Many of my previous posts have discussed the impact Khrushchev’s Cultural Thaw on photography and photojournalism in passing. From the early 1950s through the early 1960s, though the implications of the Thaw for photographers extended beyond this period, the relaxation in censorship precipitated the development of post-Stalinist artistic and cultural activity. Many scholars have confronted the Cultural Thaw from a variety of angles, including film, literature and architecture. For Soviet intellectuals, including photographers, “remnants of the romantic revolutionary idealism and optimism that had powerfully motivated the founders of the Soviet regime lingered on…This idealism and optimism…still had the vigor to confront conformism and docile passivity” in the Thaw era.
It is unclear why exactly photography fell between the cracks of Soviet censorship in the 1950s and 1960s. It was, in part, a result of the general relaxation of censorship during the Khrushchev era. Perhaps it was because photography was classified as a journalistic rather than artistic pursuit. I would argue that a history of self-censorship certainly played a role as well. During the 1930s, as different photography groups were dissolved in an effort to artificially produce the perception of a single Socialist Realist photographic style, photographers continued to pursue their own individual styles well beyond what scholars initially believed. The 1935 exhibition The Masters of Soviet Photography visibly demonstrated that “photographers had not united, they followed no general aesthetic line, and appeared not to receive consistent guidelines from the state agencies that were nominally in control.”
Modernist trends in Soviet photography persisted into 1937-1938 when critic and editor Leonid Mezhericher and photographer/poster artist Gustav Klutsis, were arrested. Both were prominent members of the photographic community. Mezhericher was arrested for alleged saboteur activities. His first conviction, on 12 June 1937, earned him 5 years of forced labor in the mines of the Kolyma region. Mezhericher was accused of being a Trotskyist, spreading anti-Soviet propaganda, and possessing illegal weapons. Six months into his sentence, he was again arrested by the NKVD for alleged participation in a counterrevolutionary Trotskyist group and organizing counterrevolutionary sabotage. He was sentenced to death and shot on 7 February 1938. Klutsis’ arrest and execution were unrelated to his work as a photographer as he was accused of being a Latvian nationalist and he was executed on February 26, 1938. Though some have speculated that these executions had a lesser impact on visual styles than one might expect as they were only two of hundreds of photographers, photojournalists and photography editors, I would argue that these arrests and executions cast a long shadow. While neither were arrested based on their relationship to photography (although arrests during the terror were often arbitrary) the reasons behind their executions mattered less than the eventuality that they were victims of draconian capital punishment. During the Khrushchev era there was no guarantee that the State would not resort to violent suppression as it had during the Stalinist period. So, in short, it is my opinion that self-censorship during the 1950s and 1960s continued to influence how far photographers were willing to push the envelope.
Nevertheless, for photographers, the Cultural Thaw offered possibilities: Prospects for increased education (for both aspiring professional photojournalists and amateur photographers), creative autonomy, and the chance to reshape standard photographic practices and aesthetics without the immediate fear of arrest and execution (though many were initially cautious). This push came largely from photojournalists, though there was hardly an organized approach before the reestablishment of the journal Sovetskoe foto in 1956. From 1957 through the late 1960s, the editors and contributors to the journal, and photojournalists in general, sought to establish their standards that moved beyond simple documentation, and on the simplest level, define what was uniquely Soviet about Soviet photography – a dilemma that critics and photographers were never able to completely resolve.
Despite theoretical debates and differing attitudes amongst critics, members of the photography section of the Union of Journalists, photojournalists and amateur photographers, the Cultural Thaw appears to mark a departure from the supposed stiffness of “high” Stalinist photography (1945-1953). Yet, photography and photojournalism in the Cultural Thaw had strong connections to the modernist photography of the 1920s and 1930s, and incorporated foreign influences, particularly Italian neorealism. This is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of neorealism as a genre. The documentary aspect of the neorealist style fit squarely within state conceptions of the role of photography, while the commonplaceness of subjects appropriately illustrated the changing cultural dynamic of the Soviet 1950s and 1960s, which gradually shifted from focusing on industry and Soviet achievements to everyday life.
My next post will investigate the work of prominent photojournalist Maks Al’pert.
 Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009), 22.
 Emily Evans, “Soviet Photo and the Search for Proletarian Photography, 1926-1937,” (Diss. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2014), 211.
 Mezhericher was sentences under Articles 58-10, 58-11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. “Mezhericher, Leonid Petrovich,” Genealogicheskaia vaza znanii: persony, familii, khronika, <http://baza.vgdru.com/1/21095/>.
 Ibid. Sentenced to death under Article 58.
 Sovetskoe foto was initially founded by Mikhail Kolt’sov in 1926. The journal was published bi-weekly or monthly until 1941. It resumed publication in January 1957.