Is one of the most respected Russian photographers of the twentieth century. Born at the end of the nineteenth century, and having lived ninety-four years, he experienced the Russian revolutionary, the Civil War, two world wars, stalinist repression along with numerous fluctuations in soviet political and cultural history. Even as a child Grinberg demonstrated a strong attraction to photography, taking his first photography at the age of ten.
By the age of twenty-two he was an active member of the Russian photographic society, where he became a leading creative force. In 1908 he was awarded the silver medal in the all-Russian photo exhibition in Moscow and the gold medal in the international photo-exhibition in dresden, which signaled the recognition of his talents on an international level.
In 1914 Grinberg was invited to work at the Khanzhonkov film studio in Moscow. Becoming the head of the film advertising sections, he quickly established process for mass distribution and here he began his cinematographic career. He went on to work behind the camera for numerous studios. In the 1920’a his cinematographic experience led him to become an instructor at the state technical institute of cinematography where he began his association with Sergey Eisenstein who he photographed. His prestige was on the rise throughout the 1920s until 1929 when, under the storm of the cultural revolution the “old school” of Soviet photography came under fire as “depraved”, and Grinberg fell out of favor.
The new cultural policy dictated that any eroticism in artistic forms was a remnant of bourgeois idleness, and inappropriate for soviet society. Nevertheless, Grinberg risked one more exhibition of his work in 1935 with images of partially dressed women, raising a storm of criticism, as well as prompting a few brave photographers to come to the defense of this artistic master. Consequently, for his unorthodox vision of photography he was arrested and sentenced to a labor camp for distribution of pornography. By 1939 he was released on early parole, for good behavior and industriousness, although by the time of his release he had permanently lost his sense of smell. He resumed to work as a photographer for a variety of institutions such as museums and taught photography.
His early work was not destroyed as would have normally happened because his older brother managed to hide the negatives for many years. During the second world war he worked to preserve and restore rare photo archives. After the war he worked in the house of models, photographing for fashion designers. In the 1950s he photographed various Soviet film starts and scientists.
His whole life was thus devoted to photography, which he never abandoned in the most difficult of circumstances.”
“The participation of Russian pictorialists in international shows of the 1920’s brought the gold medals to Grinberg, Eryomin, Andreyev and Ulitin, each of whom won several medals. In 1924, Nikolay Svishchyov-Paola’s work brought him the gold medal of the International Exhibition of the Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.
It was the pictorialists who represented the photographic art of revolutionary Russia in the countries of Europe, the Americas and Asia. During that period, works by Russian pictorialists received special attention not only at pictorial photography shows but also at the international shows that featured works of the most diverse trends. Photo art critics emphasized the perfection of execution and profundity of images in the works of Russian pictorialists. Reviews of Soviet Russia’s photography published in the European photographic press until 1928 mentioned Grinberg, Eryomin, Ulitin and other pictorialists among the leading photographers. The Soviet press, too, treated the participation of pictorialists in exhibitions abroad on behalf of Soviet Russia favorably enough. With time, however, the ideological conception of Soviet art changed towards greater rigidity, and the press, including Soviet FOTO and
Proletarian FOTO, started to refer to pictorialism as “bourgeois”, “petty” and “harmful to new proletarian art”.
During World War I, many pictorialists, such as Klepikov and Eryomin, fought on the front lines; some, such as Ivanov-Alliluev and Grinberg, served in the Red Army as photographers and cameramen in 1917-1919. After World War I and the Russian Civil War, most photographers returned to their studios, which had been deprivatized at the time of Revolution, and they became hired workers. Some, like Grinberg, continued to work for the movies. Pictorialists went on with their efforts in photographic schools at various levels, ranging from “schools for eradication of photo illiteracy for the Red Army soldiers and workers” to regular photo institutes. The photo institutes, however, were short-lived and closed down after several years of existence. The attendees of photo schools, to whom the pictorialist-teachers imparted their professional and artistic skills, eventually became the “worker-correspondents” who formed the first generation of professional Soviet photo reporters.
The mid-1920’s witnessed a peak of creative activity by “representatives of the old culture” or “fellow-travellers” as they were called by the ideologues of Revolutionary proletarian culture. Several outstanding pictorialists worked at Moscow’s film studios as photographers and cameramen. Photographers, artists, theater and film directors and dancers who had matured as creative personalities before the Revolution remained very active, investigating how to record, study and interpret movement at the State Academy of Artistic Sciences. Their achievements in this area were represented at the annual Art of Movement exhibitions. Grinberg, Eryomin and their students were active among the Academy’s photographers.
At that time, most of the pictorialists were largely in the 35 to 45-year age bracket, and they were famous both in Moscow and in remote provinces. In 1928 alone, Andreyev, for example, took part in 17 exhibitions. Older associations, such as the Photographic Society and the Photographer magazine continued to exist until 1928, when the term of their charters was due to expire. They received the brunt of ‘proletarian criticism’ only in the last months of their existence.
Following the dissolution of the pictorialist associations in the late 1920’s, the artists continued as an informal group to take part in discussions on the future of photography until 1935, the year of the Masters of Soviet Photography exhibition. Pictorial photographers, the luminaries of the ‘old school’, tried to adapt themselves to the new social and cultural reality, applying their artistic and technical skills to architectural, theater and applied photography. In 1932, for instance, Grinberg and Eryomin executed a photo enlargement 25 meters high, commissioned by the state to decorate Moscow for the 1st of May Worker’s Solidarity march.
The 1935 Masters of Soviet Photography exhibition, where works were awarded certificates of merit, marked the beginning of the end for Russian pictorialism. A review of the exhibition placed in the Soviet FOTO magazine mentioned the unquestionable mastery and high professional skills of the pictorialists, then without naming names, proceeded to criticize them for their “admiration for pre-revolutionary culture of the estates of the gentry and architecture of old Moscow”, referring to works by Eryomin, Klepikov, Svishchyov-Paola and Grinberg; “depiction of useless scenes of rural life in the period of socialist restructuring of agriculture,” targeting works by Andreyev, Ulitin and Shokin; “nude models the working class has no need for,” aiming at works by Grinberg and Eryomin.
Soon after, Grinberg was tried for the criminal offense, “propaganda of pornography.” Ulitin went on political trial for calumny of Soviet power. These artists, the former leaders of the pictorialists during the 1920’s and 30’s, were sentenced to years of hard labor and exile. Other pictorialists, while still enjoying their freedom, became wary of voicing the artistic convictions they all shared. In the meantime, exhibiting at home and abroad became increasingly difficult. Pictorialism seemed to be sinking into oblivion.