Biography

Max Penson (1893 - 1959) was born in Velizh, Belarus and began his art education under the draftsman and painter Sergei Yuzhanin’s mentorship at the College of Art and Industry in Vilnius.  In 1915, at the outbreak of WWI and the ensuing pogroms, he and his family emigrated to Kokan, Turkmenistan. After the 1917 revolution, Penson founded an art school under the authority of the Kokand Revolutionary Committee. He became its director and taught draftsmanship to 350 Uzbek children.

Penson began practicing photography after receiving a camera as a gift in 1921. By 1923, Penson dedicated himself fully to photography, moved to Tashkent and opened his own photography studio. From 1926 until 1949, Penson worked for Central Asia's largest newspaper, Pravda Vostoka. Through his involvement with TASS photography agency, his photographs were also widely published in magazines such as USSR in Construction. In 1937, Max Penson participated in the World Fair in Paris, winning the Grand Prix for Uzbek Madonna, a portrait of an unveiled young woman publicly nursing her child. In 1939, he photographed the construction of the Grand Fergana Canal. During this project, Penson met director Sergei Eisenstein, who was shooting a never-released film, and who later wrote, “it is impossible to talk about Fergana without mentioning the omnipresent Penson, who crossed Uzbekistan back and forth with his camera. His archive, unique in every way, contains materials which give us an opportunity to follow one of the historical periods of the republic year by year, page by page.”

Penson's archive contains roughly 30,000 photographs. Many capture daily life in Soviet Uzbekistan, and the ways life was impacted by radical technological and cultural transformations between 1920 and 1940. While celebrating cultural traditions like the use of the chavchan, a horsehair veil worn by Muslim women in parts of Central Asia, Penson also extolls the introduction of modern farming practices, capturing women in androgynous dress and driving tractors. Men are shown digging vast irrigation canals, attending literacy classes and watching sporting events or theatrical performances. In these photographs, Penson employs Modernist formal strategies — such as diagonal compositions and unusual perspectives — to idealize life under Soviet rule.

In 1948, accusations of Western influence caused Penson to fall from official favor. After 25 years of service at Pravda Vostoka newspaper, escalating anti-Semitic attitudes pressured him to resign. He died in 1959 as a result of depression and illness.