Photo finish

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 38

Photo finish

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 38

When Yevgeny Khaldei took his Leica to the top of the Reichstag in May 1945, he captured a momentous victory. But, asks Francis Hodgson, was it a moment of truth?

If ever a picture held symbolic value, then this is it. And by evocative association, so does the camera that took it. Yevgeny Khaldei, a great Russian photographer still too little acknowledged, is the author of one of the best-known and most-reproduced photographs of all time, The Raising of the Red Flag on the Reichstag, taken in May 1945. It was the picture which marked one of the great victories of the Second World War. In the West we tend to think of the allies led by Britain-and-America as the victors of the war. But in Russia the conflict was between Germany and the Soviet Union, between fascism and communism.

Khaldei used Leicas throughout his career, and on top of the Reichstag that day he was carrying a Leica III, made in 1937. While the type of camera is beyond doubt, the authenticity of the photograph, like almost every picture invested with that weight of meaning, has been questioned. Pictures can be simply false, and pictures – of many kinds, not merely propagandist – carrying a huge freight of meaning, often are. More often they are altered for effect in the printing, or they are constructed to make a better view of something which did in fact happen. Robert Capa's Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death from the Spanish civil war, still has many doubters. Joe Rosenthal's great pyramidal composition, Old Glory Goes Up On Mt Suribachi, Iwo Jima, showing US marines raising the Stars and Stripes in February 1945 in celebration of the defeat of Japan in the Pacific, was a recreation of a moment that had been photographed less gloriously (with a much smaller flag) by a staff sergeant a few days before. Khaldei had seen that picture when he made his great Reichstag image. He had it in mind as a model. At least one modern photography textbook places them next to each other on a double page.

There are certainly variants of Khaldei's picture. A less epic one shows the flag and the soldier facing towards the building, not out to the void. There's one with much heavier smoke in the background.

We know that Soviet censors airbrushed a number of wristwatches visible beyond the pulled-up sleeve of the soldier supporting his comrade waving the flag because they were too obviously indicative of looting. Khaldei's picture was worked on but it is not fake; he really went up there, the flag really flew, the streets below really were below. Nevertheless, that great photograph was not quite the 'straight' action shot it seemed.

Khaldei was a senior photographer for TASS, the Soviet press agency; his job was to get the picture that held the meaning. Some days before the fall of Berlin, he had searched Moscow for a suitable flag. Not finding one, he had one made by an acquaintance (some say a relative), who was a tailor. Some versions of the story had it that he used army blankets, others that they were tablecloths, the hammer and sickle subsequently sewn on. Sometimes we hear Khaldei had three flags made, sometimes just the one. It is certain that, once in Berlin, he photographed a flag-raising on the Brandenburg Gate and another at Tempelhof airport before getting the right picture on the Reichstag.

A flag had been raised up there in the evening of April 30th by a soldier called Mikhail Minin. That was a great moment: the day of Hitler's death in the bunker, the day that even its very instigator admitted the war was lost. But a counter attack took place, neither the building nor the pictures were secured, and the moment was lost. Khaldei went up there a few days later with three soldiers and recreated a moment that had already happened. He made it visually stronger than it had been. So what? It told the story better.

We worry about photography's particular relation to the world, and we ask it to be truthful, but Khaldei refused to be limited, as great photographers consistently have, and made a picture which transcends truth. Others have done it in other ways. Dmitri Baltermant's Grief, showing women searching for their loved ones after a German massacre a few years earlier, stands forever for the human cost of war, and, like Khaldei's picture, was later used on postage stamps. That's an icon: that at a few centimeters across it could still carry an emotional charge so great as to be instantly recognisable.

By posing a living soldier alongside the heroic statues on the cornicing of a building, by showing the waving of a flag against still-rising smoke and still-dangerous streets, and by loading the whole with the hopes and fears of all those years, Khaldei made an opera in one-thirtieth of a second or so. Photography can do that. As an infant, the bullet which killed his mother in a pogrom passed through Khaldei first. In the war, famously, he ripped the yellow badge off the terrified couple of Jews he photographed in Hungary, reassuring them in Yiddish, "You're free now."

Although he lived to be 80 (he was born on March 10th, 1917; he died on October 6th, 1997), he lived in modest poverty and only became known in the West in the 1990s after the Fall of Communism.

His wartime Leica III, pictured, was exhibited at a solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1997, and while he proudly paraded it at photography shows in his native Russia, he was himself denied the celebrity status accorded to makers of equivalent images around the world.

History is not fair to those who make it. We know more about fourth- and fifth-rate photographers from the West than we do about the handful of really pre-eminent Soviet photographers. But the tide is flowing, now. Yevgeny Khaldei, who, high above the streets of Berlin, made the greatest victory picture of them all, will rank alongside them.

Francis Hodgson is Professor in the Culture of Photography,University of Brighton.

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