In her 1931 book, Eyes on Russia, the photographer Margaret Bourke-White wrote deferentially: “silhouetted against the sky, majestic in the morning, was that new God of Russia, the Tractor. Evenly and regally it travelled the horizon. The black earth turned beneath its disks. A procession of tiny clouds followed it overhead. It seemed that the tractor drew the whole firmament after it, earth and sky giving reverence to this new divinity.”
In 1930, Bourke-White traveled around Soviet Union to document its industrialization for Fortune, then recently launched as a high-end magazine covering industry and commerce. She was the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan and had received permission because another Fortune commission about European industrial sites (which she undertook because it was a ‘stepping stone to Russia’.) She traveled across Russia and returned to Moscow with 800 negatives. However, the Soviets refused to let her leave without seeing what was in those negatives, and for thirty-six hours, she worked tirelessly in a darkroom of a movie studio in Moscow to develop them.
The Russians did little to fear from Bourke-White. She covered their plans and factories with awe. She praised Russians because they “consider the artist an important factor in the Five Year Plan, and the photographer the artist of the machine…. where an industrial photographer is accorded the rank of artist and prophet.”
If there was a machine that symbolized the Soviet Union and its Five-Year Plans, that would be the tractor. By uniting industry and agriculture, it translated the central committee’s rhetoric into practical gains that most Russians could see and understand. Tractor stations became schools for young boys; brides rode tractors to their weddings; films from Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth to Sergei Eisenstein’s The General Line extolled the mighty tractor, and the word ‘Traktorizatsiia’ (Tractorisation) entered the Soviet lexicon, and many agricultural communes were renamed after ‘Fordson’, a tractor brand. In the humorless propaganda of the collectivist state, “the enemy of the tractor is our class enemy”.
In 1931, when Maurice Hindus published Red Bread, his account of his ancestral village’s mechanization, he reprinted Bourke-White’s photograph of a tractor at State Farm No. 2 with a fawning caption “The Russians regard the tractor as the chief conquering weapon of the Kolkhoz”.
It was fitting that the most famous photo of her trip was made at a tractor factory. The photo above was taken in Stalingrad at a steel plant being expanded to meet the large metal demands of the new tractor factory called Tractorstroi. Bourke-White considered the tractor factory — an American-style operation supervised by American engineers — a highlight of her Russian journey. The photo appeared in her book, Fortune, and USSR in Construction (a Soviet propaganda magazine), although in USSR in Construction, the photo was heavily edited. The background were airbrushed out and the worker’s face was retouched to create a more expressionless, and less glum mood.
I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.
Thanks for your continued support! Here is the link to my Patreon: