Friday, December 28, 2012

Women Dancing in the Streets of Moscow in 1947 (Through the Lens of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson)

By happenstance (a post on Facebook), I came across an incomparable series of photographs by Robert Capa of Moscow 1947 (the post led me to the site with a big set of pictures of superb reproduction quality). One of them - women dancing in the street - was riveting and would not let me go. I followed the trail...

Robert Capa visited in the Soviet Union with John Steinbeck on an assignment for The New York Herald Tribune. They were supposed to produce a series of human-interest reports about the people living through the post-war reconstruction of the USSR. The real cold-war freeze was just setting in, and an average American was puzzled by the changing tone in the political relationship between Soviet Russia and the West. Only recently, USSR had been a staunch ally of the West in the war against Hitler. Now it was morphing into the Big Other. “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately light by the Allied victory,” as  Churchill put it in a language worthy of an epic poet, and “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them..." (The Fulton Speech, 5 March 1946). 

Could this grim epic be true and was the world on the brink of the third great war of the century? The author of The Grapes of Wrath and, perhaps, the world's most  famous war photographer were supposed to sort it all out by observing and reporting on the daily life of ordinary Soviets. Steinbeck's reports and Capa's photographs were serialized beginning January 1948 and later in the year appeared under Steinbeck's name as A Russian Journal, with Photographs by Robert Capa. The book is still in print.

Their forty-day-long trip happened to coincide with a festive celebration of Moscow’s 800th anniversary, held on September 7, 1947. I was then a little over one year old but the echoes of the event reverberated throughout my childhood (we lived in the center of Moscow halfway between the Red Square and Chistye Prudy). I remember playing with the colorful commemorative insignia (few things were colorful then) and hearing my parents, probably in answer to my questions, refer to the celebrations with uncharacteristic ebullience. Clearly it was a major landmark of the post-war years in Stalin's Russia.

Having won the other Great War, USSR was now a superpower and -- recall Churchill's Homeric catalogue of cities on which the USSR has cast its "shadow" -- a great world empire. Empires need historical legitimacy, and the mere three decades since the Proletarian Revolution of 1917 came woefully short, especially now that the revolutionary proletarian class had been enhanced, if not entirely supplanted, by the "great Russian people, the leading people among all of the peoples of our country," as Stalin famously put it in his Toast at the Victory Dinner in the Kremlin on 24 May 1945. Once and for all, the proletarian internationalism had to yield its pride of place to Russian nationalism. The 800th anniversary of Moscow’s first mention in the Primary Chronicle came in handy. This anniversary had been celebrated once before, in 1847, on the prompting of the Russian Slavophiles. Then, as now, it provided the empire with an almost millennial stretch of usable history.

This round, doubly symbolic, date became a cornerstone of the new era, and it was marked accordingly by laying the foundation of the eight Moscow skyscrapers, the buildings that were to define the city’s skyline into the future imperial century. And they, in fact, do even to this day (ultimately, only seven were built). And then there were the festivities to match the momentous occasion. The city was outfitted with illumination fit for a Roman carnival or Paris on the Bastille Day. The center of Moscow was filled with the sound of music, both live and blasting from the public loudspeakers. Temporary stages were set up on which couples of professional well-dressed dancers twirled to live music to encourage the people below stage, the survivors, exhausted by the years of war and privation, to do the same. There is a one-minute clip showing such a street scene in Moscow

Now, Robert Capa, one of the century’s most celebrated  photographers, the hero witness to the Spanish civil war and the Allied landing in Normandy three years earlier was to document the Soviets’ transition to peace.

Judging by most pictures, Capa was shooting with a 35 mm lens (slightly wide-angle) - a reporter's tool to capture the context while getting in close to the subject, the tool also favored by his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson. (On this trip, Capa had with him a Contax and, photo to the right, a square format Rolleiflex and, according to A Russian Journal, two more cameras and lenses).

Getting close to the subject, though, turned out to be difficult. He could not move around freely and shoot even though he had his permits and his official guides from VOKS -- not until, that is, he partnered with a Soviet "photographer," no doubt of the Lubyanka provenance, who could ward off policemen. (Viktor Tolts of Radio Free Europe located and interviewed their VOKS interpreter.). This not to mention that his Soviet subjects, especially in Moscow, were, as Steinbeck noted, camera shy before an American reporter. This is why we often see his subjects' backs -- with the eyes the Great Leader staring at them from giant posters or, as in the picture on the left, from a giant piece of porcelain. This composition -- the photographer watching the subject being watched by another -- had a venerable pedigree among the artists touched by surrealism.

Some pictures were taken from hotel windows, like the one the right of the Theater Square and the Bolshoi, when Capa was shooting from the Metropol in the late afternoon sun (the long shadows). Some of the night shots of the Kremlin were taken from the balcony of the suite occupied by Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet at the hotel National.

And yet, whatever the restrictions, this war photographer was able to convey the atmosphere of the 1947 Moscow. Indeed, many images are composed to give expression to the wrenching tension between the ordinary folks' desire to cash in a little of that great WWII victory -- to ease gently into the long-deferred private life -- and the unspoken command shouting at them from every poster: "Attention! To the Glory of the Empire, March!" 

A cluster of women in the image below are sitting this way and that on the bench in a small park in front of the Bolshoi Theater. They are enjoying a bit of sunshine and a quiet moment with a book, while behind them Apollo, with the USSR coat of arms above his head, is barely capable of restraining his charging horses. His ancient chariot is now festooned with an array of erect pointed flagpoles, flags taut, one for every constituent republic of the Soviet Union. Below them and right above the women's heads hang the giant faces of the ageless leaders -- one dead, one very much alive. Between the two heads, as if knitting them together, are the words of the new Soviet anthem: "The unbreakable union of free republics has for ages been bonded by Great Russia..." The neoclassical architecture of the Bolshoi Theater, with its slightly Baroque Ionian columns and classical double pediment crowned by the Soviet Union's coat of arms could not be better suited to serve as an emblem of a centuries-old, newly-minted empire. What contrast all of this imperial paraphernalia provides to the female figures -- young and not so young, bare-headed, kerchiefed, and one with a fashionable pointed hat (echoes of better times?) -- relaxing on a park bench on a brilliant sunny day in an unseasonably cold Moscow! The contrast is even more striking for the complete absence of men or children around them. Will these women have to be forever married to Lenin and Stalin, captives to the the frigid union between the mothers of their land and the fathers of the empire? 

Coming of age as a photographer in the decades of Surrealism, Capa, like his friend Cariter-Bresson, sought out in his reportage a "found object," or as Cartier-Bresson redefined it, the "decisive moment." What, then, was Capa’s decisive moment in his Moscow pictures? His shutter clicks in that ineffable split second that separates the longed-for deep breath of his subject and a furtive, incomplete exhale, constricted by Stalin's sphinx-like gaze. The photograph showing a model at the fashion commission meeting is another exemplary image. The picture is awkward, absurd, comical, and heart-stoppingly chilling. Generalissimo Stalin's gaze dominates, refracted and dispersed into the smaller gazes of the judges on the committee.

But there are exception, and the most notable one, when the camera looks straight into the faces of his subjects and meets their eyes, is Capa’s photograph that caught my attention in the first place: two women dancing with each other in the street on that festive September Sunday (Saturday was a workday). The location is easy to figure out. They are dancing at the corner of Okhotny Ryad and Tvesrkaya, right in front of the Hotel Moskva, with the Hotel National, the Intourist building, behind them.

September 7 was one of those liminal days when the air is cool and the pale blue sky is open and sunny (there is just a wisp of a cloud in the top left corner). The woman facing the camera is wearing a thick shawl and a heavy coat, the other is in a light dress, epitomizing the two sides of the Russian “Indian summer” and, perhaps also, the desire to use hope to trump the cold reality, for "it was a brilliant cold day," as Steinbeck noted in his Journal. Both women are young and beautiful and strikingly dignified. But their faces suggest a more complicated story. The furrowed brow, the lines around the mouth, the alarm in the eyes of the woman facing the camera -- what is behind them? And what about her dancing partner? Alone in the frame in a white flowery dress, her hair beautifully arranged, but her gaze is fixed on a point in infinity and her  profile is frozen into a classical tragic mask. Her right arm, bare and vulnerable, is gracefully stretched out, and the slight curve of her back is protected by the hand of her partner, apparently, stronger and more practically dressed. The tension is palpable. Were the music to stop at that moment, one of them and perhaps both would hunch over and burst out crying. To make sure your are not imagining all of this emotional dynamite, you check their expressions and posture against the other two female couples in the background: they, too, look tentative, dispirited, and forlorn, though lacking in grace and dignity compared to the couple in the foreground. The out-of-focus smiling faces to the right of the dancers only amplify the grotesque contrast between the intended mood of the festivities and the pain of the city's post-war life. So much sadness fills this instant captured by Capa that it can never be effaced or redeemed. 

Seven years later, in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, and, it happens, a few months after Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir attended the May Day parade in Moscow, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Capa’s good friend and, with him, a co-founder of the Magnum Agency, made a trip to the USSR. He was the first Western photojournalist to be allowed the privilege of touring the Soviet Union since Stalin's death and, perhaps, even since his friend's 1947 visit. He produced a fuller, richer set of images, with plenty of faces not shying away from his Leica lens. Cartier-Bresson was a greater artist than Capa and enjoyed better conditions in the USSR, then slowly beginning to “thaw” from the deep freeze of Stalinism. O what a difference do seven years make! Or perhaps, not just the seven years. Cartier-Bresson was also more "engaged," to use Sartre's term, and had, for awhile, belonged to the French Communist Party (see Jean-Pierre Montier, Henri Cartier-Bresson, figure de l’« intellectuel » ?). One needs only to compare his sets of photographs from the USA tour of the 1930s and 1940s with the pictures from his 1954 tour serialized in Life in January 1955 and later that year collected into The People of Moscow. US is sinister, violently racist, aggressive and plutocratic. USSR is, well, a bit backward, a bit absurd, but always charmant.

Going to Russia, Cartier-Bresson was, no doubt, aware of Capa's Russian Journal and considered it a challenge. More than a challenge. Robert Capa, who had sworn after Normandy never to go to a combat zone, died on May 25 of that year after stepping on a land mine while covering the Indochina War. Carier-Bresson arrived in Moscow in August. I suspect that on one of his first days in Moscow, he recognized the scene matching the striking imаge of the dancing women captured by his now late friend and forever an artistic rival. The women's posture is almost a replica of Capa's image but instead of the post-war tragic sterility of a female couple dancing, frozen in a catatonic seizure of the shot, Cartier-Bresson's young women are eagerly eyed by two rakes in uniform, even as the street car in the background (echoes of Dziga Vertov?) adds to the dynamism of an urban scene. 
Recognition was instant, instinctive. Echoing Capa's decisive moment, Cartier-Bresson squeezed the shutter, et voila -- the match was complete. 

For me, the two photos, their horizontal and vertical composition complementary, stand as deeply moving emblems, Capa's of the post-war state of shock in Stalinist Moscow, busy refashioning itself into a world empire, Cartier-Bresson's, for the year of hopes of Moscow's Thaw generation. And even if I realize now that Capa, the archetypal battlefield photographer, continued to see the tragedy of war in the peacetime Moscow, and Cartier-Bresson framed his Russia to accommodate the notions of a French leftist intellectual regarding the world's first Socialist society, both images continue to haunt me — and shape the memory of my own and my country’s past. The magic aura of these images is undiminished, perhaps, even amplified by their digital multiplication. 

I shake my head in disbelief... Could it be, then, that the rumor, publicized by Walter Benjamin, of its demise in the age of mechanical, now digital, reproduction of art was a little exaggerated?

Berkeley, 27 December 2012


  1. So interesting and moving, Grisha! I'm reading this at my in laws' house, and they happened to have a book of Capra's photos. There's one intriguing one also from 1947, a stop in Ukraine. I'll try to post it as a response to your fb post.

  2. Always welcome what other sensitive and trained eyes lived and saw..thank you for keeping HISTORY ALIVE