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Dmitry Baltermants

Original prints archive

Dmitri Nikolaevich Stolovitski Baltermants was born in 1912 in Warsaw, Poland, which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. His father, Grigory Stolovitski, was an officer in the tsar’s army, while his mother came from the family of Polish intellectuals. Dmitri’s parents divorced when he was three years old. Shortly after divorce, his mother married a lawyer, Nikolai Baltrmants, who adopted Dmitri and gave him the Baltermants name. World War I claimed the life of Dmitri’s father and drove the Baltermants family out of Poland. In 1915 the new family took up residence in Moscow.

The 1917 Revolution had swept away century-old traditions and shattered moral principles, creating a new political order comprised of peasants and workers and free from old prejudices. Dmitri has spent his childhood admits civic dissolution, civil war, and a drastic reorganization of the state, property, and society. His family privileged status was gone, his stepfather exiled to forced labor. Living in crumpled communal quarters with his mother, Dmitri attended school during the cruelest years of Stalin’s efforts to transform the ill-educated and backward masses of his country into effective citizens of the modern society. After leaving secondary school he obtained a variety of jobs, including rendering of architectural drawings, a cinema mechanic, and an apprentice printer at the Izvestiya Printing House. His interest in photography was kindled. Shortly afterward the the printing house sent him to study at the preparatory department for workers at the Moscow State University. In 1939 he graduated from the Mechanical Mathematical Department, was assigned to teach mathematics at the Higher Military Academy, and received the rank of captain. A few months later Baltermants has received a call from Izvestya, requesting him to go to the western Ukraine to cover the Soviet invasion of Poland. Photography has already sparkled Baltermants’ interest; all he had to do was pick up a camera. Although no photographic material concerning that trip has survived, the positive thing did come from the experience his future as one of the greatest practitioners of Soviet photography has started.

On the 22nd of June 1941 the Great Patriotic War begun. Dmitri Baltermants used to say that his generation didn’t know how to photograph combat and that he wished they didn’t have to learn. His collection of wartime images contained those pictures that showed war as a universal tragedy. As publication of photographs was controlled by the wartime demands of Soviet propaganda many of Baltermants’ negatives were printed years later, when he revisited his wartime archive during the period of of relative freedom under Khrushchev rule. Publication of those images brought him the worldwide recognition.

The year 1945 brought both the joy of victory and the grief of losses. Dmitry Baltermants returned home, and his reputation established as one of the brillant young generation of war photographers, he became a photographer for the illustrated magazine Ogonyok (“Touch of Light”). One of the first Soviet magazines to be published in colour, Ogonyok began printing color pictures as far as the late 1940s. These photographs were frequently clipped and and used by readers to decorate their apartments. Through his work at Ogonyok, Baltermants’ name became quite well known. He travelled far and wide across the Soviet Union to show the courageous work of Soviet people in restoring the devastation of the war and later the achievements of Communist construction.

Khrushchev’s era and his exposure of Stalin’s cult of personality, brought many contradictory elements into the country’s life. People gradually lost the fear of political reprisals, but ideology remained unchanged. Nevertheless, the “iron curtain” to the outside world was slightly opened, allowing the Soviets to see the latest achievements in international art, primarily in photography. It was the beginning of the process by which both sides gained the world discovered Soviet photography while Soviet pghotographers became aquainted with the work of their American and European counterparts. Baltermants began to travel abroad quite often, as Ogonyok was permanently accredited to all government meetings and conferences within the country and all government visits abroad.

In 1964 Khrushchev was forced to retire by members of of the Central Committee. This change of power inevitably led to a subsequent change of personnel in all key business posts, including editors-in-chief of central newspapers and magazines. The editor-in-chief of Ogonyok was an officially recognized play-write and poet who had strong connections to the authorities remained on his place. With his appointment, the magazine’s prestige increased. Baltermants made a member of the magazine’s editorial board and appointed head of the photography department while also remaining an active photojournalist. His travels outside and within the Soviet Union, and the many rolls of film that he shot helped him to put together an “exhibition portfolio”. His first personal exhibits , in London in 1964 and in New York 1965, were met with wide public acclaim. These were followed by numerous personal exhibitions around the world, with new photographs added all the time.

Baltermants’s prestige in the world of photography kept growing, several years he was invited to sit on the jury of the World Press Photo Organization. During the many years he served as president of the photography department of the Society of Friendship with Foreign Nations, he represented the Soviet Union at various photogatherings.

The whole world welcomed Gorbachev’s coming to power in 1985 as the nation began to undergo rapid and dramatic reforms, giving the Soviet citizens renewed optimism and hope. Ogonyok received a new editor-in-chief, Vitali Korotich, who practically changed the entire staff. Although already well advanced in age, Baltermants remained on the editorial board and at his post as head of the photography department. The level of his skill was such that he was not affected by the political upheavals in his own country.

The new openness under perestroika changed Baltermants’s outlook on life, and he spent his free time reviewing his archives and looking back on his life. He added to his portfolio previously unpublished photographs of Soviet statesmen, and found much more interesting material in his archive. His last trip as a photo correspondent was in 1987, when he made shots of Michail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan during their summit at Washington, D. C. In the next two years, he would have exhibits in Finland and France.

In June 1990 Dmitri Baltermants suddenly became very ill of kidney infection and died a week later at the age of seventy-eight. To the end of his days he remained a handsome, charming, witty, and life-loving person, loved and admired by all.

By Tatiana Baltermants, daughter of Dmitri Baltemants