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The Forgotten Photographer of Soviet Uzbekistan


As Central Asia was transformed under Soviet rule, one man made a remarkable record of life in the fledgling Uzbek S.S.R. before being driven from his career and toward tragedy.

A worker's rally in the courtyard of a textile mill in Tashkent. Between 1925 and 1949, photographer Max Penson documented life in Soviet Uzbekistan. Photo by Max Penson.

Max Penson sits for a self portrait. The photographer was born in what is today Belarus in 1893, but fled anti-Semitic violence there after the outbreak of World War I to settle in what would become Uzbekistan. Photo by Max Penson.
Girls in a classroom in Tashkent. Penson began his new life in Central Asia as an art teacher. Photo by Max Penson.
One of Penson’s early photographs showing a runner cheered by burqa-clad women. After winning a camera as a reward for excellence in teaching, the young immigrant threw himself into photography. Photo by Max Penson.
A woman poses with a panel of traditional Uzbek embroidery. Penson was soon employed by the Soviet newspaper Pravda Vostoka (Truth Of The East) to shoot Soviet propaganda images as well as daily life. Photo by Max Penson.
Portrait of a railway worker. Penson reportedly committed himself to shooting “one roll [of film] a day.” Photo by Max Penson.
Two old Jewish men in Bukhara. Most of Penson’s work was shot with 35mm film cameras, though some pictures, like this one, were shot on large-format glass plates. Photo by Max Penson.
Pharaonic scenes as workers hack out the Great Ferghana Canal in 1939. The 270-kilometer waterway redirected a river toward the cotton fields of southern Uzbekistan. The successful completion of the canal inspired the disastrous rerouting of rivers that would later bleed the Aral Sea nearly dry. Photo by Max Penson.
A Russian instructor teaching Uzbek students. Soviet rule in Uzbekistan was marked by the repression of Islam and the promotion of literacy. Photo by Max Penson.
Women in burqas on the streets of Tashkent. Scenes like this became increasingly rare under Soviet rule. Photo by Max Penson.
A stern-faced young Uzbek girl reading one of Lenin’s tomes. Photo by Max Penson.
The workshop of sculptor N. Krasovsky in 1943. The chiseled figure of a miner was later installed in central Tashkent. Photo by Max Penson.
A boy with puppies on a collective farm. Photo by Max Penson.
A nurse hoses down a patient in a photograph titled In The Hospital. Photo by Max Penson.
A clown, clowning for Penson’s camera. Photo by Max Penson.
Young men training at a stadium in 1940. An estimated 1.4 million people from Uzbekistan fought in the Red Army during World War II. Photo by Max Penson.
A boy serving as a “Live Emblem” during a march in central Tashkent. The banner proclaims a readiness “for labor and defense!” Photo by Max Penson.
A stockpile of newly picked cotton. Photo by Max Penson.
A picker flops himself onto a pile of freshly gathered cotton. Photo by Max Penson.
A high-stakes tightrope walker in the 1940s. Photo by Max Penson.
A lineup of young athletes in 1946. During World War II, Uzbekistan’s demographic was altered dramatically when some of the U.S.S.R’s heavy industry, along with its ethnic Russian and Ukrainian workforce, was evacuated to Central Asia. Photo by Max Penson.
Two acrobats with an arm-quivering display of strength. Photo by Max Penson.
A toddler chain at a kindergarten in the early 1940s. Photo by Max Penson.
Tamara Khanum, an Uzbek dancer of Armenian origin who was famous for being the first Uzbek woman to perform without an Islamic veil. Photo by Max Penson.
A young Pioneer trumpets the march of youngsters along a riverbank. Photo by Max Penson.
A gymnast poses near Komsomol Lake in Old Tashkent. By the end of the war, the anti-Semitism that had driven Penson from his homeland was rearing its head across the U.S.S.R. Photo by Max Penson.
A portrait of Stalin oversees work on a collective farm. In 1948, as Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges intensified, Penson was fired from Pravda Vostoka. Photo by Max Penson.
Max Penson later in life, languishing without employment and growing increasingly poor. The photographer committed suicide in 1959. Photo by Max Penson.
Two local girls at a parade. Despite Penson’s masterful work, his contribution to photographic history has been scarcely recognized. Photo by Max Penson.
Shafts of sunlight in the Hall of the Supreme Council in Tashkent. In 1998, The New York Times spoke to members of Penson’s family who maintain a large archive of the photographer’s work in Tashkent. “The Uzbek government is not interested in promoting him because he was not Uzbek,” his son-in-law said. “But the Russian Embassy told us that they wouldn’t sponsor a show because he wasn’t Russian, and the Israelis told us they weren’t interested because he didn’t concentrate on Jewish themes. ” Photo by Max Penson.

About the author: Amos Chapple is a Kiwi photographer who makes news-flavored travel photos. He started off at New Zealand’s largest daily paper in 2003. After two years chasing news, he took a full-time position shooting UNESCO World Heritage sites. In 2012, he went freelance but kept up the travel. Since then, he has been published in most major news titles around the world. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.