Arkady Shaikhet (1898-1959) was born in the city of Nikolaev (Ukraine) into a lower middle class Jewish family. He moved to Moscow in 1922 where he found work as a retoucher at the Rembrandt studio. His first photographs were published in 1923. In 1924, at the age of 26, he became one of the leading photojournalists for the newspapers Krasnaya Niva and Moscow Proletarian. The following year, Shaikhet joined the staff of the national illustrated magazine Ogonyok and from the very beginning his photographs were used for the covers. Shaikhet was one of the founders of Soviet Photo in 1926 and from 1930 actively contributed to USSR in Construction. His first photo reportage was Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of the Filippov Family, in the German magazine AIZ.
The need to build a new country after the destruction from both the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War called for master photographers with good techniques. These photographers were asked to reflect reality in a new way, to present the new Soviet person, the new way of life, and new culture. Photography was truly employed on a grand scale as the Soviet authorities were becoming aware of the power of the photographic image as a means of controlling the masses. Experimentation with the photographic language and energetic discussions about art (problems of form and style, in particular) facilitated the creation of a new visual style in Soviet photography, and put Soviet photographers on a par with their foreign colleagues in Paris, Berlin and New York. Arkady Shaikhet was one of the photographers involved in the creative experiments, although he by no means considered himself a member of the avant-garde, preferring to record life as it is.
Shaikhet’s style stands out for its thematic diversity, emotionality of images and the experimental quality of compositional techniques. His well-observed character types – komsomolka, tax inspector, peasant, and cadet – all shot in their natural surroundings, became covers for leading publications in the 1920s and 30s. These images owed their expressiveness to the special connection that the photographer was able to establish with his subjects during the work process. They became posters for their time. Shaikhet was constantly looking for ways to renew the photographic language that he used. This was likewise an objective of ‘leftist’ formalist photography, in which Shaikhet undoubtedly took an interest although he was a member of ROPF (the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers) and had a clear understanding of the boundaries of the permissible in magazines that were aimed at the masses.
In Shaikhet’s approach we sense a constant striving to create a compositionally fresh, striking, and memorable shot. In “Inauguration of the Shatura Power Station” (1925) Shaikhet was able to convey both a grand scale of the festive event and the massive structure of the object itself. In order to make his photographs more expressive and underline monumentality of form, Shaikhet often used a low camera angle to ‘elevate’ the central figure, as in his “Komsomol Member at the Wheel” (1929) and “Assembling the Globe at the Central Telegraph” (1928). Another technique he used was to show details close up, as in “Gasholder” (1930). To convey the scale and emotions of the socialist construction project Shaikhet had to photograph from a high angle. Examples are his “The First Turksib Locomotive Engine” (1930), “From Upstairs: New Apartments” (1928) and “First Cars from the Gorky Automobile Factory” (1930). The dynamism of this period required photographs to be full of movement and Shaikhet liked to employ a diagonal composition, as seen in his “Red Army Marching” (1928) and later in his famous “Express” (1939), which became a canonic image of Soviet Russia moving into a socialist future. Strict and precise framing and an ability to compose a fragment in a striking and unusual way helped Shaikhet embody symbols of the new universe in his photographs. In terms of acuity of composition and approach to space, some of Shaikhet’s images show the same aesthetic sensibility seen in the German ‘New Objectivity’ movement, the industrial works of Albert Renger-Patzsch and the Bauhaus school.
Arkady Shaikhet received a diploma of First Degree for his achievement in photography at both historic Moscow exhibitions “10 Years of Soviet Photography” (1928) and “Exhibition of Masters of Soviet Photography” (1935). During the 1930s Shaikhet participated in a number of exhibitions abroad under the auspices of the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS). Shaikhet’s work occupies a significant place in the history of Russian art alongside that of his peers Alexander Rodchenko, Elizar Langman and Boris Ignatovich. His photographs have become classical examples of Soviet photographic art and reportage.
During World War II Shaikhet was a photo-corresponent for the newspaper Frontovaya Illustratsya (Front Illustrated), where he showed his series of images of the Battle of Stalingrad and later the liberation of Kiev, Ukraine.