Dmitri Baltermants

Dmitri Baltermants

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Dmitri Baltermants was born in the Soviet Union in 1912. During the Second World War Baltermants worked for Izvestia and became one of Russia's best known photographers. He covered Operation Barbarossa and the defence of Russia's major cities. His most famous images were made at Kerch where the German Army killed more than 176,000 men.

After the war Baltermants worked for the weekly news publication, Ogonyok. He was also the official photographer when Nikita Khrushchev made visits abroad. Dmitri Baltermants died in 1990.

Dmitri Baltermants Grief 1942

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The J. Paul Getty Museum

Tellingly, Dmitri Baltermants achieved his early fame from World War II combat photographs made on the Russian front. He photographed some of the war's most significant turning points: the defeat of the Germans near Moscow, the defense of Sevastopol, the battle of Leningrad, and the liberation of the southern Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. His most famous images were made at Kerch in the Crimea, where more than 176,000 men were killed. After the war, he was one of the leading photojournalists in the former Soviet Union, beginning as the photographer of the leading weekly news publication Ogonyokand eventually serving on the editorial board. Baltermants was the official photographer for Nikita Krushchev's visit to China and for Leonid Brezhnev's visit to the United States. Summing up his reputation, photographer Arthur Rothstein noted: "[Baltermants] is the exponent of the best in Soviet photojournalism. he manages to produce news photos with aesthetic appeal."

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Photos Bring Russian History Out From the Shadows

LONDON — In the spring of 1909, Czar Nicholas II of Russia held an unusual audience. His guest, a photographer, entertained the royal family with a slide show of pictures taken at the Czar’s residence in Tsarskoe Selo. Three beams of light joined on a white screen to produce stills of life in the Russian Empire as they had never been seen before: in color.

The photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, who was also a chemist, began experimenting with color photography at the turn of the century. He traveled to Berlin to study new techniques and became a renowned expert at home.

But his audience with the Czar brought him the biggest assignment of his life: a photographic survey of life in the Russian Empire.

Prokudin-Gorsky spent most of the following decade at the task, traveling in a specially fitted railway carriage, on a steamship and by automobile to the farthest reaches of the country. His expeditions produced thousands of snapshots of a Russia that would cease to exist with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. He emigrated to France in 1922.


Some of his most memorable shots, including a color portrait of Leo Tolstoy at his home in Yasnaya Polyana, are on display until Oct. 19 at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. “Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia” presents works by dozens of known and anonymous artists, from the 1860s to the 1970s, that trace not only the history of photography in Russia, but also the history of the country.

“I wanted to show little-known material that was surprising, including to me,” said Olga Sviblova, director of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow and curator of the exhibition.

This fall, London is rediscovering Russia through several different angles. The Tate Modern is showing a retrospective of the life and works of the Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich through Oct. 26. The Victoria and Albert Museum will host an exhibition of Russian avant-garde stage sets and costume designs, starting Oct. 18. At the Science Museum, “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age,” an exhibition devoted to Russian spacecraft and gadgets, is slated to open in November.

The Primrose show explores how the role of photography evolved through the upheavals of Russian history in the 20th century, from illuminated glass plates through tinted prints to photomontage and slides.

Most early pictures are manually tinted black and white portraits and landscapes. Touches of watercolor and oil helped highlight features like costumes and interior decoration, and treating the paper with paint concealed aging on yellowing prints.

The appearance of bridges and railways in the early 1900s serves as proof of the country’s rapid industrialization at the turn of the century. The extent of the empire is evident in cityscapes from Moscow to Tbilisi, under embellished blue skies.

“Even the Czar needed to understand who lived in the empire,” Ms. Sviblova said. “Russia had gained a lot of territories and there was an ethnographic interest in these places,” she added, likening the trend to photographs of the colonies of other European countries.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s expeditions served this documentary purpose. Today, most of his negatives and prints are held by the U.S. Library of Congress, which purchased them in 1948 from his heirs. The collection, available online, is a rare resource for students of pre-Soviet times.

At the Photographers’ Gallery the visitor is invited to walk through a chronology of Russian photography spread over two floors. By the early 1920s photography was blossoming into a variety of techniques and styles. Artists and amateurs alike experimented with color, leaving sometimes whimsical, sometimes stunningly lifelike traces of a country of contrasts.

Pictorialists like Vasily Ulitin sought to bring photography closer to painting. Using the bromoil process, with oil-based prints, they gave their pictures soft lines, like those of a brush on canvas. Color transparencies on glass, developed by the Lumière brothers, were equally popular.

A perennially favorite subject was the portrait, as shown in pictures by Piotr Vedenisov, a prosperous aristocrat. His series from 1909 to 1914 shows his family in their home in Yalta in Crimea. Although very personal, it gives clues to the lives of wealthy Russians and their habits at the time, whether wearing the latest European fashions or decorating a Christmas tree with flags from around the world.

Even after the revolution, Lenin favored photography as a means of spreading his message to the vast majority of the population who were illiterate. Modernists like Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova practiced photomontage, conveniently hiding the early difficulties of building a Socialist state.

Striking among the pictures is the fact that all but the color red seems to have faded away. In “V.I. Lenin’s funeral,” Rodchenko set black-and-white shots of Lenin lying in state, and the famous meandering line of mourners waiting to see him, against a white background. Strict red lines run behind the cutouts, uniting in a faraway perspective.

But the rise of Stalin, and of Socialist Realism as the only permitted art form, meant a brutal end to the flourishing of photographic styles. Award-winning artists disappeared in Stalin’s prison camps or toned down their individual styles in favor of dictated trends.

“People saw very few photos: Stalin, Lenin, the storming of the Winter Palace,” Ms. Sviblova said. “At the time of Stalin’s rule, it was dangerous to have even family photos. People tried to banish memories and history was written from scratch. I myself didn’t know how my grandmother lived.”

The favored genre quickly became that of arranged photo reportage in magazines like Ogonyok, or “little flame.” Dmitri Baltermants was among more privileged photographers, with access to color film and leave to travel and take pictures. His work shows the subtle changes in the party line from Stalin’s purges through Khrushchev’s thaw and Brezhnev’s attempts to restore rigor.

At the end of the 1940s, in “Caricaturists,” Baltermants photographed three men in a visibly arranged portrait, showing what Soviet art should look like. But his pictures of Khrushchev a decade later suggest a softening of the official tone. On a visit to Bulgaria in 1962, the leader is shown wearing a Pioneer’s necktie — the deep red again dominating the picture.

Assembling the works was a laborious process, Ms. Sviblova said. “Part of the photos disappeared,” she said, explaining that they were destroyed or they left the country, mainly in the 1980s. “They were bought by the kilo: $10 for a kilo of photos,” she said, one kilogram equaling 2.2 pounds. Some photographers, she added, were seen burning their photographs, as the people in their pictures had become undesirable for the regime.

Determining dates and subjects was another difficulty. “After the ’40s, there are no more dates on the photos,” Ms. Sviblova said. “History didn’t exist. The promise of Communism was tomorrow.”

A world away from Prokudin-Gorsky’s projections, color slides caught on again in the late 1960s, this time in unofficial circles. Reversal film for diapositives was relatively inexpensive and easy to develop, even at home.

Boris Mikhailov, still a prominent figure in Russian contemporary art, was a master of the genre. “He developed almost no photos, because as soon as he developed them, the police came and destroyed everything,” said Suzanne Tarasieve, whose gallery in Paris represents Mr. Mikhailov.

“Each photo is almost a painting,” Ms. Tarasieve said of his pictures, which favor female nudes as well as everyday objects and situations. “His compositions are really pictorial and at the same time he goes for the truth, while trying to conceal some aspects because he could have gotten himself gunned down.”

His photographs show life in all its crudity, behind the screen of propaganda, in the weakening Soviet Union. Shown to a handful of people at a time, these diapositives sought to circumvent the state’s monopoly on images. In an echo of that, today visitors can see them projected in a small enclosure of the gallery.

Featured Russian Artist Dmitri Baltermants

Of the numerous stars that shone in the bright constellation of Soviet Photography the star of Dmitri Baltermants was one of the brightest. It was especially conspicous since it was shining in the very center of that constellation. As the principal photographer and photo editior of OGONYOK magazine, Baltermants achieved what words could not. 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.

When I mention "Soviet photography" it was not a slip of the tongue. Like everywhere that was Soviet, our photography was an island isolated from the rest of the world. Even when the winds from the mainland reached our island they did little to change the island's climate. Social realism, which dominated our country's literature, cinematography and art, affected photography too. Naturally, as a permanent leader of Soviet photography, Baltermants was unsurpassed as the leading practitioner of social realism. He was a virtuoso of "staged photography" which for many years remained the only "officially recognized" photographic style of the Soviet Union. However, Baltermants' images were always unique and recognizable as his own, as Baltermants' photography and his personality were inseparable.

Baltermants, the artist and photojournalist, was able to touch the people's innermost feelings, yet he confidently followed the official line. His recognition today as the greatest Soviet photographer of the second half of the 20th Century seems partly due to the fact that his photographs were routinely published in OGONYOK magazine, where its readers saw all major development in the country's life through the eyes of Baltermants. His popularity during his lifetime can hardly be explained by this reason alone. His high cultural level combined with a broad outlook, perfect taste, and a gift for analytical thinking helped the photographer discern numerous details in his photographic subjects that left many of his colleagues indifferent. Baltermants' superb skill and his ability to choose the optimum light and angles insured that all reflections caught by the camera lens became an indispensable feature of the image. The greatest gift of an artist is rich imagination. Baltermants had this talent in full measure. When an artist's feelings blend with the sentiments of the people around him, then he creates and artistic image and a true work of art.

Perhaps this ability to choose only what was essential for the photograph and cast aside the rest, explains why despite all fluctuations in tastes and fashions each photographic image in this portfolio remains important and worthy of attention. His photographs shed light on the events of the past and help us see the past from the right prospective.

Baltermants' work during World War II stands out as particularly important and fruitful. Despite his young age, the photographs of that time show the tragedy so comprehensively and truthfully that they become symbols of a deep humanism. Many years had to pass after the end of the war until finally the first photographs of our wounded, murdered, and tortured countrymen appeared at photo-exhibitions, and the glorious picture of the war was marred with blood. Every illustration of the "dark side" of our victory shocked the spectator, made him shudder, and gave rise to thought. But war marked only one period in the master's art, the brightest, but at the same time the shortest.

As for the longest period of his work, it began after the war in the 40's and lasted into the 80's. It was the time of major construction projects, space exploration, new leaders and new contacts with other nations. Baltermants lived a very active life. He was ready to cover every new development. He provided the most vivid, interesting, and comprehensive reports about Soviet people "rediscovering" foreign countries and other continents, building giant power plants and the emergence of the nation into the atomic age. In all of these situations the top-quality work of Soviet people was matched by the equally superb reports of Dmitri Baltermants. He was a brilliant interpreter of the idea of "triumphant socialism."

His every trip to any part of the Soviet Union was long remembered by local bosses and their retinues not only because the reporter was a charming person, not only because every major business trip was discussed in minute detail well in advance and not only because after the visit Ogonyok would broadly cover it, but because the picture drawn by Baltermants surpassed in optimism their authorities' vision of the place where they lived and their achievements. His interpretation made them look more significant and impressive. Apparently, the isolation of our system from the rest of the world created something like a green-house effect. Inside the glass walls of the green-house we saw ourselves in a more favorable light, we seemed more important and righteous in our own eyes.

In the last 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: the "anatomy" of Soviet power. he hadn't had to develop a critical attitude toward this or that statesman, all he had to do was honestly photograph everything that seemed expressive and which had caught his eye. It was during this period that Baltermants realized what he and his camera had witnessed, the transition of a nation, and it was his visions that the nation's people saw and remembered.

I doubt that Baltermants ever made any compromise with his conscience. And it is not for us to judge whether this talented man followed the right path. But one thing is clear -- had he lived in other conditions his art in peaceful times would have matched his war time masterpieces. Baltermants died at the age of 78 still full of energy and new ideas. He left behind a vivid panorama of his time with its achievements, experiences, and tragic mistakes.

The J. Paul Getty Museum

This startling view made during the last days of World War II shows a group of Russian soldiers grouped around an upright piano in the parlor of a bombed-out German home. Even though the soldiers represent the agency of destruction, the photograph depicts them at both their best and their worst, from the utter destruction that humans can wreak to the triumph of the human spirit. The title of the photograph, Tchaikovsky, Germany, ironically calls to mind the great Russian classical composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. As a Russian photographing in wartime Germany, Dmitri Baltermants would have surely been conscious of the reference to the famous artist, who composed military themes, in juxtaposition with these Russian soldiers during this unlikely musical interlude.


Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., American, 1921 - 1987, sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1984.

The Flower Show: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum Selected by Sam Wagstaff (April 13, 1985 to January 11, 1986)
  • The Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit), April 13 to June 16, 1985
  • The Parrish Art Museum (Southampton), November 17, 1985 to January 11, 1986
Arrows of Time: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (January 24 to April 2, 1995)
  • Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA (Los Angeles), January 24 to April 2, 1995

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Witnessing Grief: The First Reports of Genocide

This chapter takes up the question of bearing witness to atrocity in words and images. After it discovered mass atrocities on the outskirts of Kerch, the Red Army commissioned investigators to determine what took place. Shneer contrasts official Soviet reports with the German administration’s own memoranda to Berlin describing what took place at Kerch. The writer Ilya Selvinsky also came to report for the Soviet press, but he could only respond to German atrocities with poetry. Several photographers documented the Kerch mass atrocities, including Mark Redkin, Yevgeny Khaldei, and Dmitri Baltermants. The author introduces the reader to the concepts of voyeurism, necropornography, and Aby Warburg’s pathos formula as ways to interpret atrocity images. Finally, this chapter describes the publication and circulation of atrocity photographs from Kerch to Moscow and from Moscow around the world.

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Steeped in Its Bloody History, Again Embracing Resistance

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Drawing on his experiences as a young artillery officer in imperial Russia’s military during the Crimean War in 1853-56, Leo Tolstoy described in “Sevastopol Sketches” how a Russian soldier whose leg had been amputated above the knee coped with agonizing pain.

“The chief thing, your honor, is not to think,” Tolstoy’s amputee remarked. “If you don’t think, it is nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.”

It is advice, however, that virtually nobody in Crimea, particularly here in Sevastopol, shows any sign of heeding. With nearly every other main street named after a Russian military hero or a gruesome battle, its lovely seafront promenade dominated by a “monument to sunken ships” and its central square named after the imperial admiral who commanded Russian forces against French, British and Turkish troops in the 19th century, Sevastopol constantly feeds thoughts of war and its agonies.

Bombarded with reminders of the Crimean War, which involved a near yearlong siege of the city in 1854-55, and World War II, when the city doggedly resisted Nazi forces until finally falling in July 1942, Sevastopol has never stopped thinking about wartime losses — and has never been able to cope with the amputation carried out in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev.


Wielding a pen instead of a knife, Khrushchev ordered Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time, the operation caused little pain, as both Russia and Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, which chloroformed ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions with repression.

When Ukraine became a separate independent nation near the end of 1991, however, Sevastopol — the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century — began howling, culminating in the Crimean Parliament’s decision on Thursday to hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and formally become part of Russia again. Jubilant residents gathered in Sevastopol.

“We’re returning home,” said one of them, Victoria Krupko. “We’ve waited a long time for this.”

Explaining the city’s agonies this week to a group of visitors, mostly Russians, at Sevastopol’s Crimean War museum, Irina Neverova, a guide, recounted how Britain, France, Turkey, Germany and other nations had all tried, and ultimately failed, to loosen Russia’s grip over the centuries.

“Every stone and every tree in Sevastopol is drenched in blood, with the bravery and courage of Russian soldiers,” said Ms. Neverova, who complained that school history textbooks written under instructions from Ukrainian officials made scant mention of Sevastopol’s heroics and focused instead on the deeds of Ukrainian nationalist fighters in the west of Ukraine, whom many Russians view as traitors, not heroes.

“This is obviously Russia, not Ukraine,” Ms. Neverova said later in an interview.

For many years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the loudest voices calling for Crimea’s return to Russia were a motley collection of Afghanistan war veterans and fringe political groups. Wrapping themselves in the Russian and Soviet flags, they regularly called for a referendum on Crimea’s status but got nowhere, widely dismissed as dangerous crackpots nostalgic for the Soviet Union.

But that all changed last month when protesters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, drove President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power and Russian television, which is widely watched in Crimea, and local news media controlled by pro-Russia businessmen began portraying Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster as a fascist coup.

This turned what had been a marginal and seemingly doomed cause into a replay of heroic struggles, allowing Sevastopol’s enemies of Ukrainian statehood to cast themselves as heirs to their city’s wartime resistance to Hitler’s invading armies.

Thousands of Sevastopol residents gathered outside the office of the Kiev-appointed mayor, located in the shadow of a gargantuan World War II monument on the edge of Nakhimov Square, named after Crimean War hero Pavel Nakhimov, and forced him to resign in favor of Aleksei Chaly, a Russian nationalist and businessman known for his sponsorship of war memorials.

Across the city rose a rallying cry resurrected from past sieges by foreign powers: “Stand Firm, Sevastopol.” The slogan now decorates a stage set up in the central square for pro-Russia rallies and concerts featuring the Black Sea Fleet choir and Cossack dancers.

Not everyone here has been swept up by the tide of Russian patriotic fervor, but those who have not are keeping their heads down. Viktor Negarov, a lonely voice of dissent who organized a series of thinly attended rallies in support of protesters in Kiev, was badly beaten last month by pro-Russia activists. He has gone into hiding for fear of being attacked. His picture, address, mobile telephone number and even car license plate details have all been posted on the Internet by pro-Russia groups that label him a traitor in league with fascists.

Mr. Negarov, a 28-year-old computer programmer, caused particular fury by giving an interview to Ukrainian television in which he challenged Sevastopol’s self-image as a city of ever-victorious heroes, noting that it fought fiercely but ultimately lost to foreign enemies in both the Crimean War and World War II.

“In reality, Sevastopol is a city of losers,” he said in a telephone interview from his hiding place. “People here don’t like to hear this, but that is the reality of our history.”

With Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea now besieged by heavily armed gunmen whose uniforms bear no markings but whose vehicles have Russian license plates, Mr. Negarov sees little hope that Ukraine will be able to quickly recover its own now-amputated territory. “It is a really bad situation,” he said despondently. “Many support the pro-Russian forces here. I don’t know how to fix this. Nearly everyone has been brainwashed.”

While President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia insisted this week that the unidentified gunmen who now control Crimea have nothing to do with the Kremlin and are local self-defense volunteers who bought their uniforms off the shelf, pro-Russia residents in Sevastopol celebrated their arrival as evidence that Moscow had mobilized to force Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. “Let’s continue what we started. We have Russia behind us,” reads a banner hoisted outside the mayor’s office.

Balaklava, near Sevastopol, was the site of one of the Crimean War’s most famous battles. It was a rare Russian victory during the conflict and delivered a devastating blow to the morale of British forces, which launched the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade across what the English poet Tennyson called the “valley of death.”

The appearance over the weekend of a long convoy of Russian military vehicles stirred rapture among many residents of Balaklava, nearly all of them Russian speakers raised on stories of Russian military valor against foreign invaders.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory.

Russian soldiers patrol the airport parking lot and, although still without markings on their uniforms, have dropped all pretense that they are not Russian. Asked where he was from, a masked soldier at the airport said he was with the Russian infantry and had been sent to Crimea a week ago on a mission to protect the region “against the enemy, Ukraine.”

Soviet citizens looking for their relatives on the site of a nazi massacre in Crimea near Kerch. Picture taken by Dmitri Baltermants in January 1942. [1460 × 950]

Thanks for sharing this. There's something very surreal about the flat plain stretching out into the distance with bodies spread haphazardly across it. I don't think I could really relate to anyone suffering such brutality without the context you provided. These stories make it a lot more personal:

In this courtyard in which we were standing lived a twenty-year old girl who was Jewish by ethnicity..and as they claimed, she was quite beautiful. A German officer wanted her, but after finding out that she was Jewish, he stopped seeing her. A few days later, they took her away with the other 7,000. When she stood there in front of the soldiers who were shooting her group, she saw the officer and threw herself at his feet begging for mercey. She stood up, was silent, and began walking on. The officer went up to her, hugged her, and shot her in the head.

I'm also not sure how I feel about this being presented as a crime against Soviet citizens and not Jews specifically. On the one hand, it obscures the nature of the crime and robs the victims of an aspect of their identity. On the other hand, antisemitism was rife in Russia and I can't help wondering if framing this as a massacre of fellow Soviet citizens helped people empathize and unified the Soviet people against a threat that some might otherwise have found sympathetic.

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