Magnum photographers capture 7 decades of Russian life, from Stalin’s rule to today’s pandemic

On display until 22 July in St Petersburg, As They See Us. A Portrait of Russia by the Magnum Agency organised by Manege and Magnum Photos is an opportunity to see the agency’s epochal archive in one space.

16 July 2020

On 22 May in 1947, with humanity still shell-shocked after the devastation of war, a troupe of photographers — Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David Seymour and William Vandivert — joined forces to document how the world was pulling itself back together. This was how Magnum first came to be: a photo agency that has grown into an institution synonymous with photojournalism itself. “We want to evoke a situation, a truth,” penned Cartier-Bresson, in his 1952 book The Decisive Moment, a sentiment that could have been written today, in response to flourishing Covid-19 conspiracy theories and declining press freedom.

Over its seven decades, Magnum’s photographers have traversed every corner of the globe — covering everything from apartheid-era South Africa to post-Soviet Tajikistan to war-struck Iraq. Just two months after the agency was founded, in July 1947, Robert Capa ventured to Moscow alongside Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck to report on Soviet life under Stalin. Over the course of 40 days, they also travelled to Ukraine and the Caucasus. The project was published in segments in the New York Herald Tribune, then collected and released as a book, A Russian Journal.

“The figures that they chose to photograph were often regular people going about their day-to-day business,” reflects Nina Gomiashvili, curator of As They See Us. A Portrait of Russia by the Magnum Agency, currently on show at St Petersburg’s recently-reopened Manege Central Exhibition Hall. Robert Capa was the first of a long-line of Magnum heavyweights to travel to Russia.

John Steinbeck and Robert Capa reflected in a mirror. USSR, September (1947). Image: International Center of Photography/ Magnum Photos

“[A Russian Journal] set the tone for other photographers’ attitudes to the USSR, which at the time lay behind the Iron Curtain,” Gomiashvili is quoted in the press release. The exhibition spans from 1947 to 2020, showing ordinary life amid seismic shifts in USSR and Russian history, deftly captured by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Thomas Dworzak, Elliott Erwitt, Christopher Anderson, Steve McCurry, Martin Parr, Carolyn Drake among many others.

The list of Magnum members on display features several photographers of Russian origin that grew up abroad: Nicolas Tikhomiroff was born in 1927 in Paris; and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, also on display, was born in Moscow in 1952 and acquired a French citizenship later in life.

“Starting from the 1990s, photographers were more attracted to the outskirts rather than big cities. These places were still unknown, often unexplored”

“The view of legendary international photographers is interesting because it is subjective,” Gomiashvili told The Calvert Journal. “Foreign photographers who have never been to Russia — starting from Robert Capa, ending with Nanna Heitmann and her project during Covid-19 in Moscow — are resetting the circumstances, so to speak. They don’t share the same references — that historical DNA. In observing daily life, they have an obvious sense of visual freedom and a freedom from Soviet clichés.”

Some of the most arresting images are those of people going about their daily lives. “Looking at the images of Moscow by Cartier-Bresson’s from 1955, you’ll notice the photos could be shot in almost any post-war country — they are universal.” The exhibition entices Russian exhibition visitors by showing the breadth of the country through an outsider’s perspective. “Starting from the 1990s, photographers were more attracted to the outskirts rather than big cities. These places were still unknown, often unexplored. At Manege, we have projects from Tyva, Yakutia, Lake Baikal.”

Doctor Sergey Andreev with balloons given to him on his birthday. From the series Just Stand and Look by Nanna Heitmann (2020). Image: Magnum Photos

One of the youngest members of the Magnum family, Nanna Heitmann, joined the agency as a nominee in 2019. The German-Russian photographer, born in Ulm in 1994, is based in Moscow where she has been shooting hospital staff and patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shot in May 2020, her series Just Stand and Look, brings us to the present moment, showing the behind the scenes of one hospital in Moscow, a portrait of survival from the frontlines of the current crisis. “The photos are a reminder that we are all totally equal in the face of this huge tragedy which is still gripping the world. Nanna’s project is universal: those doctors and patients have been feeling the same in every country, going through desperate time, losing the loved ones. It unifies all of us as human beings.”

Visitors at the Red Square by Robert Capa. Moscow, USSR (1947). Image: International Center of Photography/ Magnum Photos
The State Bolshoi Theatre Ballet School by Cornell Capa Moscow, USSR (1958).
The Red Square by Thomas Hoepker. Moscow, USSR (1965). Image: Magnum Photos
Bratsk, Siberia by Elliott Erwitt (1967)
Calisthenics classes for vacationers in a sanatorium in Sochi by Burt Glinn. USSR (1963). Image: Magnum Photos
Fashion Story in Leningrad by Ferdinando Scianna, USSR (1987) Image: Magnum Photos
Homo Sovieticus by Carl De Keyzer. Leningrad USSR (1989). Image: Magnum Photos
Victory Day celebrations by Harry Gruyaert. Moscow, USSR (1989). Image: Magnum Photos
Workers install Boris Yeltsin's election posters next to the Red Square by Thomas Hoepker. Moscow, Russia (1996). Image: Magnum Photos
Chechens celebrate a victory over the Russian army at a graveyard where the fallen of several Caucasian wars have been buried by Thomas Dworzak. Tzotzin-Yurt, Chechen Republic, Russia (1996). Image: Magnum Photos
Honeymoon room by Carl De Keyzer. Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia (2001). Image: Magnum Photos
Rybinsk by Steve McCurry. Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia (2015). Image: Magnum Photos
Followers of Vissarion during a Christmas pilgrimage by Jonas Bendiksen. Krasnoyarsk Kray, Russia (2015)
Therapeutic bronchoscopy. From the series Just Stand and Look (2020) by Nanna Heitmann
Nurse Margarita Sokolova. From the series Just Stand and Look (2020) by Nanna Heitmann. Moscow (2020)

As They See Us. A Portrait of Russia by the Magnum Agency exhibition is on display at St Peterburg’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall until July 22 with some restrictions for the visitors. This Friday, 17 July, join an online public talk with Nanna Heitmann on Just Stand and Look (in Russian). You can also register for Stuart Franklin’s talk on 19 July (in English) and Bruno Barbey’s talk on 21 July (in French).

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