- Georgy Zelma (1906-1981) was born Georgy Zelmanovitch in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. During his childhood he lived through World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Civil War. Zelma was an assimilated Jew who grew up speaking Russian and the local Uzbek languages. At a young age Zelma developed an abiding interest in photography. After finishing high school, he moved to Moscow in 1921, and started studying photography using an old Kodak 9x12. He began publishing his photographs in 1925, mostly in the journals SSSR Na Stroke (USSR in Construction), Ogonek, and in the newspaper Krasnaia Zvezda (Red Star). He built his career as a photo journalist around his roots in Central Asia. His knowledge of the local languages made him the ideal cultural translator. His earliest photographs are documentary, almost ethnographic, photographs of Uzbeks in what he would have considered traditional societies. Unlike other Jewish photographers of his generation, who turned their cameras on contemporary society in the making, Zelma turned his camera on rural society, rarely photographing urban scenes in his early work. But like most Jewish photographers, he also used his camera to serve as a cultural translator between broader modern society and the cultures that were being affected by modernization. He presented Central Asia to a wide Russian reading audience, and he was seen as the premiere photographer of Central Asia for most of his life. While in Moscow in the 1920s, he briefly worked for Proletarian Film (Proletkino) in the film industry but was not that interested in film and theater. He then worked for Russfoto in the VOKS under the leadership of the famous master photo portraitist A. Shterenberg. Zelma and Shterenberg began the concept of photo reportage in the Soviet Union by photographing workers' demonstrations, the building of the first highways, and other scenes of the Sovietization of everyday life. He also spent much time working in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan for Pravda Vostoka and Kyzyl Uzbekistan. Zelma established a branch of Gosfoto (the State Photographic Agency) in Tashkent and encouraged Moscow photographers to visit. One such visitor, according to an unverified story, was a Comintern member, who having seen Zelma using an old wooden camera, sent him an Erneman 9x12 camera. After a brief stint in the army, Zelma worked with such important photographers as Max Alpert, Arkady Shaykhet, and Semen Fridland. In 1936 he landed a job at the most important state newspaper, Izvestiia. Zelma only rarely brought Soviet Jewish life to his Russian audience, but in 1932, he participated in an expedition to the Soviet Far East when he photographed the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan. Zelma photographed the Jewish loggers, farmers and school children, all smiling and hard at work, in an effort to publicize the state's Jewish resettlement initiative. Between 1939 and 1941, Zelma worked in the newly conquered Western Ukraine and Belorussia, and in 1941, he was sent to Kishinev. He worked for Izvestiia through World War II. He covered the 1941defense of Odessa as well as the city's liberation in 1944. In between, he was sent to the northern front, to the Rybachyi peninsula and then to Voronezh. But his most famous work of the war came in late 1942 and early 1943 at the Battle of Stalingrad. Zelma was stationed with General Chuikov's 62nd army that would go on to defeat General Paulus' 6th army at Stalingrad. He remained in Stalingrad for nearly the entire battle with a brief stint in Moscow in the late fall of 1943. To stay on top of the photographic competition, Zelma set up his own dark room and photo lab on the Soviet side of the Volga River in Burkovskoe so he could be the first photographer to send prints of the battle back to Moscow. Although Zelma worked for Izvestiia, many of his photos were published in the army newspaper Frontovaya Illiustratsiya (Front Illustrations), a photographic newspaper whose target audience was Soviet soldiers. After Stalingrad, Zelma photographed the liberation of Donbass, Odessa, and the preparations for the battle of Warsaw. In 1944, he was sent to Uzbekistan to take pictures of the construction of a hydroelectric plant, then back to the front where he photographed the battles for Warsaw and Budapest. Critics sometimes refer to Zelma as a photojournalist given his Izvestiia credentials and his passion for getting the image out quickly. But most of his work was published not in newspapers, but in photographic journals. His photographs frequently told their own story, and were not simply images accompanying news stories. After the war, Zelma worked for the photography journal Ogonek, along with Semen Fridland and others. In the summer of 1945, he and Fridland were commissioned by Goskinoizdat to publish a photo album for the 25th anniversary of the Kazak SSR. During the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s to late 1950s, Zelma managed to find steady work in a period when many Jews in the Soviet intelligentsia were losing their jobs, but his photography was not publicly exhibited between 1948 and 1958. In the 1950s, he began experimenting with color photography, and in 1963, he was hired as one of the lead photo reporters for the Novosti photo agency. He remained at Novosti until 1977, when he became a freelance photo correspondent. Zelma passed away in 1981, leaving behind an archive of photographs that depict the multicultural, multiethnic splendor that Zelma saw in the Soviet Union. It also depicted the tragedy and violence of a war that destroyed a country, but also provided Zelma with the opportunity to become one of the most famous photographers of the Soviet Union.
[Source: Shneer, David. "Georgy Zelma (1906-1981), A Biography," (unpublished biographical sketch), 2004.]