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Dimitri Baltermants’ Soviet Era Photography Develops Into Fine Russian Art

Russian art comes in many forms and Dmitri Baltermants has been recognized as the greatest Soviet photographer of the 20th century. As the principal photographer and photo editor of Ogonyok, one of Russia’s oldest weekly magazines, and as an official Kremlin photographer, Baltermants used film to capture images and events that mere words could not express. Over a span of five decades, he captured on film the life, the times, and the spirit of the Soviet people and the nation they built.

Dmitri Baltermants was born May 13, 1912, in Warsaw, Poland. His father served in the Imperial Russian Army and was killed in the First World War. Years later, Baltermants graduated from the Moscow State University to become a math teacher, but fell in love with photography and began a career in the field of photojournalism.

During World War II Baltermants covered the battle of Stalingrad, the battles of the Red Army in the Ukraine, and the march to Berlin in 1945. He was wounded twice.

Just like his fellow photographers covering the Red Army during the war, Baltermants’ images were always censored by Soviet authorities in order to select only the photographs that reflected on the positive side of service in their effort to help boost morale. Some of his most captivating photos were suppressed, and were not released to the public until the 1960’s.

One of the Baltermants’ more famous images, called “Grief,” depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. It shows the grief of village women as they search for the bodies of their loved ones. A powerful over saturated sky above, burnt in during the printing of the photo, makes the image even more dramatic.

Baltermants’ work during World War II stands out as particularly important because his photographs show the tragedy of war so comprehensively and truthfully that they have become symbols of a deep humanism. However, the tragedies of war marked only one period in Baltermants’ life.

Baltermants’ longest period of work began in the mid 1940’s and lasted into the 1980’s. For the Soviets, this was a time of major construction projects, space exploration, new leaders, and new contacts with other nations. Baltermants was on hand to cover all of these major new developments in Soviet government and society, and he captured all of these events on film.

Throughout this post World War II era Baltermants provided the most vivid, interesting and comprehensive photographic reports about the Soviet people rediscovering foreign countries, building giant power plants, and the emergence of the Soviet nation into the atomic age.

In all of these situations the top-quality work of the Soviet people was matched by the equally superb photographic reports by Dmitri Baltermants. He was a brilliant interpreter of the idea of “triumphant socialism.” Film was Baltermants’ artistic canvas, and his collective body of Soviet era photography became his contribution to the Russian impressionism and contemporary Russian art forms.

In the final period of his life, Baltermants worked less. However, he continued photographing the country’s leaders. And, it was in these photographs that he discovered a new Baltermants. From his archives, he collected images which represented almost half a century’s worth of portraits of the figures of power. This was the “anatomy” of Soviet power. And, it was during this period that Baltermants realized that he and his camera had witnessed the transition of a nation, and it was his visions that the nation’s people saw and remembered.

Dmitri Baltermants died in 1990.

It was also during 1990 that the Russian government authorized the production of a photographic portfolio to celebrate the life and work of Dmitri Baltermants. A total of twenty-five portfolios were produced, each containing a set of prized photographs. Every image was marked with the photographer’s original stamp and was signed by Tatiana Baltermants, Dmitri’s daughter, on her father’s behalf. Each set was placed into a black silk portfolio case with a certificate of authenticity. And, no further photographic prints will be made from these negatives except for purposes of copyright and exhibition.

These limited edition photographic portfolios rival the finest Russian art in terms of their historical value and emotional impact, and they are now prized collectibles.

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