An exceptionally versatile artist, Abram Shterenberg (1894-1979) worked in photojournalism, photo-collage, landscapes, still life and most prominently, portraiture.
Shterenberg was born in the West Ukrainian town of Zhitomyr. His parents worked as craftsmen while his brother, David, would become a painter of international regard. Abram began his artistic training at 15 at a local portrait studio. With the outbreak of World War I, he paused his studies and enlisted in the Red Army.
In 1917, after his service and a brief sojourn in Tashkent, Shterenberg moved to Moscow, settling in with his brother, David. For the next two decades Abram would create a place for himself in Moscow’s vibrant community of artists, photographers and photojournalists. His photographs were commissioned by the period’s leading photo agencies such as Russfoto and Soyuzfoto, as well as Sovfoto that represented Soviet photojournalism in the United States. Through these agencies, his photographs of festivals, people, and industry, appeared in such publications as goskinoizdat and USSR in Construction. Among his most celebrated projects were a series of six postmortem portraits of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, and coverage on the 1931 Zeppelin flight over Europe.
Shterenberg’s innovative, and often technically-driven approach to photography earned him a spot in the October photographic division. A seminal photographic group in the history of Soviet art, October members acknowledged the photographer’s power to shape the interpretation of an event in how they take the picture. Through composition, lighting, attention to detail, among other techniques, October members sought to create photographs that would reflect a revolutionary Bolshevik worldview. However, in Soyuzfoto director Leonid Mezhericher’s glowing 1934 profile on Shterenberg for the magazine Sovetskoe Foto, the editor questions the reasons for Shterenberg’s participation in October. Like his companions, Shterenberg was tirelessly committed to experimentation. But Mezhericher also points out that while many October members focused on the photograph’s form — how the photographs is composed — the power of Shterenburg’s photographs lies in the subject matter.
Mezhericher’s observation reflects Shterenburg’s dedication to the human subject and to his strength as a portrait artist. In the opinion of Grigory Shudakov, author of Pioneers of Soviet Photography, Shterenberg conveyed the essence of his sitters, “capturing the different positions of the head, the direction of the look and the sculptural possibilities of light and shadow.” (Shudakov 252) He applied his mastery of portraiture in his photographs of the famous — Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ilya Erenberg, and French novelist Henri Barbusse — as well as of the anonymous. His portraits of young children illustrated Korney Chukovsky’s popular 1928 book of children’s poetry, From Two to Five.
During World War II, Shterenburg returned once again to the battlefield, but now as a photographer. Following the war, Shterenburg resumed his career in portraiture and worked for the news agency, Novosti. He died in 1979 in Moscow.