Biography

Georgi Zelma (1906-1984) is best known for his photographs of Central Asia in the 1920s, major industrial projects in the early days of the Soviet Union, and World War II (especially the Battle of Stalingrad). Zelma was a key contributor to the Constructivist photography movement through the 1920s and 30s and he often worked alongside such photography masters as Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Boris Ignatovich.

Zelma was born to a Jewish family in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but they would move to Moscow in 1921, just four years after the Russian Revolution. He took up photography at a young age, and shot his surroundings with a 9 x 12 kodak camera. His love for photography grew while — still in school — he worked for the Proletkino film studios and took photographs for the magazine Teatr.

After finishing school in 1922, Zelma worked technical jobs: first as a darkroom assistant for Rusfoto agency that distributed images of the Soviet Union across its borders, then as a technical assistant for the Institute of Cinematography. During his time at the Institute, he acquired a wooden 13 x 18 box camera that allowed him to shoot large-scale images and explore portraiture.

Zelma returned to Tashkent in 1924, and worked as a photo correspondent for the publication Pravda Vostoka. Between 1924 and 1927, Zelma photographed daily life, architecture and the modernizing changes impacting Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia.

Zelma found his large 13 x 18 camera cumbersome, especially for his projects recording colloquial histories of Central Asia. In 1927, Zelma began working with smaller cameras like the Leica, allowing him to shoot quicker and with greater control. With these cameras, and his involvement with Constructivism, Zelma began experimenting with unusual, often diagonal, compositions and dizzying perspectives. These photographs often combine factual reportage, with Zelma’s own subjective interpretation of his surroundings.

By the 1930s, Zelma had become well established as a photographer. He was a frequent collaborator for the renowned Soviet magazine USSR in Construction, edited by El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko. Among his projects was a 1935 photo story on one of Ukraine’s collective farms.

When World War II broke out in 1941, Zelma served as correspondent on the front lines, most notably in Stalingrad from 1942-43. His World War II images are among his most memorable — capturing such emotionally charged scenes as a young boy digging trenches with the caption “And I too can help” to monumental shots of ruined cities.

Zelma continued to work after the war for the magazine Ogonyok. In 1962 he joined the Novosti press agency. He passed away in 1984.