Dmitri Baltermants: Documenting and Staging a Soviet Reality

Museum of Art Museum of Art

Exhibition: Dmitri Baltermants: Documenting and Staging a Soviet Reality



Becker Gallery
Dmitri Baltermants (1912–1990) was one of the most important Soviet photojournalists at mid-century. His humanizing, often dramatic compositions of World War II and its aftermath affected viewers in the USSR and around the world. This exhibition includes more than thirty of Baltermants’s most famous photographs and complements the concurrent exhibition, "Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from between the World Wars."

Selected Works

"Forward," 1943, silver gelatin print, by Dmitri Baltermants. Anonymous gift. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. "Forward" depicts Soviet soldiers heroically charging ahead in battle. This dramatic depiction of the Red Army represented a shift in Baltermants’s war reporting and indeed reflects a watershed moment in his career. During his coverage of the Battle of Stalingrad in the previous year, one of his photographs of German prisoners of war had been miscaptioned and prompted severe punishment. Stripped of his captain’s rank and journalistic status, Baltermants was assigned to a penal battalion. At the end of 1943, however, after recovering from an injury sustained in battle, Baltermants was able to return to photojournalism, now for the Red Army newspaper "На Разгром Врага" (Death to the Enemies). This publication for military personnel rather than the general public necessitated a change in subject matter and tone of Baltermants’s later works.
"Without Looking Back (The Two Ilyiches): Brezhnev Gives a Speech Close-up Version," silver gelatin print by Dmitri Baltermants. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The Soviet Union was a nation focused on the future. This image, of Brezhnev giving a party talk in front of an expansive print of Lenin emphasize this forward motion. In the 1920s, Lenin established Soviet youth leagues—commonly referred to as Komsomol—dedicated to indoctrinating a new generation with Historical Materialism, the Soviet rendition of history adopted from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that promised a bright communist future. Lenin saw the potential of photographs in this historic narrative based on the struggle of the working class for emancipation: “It is a very good idea to record history through the lens. History in photos is clear and comprehensible. No painting is able to depict what the camera sees.” Baltermants dedicated his life to recording Soviet history and left behind images that invite further study of the aspirations, accomplishments, and shortcomings of a bygone era.
"Berlin Is Taken, May 1945," silver gelatin print by Dmitri Baltermants. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Baltermants reminisced, “Besides ideological requirements – let’s make the Party committee look good – it was also a matter of what we thought, then, a photograph should be. Especially in the press, a photograph had to be ‘elevated,’ people got dressed up to be photographed.” Consider then the image of the burning city of Berlin immediately before the German surrender, as well as the moment of seemingly idyllic Soviet happiness in Odessa during the war. These photographs, Baltermants said, were “explained not only by the shameless lying of the photographers. Most often, they were observing the rules of the genre.”
"Anti-Aircraft Gunner, 1944-1945," silver gelatin print by Dmitri Baltermants. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. This image puts the viewer on the front lines alongside the valiant Red Army. In addition to fulfilling their propagandistic purpose, however, the lyricism in the photographs elicits an aesthetic response. The low-angle shot of the concentric circles of the gunner’s rifle and the intriguing framing of the battle for Kamenka, a village outside Moscow, were compelling to viewers and proved successful as socialist realist propaganda. Born in 1912, Baltermants was raised in Moscow amidst a time of radical artistic revolution. These photos were shaped by Baltermants’s aesthetic predispositions forged during the constructivist times of the interwar period.
"Construction Workers with Rebar Towers," silver gelatin print by Dmitri Baltermants. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Labor, according to this and countless other images, was a source of pride and happiness for the Soviet people. The image bears a stark resemblance to the tradition of Soviet propaganda posters. Despite their positive messages, Baltermants’s work was not exempt from censorship. Several of his factory photographs never made it to the press because they depicted sweat on the faces of the workers. The reality of strenuous labor was not in line with Stalin’s ideas. This photograph is a testament to Baltermants’s skill to create compelling images within the strict parameters and doctrines of the regime.


The distinguished Soviet photojournalist Dmitri Baltermants documented World War II and the following years of reconstruction in dramatic images that affected viewers in the USSR and around the world. Dmitri Baltermants (1912–1990) had graduated from the Math and Mechanics School at Moscow State University, with plans of teaching mathematics at the Higher Military Academy. Life drastically changed in 1939, when the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya sent him abroad to cover the Soviet-German annexation and partition of Poland and Ukraine. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Baltermants was one of the first photographers on the battlefront. After the war, he worked for the Soviet illustrated magazine, Ogonyok, and in 1964 was named its photographic editor.

Many of Baltermants’s photographs were censored under Stalin and only became well known in the 1960s, in the era of the reform-minded leader Nikita Khrushchev. Even then, Baltermants’s images never presented an eyewitness account of combat or fulfilled their claim to objectively portray life in the USSR. Throughout his career, Baltermants altered many of his negatives to fit into the current Soviet ideology. He commented retrospectively, “In my time I was the leader of staged photography. I made some truly grandiose stagings.” Straddling the line between fact and fiction, his photographs served as an important form of state propaganda and reveal much about Soviet hopes and perceived challenges over the formative decades of the Soviet experiment. All of Baltermants’s photographs included in the exhibition are silver gelatin prints, printed in 2003.

This exhibition was curated by Johna Cook, Class of 2019, and supported by the Becker Fund for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This exhibition includes more than thirty of Baltermants’s most famous photographs and complements the concurrent exhibition, Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from between the World Wars (September 23, 2017 through February 11, 2018). It is curated by Johna Cook, class of 2019 at Bowdoin College, who is double-majoring in Russian and Government.

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Gallery Conversation with Frank Goodyear and Johna Cook

November 16, 2017 | 4:30 PM | Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Frank Goodyear, co-director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Johna Cook '19, exhibition curators, discuss works in the exhibition.

Lecture, "How an Uprising became a Revolution"

November 30, 2017 | 4:30 p.m. | Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center

Semion Lyandres, professor of history, University of Notre Dame, discusses the first Russian Revolution that occurred in February 1917