Alexander Grinberg (1885-1979) was a leading figure in Russian pictorial photography. Despite enduring the Russian Civil War, Two World Wars and exile to a Stalinist labor camp he continued to create photographs, demonstrating his remarkable dedication as an artist.
Grinberg took his first photograph at age 10. By 1906 at age 21, Grinberg had joined the Russian Photographic Organization (RFO), the foremost experimental photographic union in Russia at the time. Like many of his colleagues in the RFO, Grinberg, was deeply interested in pictorial photography, a genre marked by its landscapes, portraiture, nudes, textural elements, and kinship to non-photographic print methods. Of particular interest to him was portraiture, even writing in 1929 that his main focus was “scientific work on new methods of photographic portraits.” In 1908, Grinberg was awarded a silver medal for his pictorial photographs at the All-Russian photography exhibition in Moscow, and a gold medal at the international photo-exhibition in Dresden.
Through the 1910s and 1920s, Grinberg was also interested in experimenting and promoting film culture in the USSR. While World War I dashed his hopes of working for the Zhanzhonkova film studio, he was able to resume his work after the war for the Biofilm studio. In the 1920s due to his cinematographic expertise, he became an instructor at the State Technical Institute of Cinematography. It was here that he began his association with Sergei Eisenstein and shot the popular films, Potomok Araba (1926) and Dva Druga — Model’ i Podruga (1927).
Grinberg’s career was cut short by Stalinist cultural policy. The RFO was disbanded by force in 1928 after accusations of representing an old-world aesthetic that clashed with the rise of photojournalism, Constructivist experimentation, and photomontage. Grinberg was pushed further out of favor in the mid 1930s by cultural policy dictating any eroticism in artistic forms as a remnant of bourgeois idleness. Nevertheless, Grinberg risked one more exhibition of his artwork in 1935, displaying images of partially dressed women. The exhibition raised a storm of criticism from the Soviet government and Grinberg was arrested and sentenced to a labor camp. His brother managed to save Grinberg’s negatives from destruction by the authorities.
He was released on early parole for good behavior in 1939, although by this time he had lost his sense of smell. Upon his return to Moscow city life, he resumed his work as a photographer for a variety of institutions. After WWII, Grinberg worked for a modeling agency, photographing for fashion designers. Later in the 1950s, he made portraits of various famous Soviet actors and scientists. Grinberg died in 1979 after a life-long devotion to photography.