The presiding deities that greet you upon entering the ICP’s high-concept show—”Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US”—are Alexander Rodchenko’s stalwart, forward-gazing Young Pioneer and Dorothea Lange’s life-battered dust-bowl refugee. Whether Five-Year Plan or Farm Security Administration, their photographers and some of ours were then working for the state, and much of “Propaganda and Dreams” is devoted to analogizing the imagery—matched Soviet and American pictures of rural kitchens, hydroelectric dams, nursing mothers, construction workers, and marching bands.
Of course, the Russians had a taste for slashing diagonals. And if Walker Evans’s cotton-shack assemblages presage Pop art, there are some great Socialist Realist pieces here—like the perfectly staged collective-farm dinner, shot somewhere in the Ukraine during the man-made famine of 1934. Compare this outrageous cliché to Arnold Rothstein’s carefully placed steer skull on a piece of parched earth. Indeed, while the Soviet fields are never empty, the American fields often are. Moreover, the U.S. photos occasionally need captions to point out, for example, that the agricultural workers harvesting one pasture of plenty are exploited Filipinos. And, unlike their jolly Soviet comrades, the American workers are almost always unsmiling; they’re closer to the pensive, solitary figures of Edward Hopper.
Similar material, complementary politics, contradictory results. The Americans were exposing poverty; the Russians negating it. The associations intended by the exhibit’s title should really be reversed: It’s the U.S. that made propaganda and the Soviets who photographed their dreams.