only certain subjects. In terms of the dramatization of its subjects and illustrative expressiveness, Soviet photography made a great leap forward in its evolution during the four years of the war.