9 ICONIC Soviet photographers who captured the zeitgeist (PHOTOS)

Vladimir Mikosha/TASS
We’ve boiled down a larger-than-life list of Soviet photography legends that captured the spirit of their era.

1. Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

Rodchenko influenced the art of photography probably as much as French philosopher René Descartes changed science by changing the way humans think about the world.

The Orchestra, 1929.

In 1925, Alexander bought himself a light-weight handheld 35mm camera and began to experiment with angles and perspectives. He used photography to expand the parameters of how and what he saw. The unconventional artist captured the world from above, below and all sides, urging the viewer to spot the unseen.

In the early 1930s, he used photography as a major tool for social change, showing the contrast between the romanticized and real Soviet actuality.

Theater designer, painter, sculptor and printer, the multi-talented Rodchenko was also a giant of photography. He experimented in a variety of media and was a founding member of the Russian Constructivism avant-garde movement.

The corner of a building.

His works are displayed at leading museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

READ MORE: 10 iconic photos of Rodchenko, one of Russia’s avant-garde legends

2. Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976)

Ignatovich started his career as a journalist before he became one of the most trailblazing photographers of his time.

Boris received his first Kodak camera as a gift and captured his first shot, quite by chance, in 1923. Ignatovich was walking on the street when he ran into famous satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, who was buying apples from a street vendor. Ignatovich grabbed his camera and made a historic frame of the revered Soviet writer.

Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1923.

Inspired by Alexander Rodchenko, Ignatovich cultivated a new style where traditional photography was replaced by something more unorthodox and unconventional. Blending avant-garde, constructivism and realism, his timeless still life images, close-ups and portraits taken from unexpected angles proved to be something savvy viewers associate with a photography legend.

A Soviet soldier walking through the ruins of Rzhev, liberated from the German invaders.

Ignatovich won accolades for his photo essays of Moscow, becoming one of the pioneers of aerial photography. He made breathtaking images from the lowest possible flying height with a Leica wide-angle lens camera. Between the 1920s and 1930s, his photographs were published on the covers of major periodicals, such as Pravda, Soviet Architecture and USSR in Construction.

Joseph Stalin and a Tadzhik girl.

The beginning of WWII forced the talented photographer to shoot serious subjects. Ignatovich carried a camera as he followed Soviet combat forces on horseback.

3. Moisei Nappelbaum (1869-1958)

Nappelbaum is widely known for his iconic portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. But first and foremost, Moisei made a significant contribution to the development of the portrait photography genre.

Back then, posed and formal studio portraits were mostly executed. As a rule, such images lacked personal warmth and chemistry. Nappelbaum decided to abandon traditional rules of photography in favor of creative experiments.

Anna Akhmatova, 1922.

At first glance, his portraits are simple and straightforward. At the same time, they are full of internal conflict and tension. What mattered most, as with any artist, was the personality.

Alexander Blok and Korney Chukovsky in 1921.

Throughout his career, Nappelbaum explored photography’s potential as an expressive art form. The photographer could spend hours studying his model, to reveal some hidden traits.

Signature images include portraits of la crème de la crème, namely Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Sergey Esenin, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Blok and Aleksey Tolstoy

Vladimir Lenin, 1918.

A person’s past, take on life and attitude towards people leaves an incredible imprint on their face. [You] just need to read between the lines,” Nappelbaum believed.

4. Yevgeny Khaldei (1917-1997)

Khaldei was 13 when he made his first camera out of a cardboard box, creating a lens from a pair of old glasses.

After the defeat of the Nazi troops in Sevastopol.

Later, as a staff photographer at the state-run TASS news agency, he spent some 1,418 days covering the devastating WWII in pictures. His iconic images were shot on a Leica.

READ MORE: Greatest photos of War and Victory by Yevgeny Khaldei

Khaldei was a witness and chronicler of history, making dramatic shots in the line of fire. He pressed the shutter during the Battle for Moscow in 1941; documented the plight of Jews as they were liberated from the ghetto of Budapest in 1945.

Khaldei's unflinching pictures of Hermann Goering, once the second-most powerful man in Germany, portrayed the face of evil better than 1,000 words.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Having photographed Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Harry S. Truman at the historic Potsdam Conference, the photographer also captured rare images of ordinary people during the war.

Raising a Flag over the Reichstag.

His signature shot, Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, became the epitome of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. 

5. Yury Abramochkin (1936-2018)

Abramochkin’s body of work is the quintessence of what a Soviet artist was all about at the time when only social realism was allowed. The photographer documented the day to day challenges of life. But somehow Yury managed to bring his own distinctive style of photography to the setting.

Leonid Brezhnev and President Fidel Castro of Cuba.

He shot a broad range of work, photographed Soviet leaders and cosmonauts, as well as the likes of Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro and Charles de Gaulle.

Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin.

When he was not busy taking pictures of Yury Gagarin, he filmed ordinary people -- pioneers, fishermen, miners or saleswomen.

Future Miners.

Whoever it was, his images were never static and dull, rather playful and humorous instead. 

6. Aleksandr Abaza (1934-2011)

Technically not a photographer, Abaza didn’t pursue a photography career. It was just a hobby at first. He graduated from the polytechnic college and served in the navy before becoming a distinguished photojournalist.

Speedway World Championship.

One of the leading technically excellent photographers of his generation, Abaza executed pictures with great attention to detail. He framed Soviet construction sites, factories, parades and ordinary people, and yet his photographs stood out with depth, complexity and gleaming clarity. They revealed raw emotion, drama and soul.

Construction graphics.

Abaza never produced staged photographs. The challenge was to create honest images of Soviet factories and plants.

Veteran photographer was also on the streets of Moscow in August 1991, filming tanks, armored vehicles and crowds of confused people during the coup attempt.

7. Evgeny Umnov (1919-1975)

You might have seen his images, whether you knew it or not. Umnov was acclaimed for his celebrity portraiture for most of the Soviet magazines, but is best known for images capturing classic ballet artists behind the scenes.

Prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet Maya Plisetskaya.

Evgeny worked in an era when the Soviet socialist realism style dominated all forms of art, including photography.

Soviet ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya.

His photographs of the Bolshoi Theater ballet dancers received accolades from none other than Sol Hurok, one of the world’s foremost impresarios, who introduced and brought Soviet ballet stars to American audiences.

The Moiseyev Ensemble.

The cultural and intellectual elite welcomed Umnov with open arms. Up-and-coming Soviet artists weren’t too superstitious, but it proved to be an unspoken rule that if Umnov picked up his camera and took your picture, your career was finally bound to take off. 

8. Eduard Pesov (1932)

Pesov spent four decades documenting political issues. He was a master portrait photographer to the Soviet leaders and political figures from the mid-1960s.

Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon in Yalta.

The photojournalist covered both historical meetings and the day-to-day life of Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, as well as foreign ministers and state leaders, notably U.S. president Gerald Ford among them.

Richard Nixon and his wife Patricia.

But Pesov’s images were much more than formal, posed pictures. He managed to put himself in the right place at the right time when he captured powerful politicians caught somewhat unaware.

Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov with his wife Svetlana and US astronaut Donald Slayton in Sochi.

His historic photo of Brezhnev and Ford in 1974 in Vladivostok speaks louder than words. “I’m a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” Ford, wearing a wolfskin coat from Alaska, joked to reporters. Brezhnev then tried on the U.S. president’s coat and posed in it for photographers. Pesov captured the entire scene on camera.

9. Vladimir Lagranzh (1939)

Revered in photographic circles, Lagranzh had a considerable impact on modern photojournalism.

Children in a Moscow cafe.

The promising artist was 24 when he won his first trophy at an international photo contest in Budapest. Since then, the photographer made a lot of waves working for Soviet and foreign magazines, including Paris Match.

The view of Moscow.

A journalist by trade, his black-and-white images derive their power from their child-like simplicity and earthiness.

After school.

Lagranzh shot a broad range of work from the funny to the serious, capturing images that define an era.

READ MORE: The Soviet ‘thaw’ of the 1960s through the lens of Vladimir Lagrange 

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