Murray Howe’s compelling images of Russia bear witness to a deeply polarized society on the brink of revolution. Extraordinary wealth and poverty resonate in Howe’s 1909 series documenting life in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Howe, an American photo-journalist (1869-1941), offers a privileged glimpse of the high and low of Russian society and culture during the final years of the Romanov dynasty. This rare exhibit of 38 photographs out of a total collection of 400, preserved by Howe’s great-grandson Andrew Murray Howe V, is available to museums and galleries as a traveling exhibition.
Extraordinary for their aesthetic beauty as well as for their insight into a vanished era, Howe’s photographs etch unforgettable impressions of turn-of-the-century Russia. The hardships endured by the peasant and laboring classes are contrasted with the elegance and grace of aristocratic Russia — a culture destroyed forever by the October Revolution of 1917. The seeds which fertilized the overthrow and subsequent murder of Czar Nicholas II are evident through Howe’s gaze. Unrest and turmoil among the Russian populace had been fermenting for several decades before it reached a bloody and violent climax. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was translated into Russian and published in 1872, and in 1895, Vladimir Lenin was in St. Petersburg organizing the numerous Marxist factions into a single party. A great famine swept over much of the land in 1891-92, sending floods of peasants, farmers, and unskilled workers to the cities. Out of desperation, this predominately agrarian populace succumbed to miserable factory jobs, exacerbating their already intolerable existence. Additional crop failures during the turn of the century only aggravated the civil unrest and discontent among the underprivileged. This was the Russia which greeted Howe upon his visit in 1909.
Murray Howe, American Photo-journalist
Murray Howe, whose artistic talents as a photographer are celebrated in this exhibition and publication, was also a highly accomplished journalist and writer. His fame rested on his entertaining and prolific writings dedicated to the world of horses, specifically trotting horse racing. Curiously, photography was a mere hobby for Howe, and it is really only today, almost a century later, that his talent as a pioneering photographer of social documentary comes to the fore. Those familiar with Howe’s writing speak of “hanging on his words.. .from paragraph to paragraph.. .punctuated with gales of laughter.” Howe was in fact such a gifted writer that one of his first articles, written at the age of only twenty-five, was met with enormous enthusiasm. When the owner and publisher at the Horse Review in 1894 received Howe’s manuscript, Low Life Among the Trotters, he exclaimed. “Boys! Here’s the best thing that has come out of the mail in many moons. In fact, there’s never been anything like it ever come into this office. Just strike off a minute and listen to this…” In 1894, Howe’s name was not yet widely recognized; however, the editor of Horse Review gushed over Howe’s article, “…a new trotting horse scribe of unique gifts and complete originality had swum into our ken.” Howe’s article, a major success in the Christmas issue, garnered him a position on the Horse Review, whose offices were located in Chicago, Illinois. In addition to numerous articles, Howe went on to write Stable Conversation and The Trottin Hoss Excuse Book, two classics among harness racing books.
Howe’s exceptional journalistic skills engage the reader whether a horse aficionado or not; his articles, letters, and books are filled with rich descriptions of travels, horses, races, and personalities, all crafted with an appealing informality and cadence. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Howe spent the greater part of his early childhood in Creston, Iowa. As his writing career took off, Howe became a famous personality. More than six feet tall, his physical presence was as dominating as his appealing, unpretentious manner. His highly original journalistic style brought him to the attention of horse racing magnate C.K.G. Billings, then of Chicago, who along with Frank G. Jones built Billings Park in Memphis, Tennessee. Billings inaugurated Grand Circuit racing at the Park, and appointed Howe as Secretary of the enterprise. A man of enormous wealth, Billings was legendary for his passion for prominent trotting horses. When a horse caught his eye, Billings was said to send agents a blank check, with the simple instructions of “Come back with the horse.” He never raced horses for purse money, merely for the love of the sport, and in fact underwrote two goodwill trips to Europe during which he exhibited his prize trotting horses. Billings knew exactly what he wanted not only in horses; on the first goodwill tour of Europe in 1909, he solicited the talents of writer Murray Howe to accompany the crew. The photographs from Empire and Empathy were taken during this first trip of C.K.G. Billings and Company. The journey took these Americans and champion horses, including the world’s first two- minute trotter, Lou Dillon (Queen Lou), throughout the great capitals of Europe, stopping in Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
Howe would continue to prosper under Billings, later working in the publicity department of Billings’ Union Carbide of Chicago. He spent the remainder of his professional career in New York, where he launched his own advertising company.
Howe’s contribution to the world of harness racing, his vibrant, entertaining musings, have enshrined him as an immortal at the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York.
Howe’s keen sense of observation in his writings, his ability to make the commonplace fascinating, is transferred to his photographs. Set against the dramatic backdrop of palaces and onion-domed churches of Moscow, an elegantly dressed gentleman is transfixed by a young, barefoot peasant girl holding a blanket-swathed baby (fig.l). The picture is both poignant and pitiful: the girl, in charge as mother, is herself a mere child.
Howe’s chronicle of the Russian journey, What I saw and heard in the Land of the Tsars, offers a sense of the deep impression Russia imprinted on the American in 1909 when travel to Russia was hardly commonplace. Approaching St. Petersburg, Howe wrote:
The city of Petersburg.. .presented a very strange and wonderful spectacle as it first came into view on the horizon. It seemed to be overhung with great balls of fire, this effect being produced by the reflection of the sun on the domes of the churches and cathedrals.
Throughout his writings, Howe expressed his fascination with the landscape and culture; he remarked that as soon as the government officials would allow, he was immediately off the boat and on land snapping photos. He had little trouble finding willing subjects, although he often spoke of the authorities’ meddling control: “The only people who were afraid of the camera were the police, and they made me put the machine back in its case every few rods—from the time I struck the country until I left.” But Howe was not to be deterred in his pursuit: “It was easy sailing however, as I always got the picture I was after before the nearest cop would get his eye on me.”
As Howe was principally on the trip to report on the goodwill tour of Billings’ horses, he also devoted his camera to capturing the activities at the Moscow racetrack, including the elegantly dressed spectators, as well as the Russians’ prize horse Krepysh. For a member of an exclusive entourage of prize racing horses, Howe was unusually eager to catch the high and low of Russian life with his Graflex camera. He offered the following description of the dock workers he encountered:
The dockwallopers or freight handlers were dressed in rags and tatters to harmonize with the wonderful assortment of whiskers on their almost black faces, while their feet were either bare or covered with rags or sandal shoes made of worn grass matting.
He was particularly moved and charmed by the children of Russia, as evident in his unforgettable photograph of those left behind at a Moscow orphanage (fig.3). Many of his pictures document the harsh conditions endured by the children, most unchaperoned, many wearing dirty, worn clothes, often barefooted, and working on the streets. In one particularly engaging photograph (cover ill.), young boys proudly display their wares, most at ease and confident, although to the far right a cynic remains. Another image catches an apron-clad young boy towing a heavy wooden cart through the streets (fig. 4). Other photos tell of the social and health conditions existing in pre-revolutionary Russia, including the government-sponsored cart of tea to aid in the cholera epidemic, as well as a portentous picture of a Moscow demonstration. Regardless of the subject, Howe never constructed his images single-mindedly—his pictures unveil and penetrate a multitude of layers. Contemplating Howe’s photographs, one is often transfixed, lingering and discovering the arresting glance of a background figure.
Although his photographs were snapped more out of personal interest and curiosity than as part of any formal project, Howe’s series of Russian poor and peasants originates from a tradition of social documentary photography, pioneered by Danish photojournalist Jacob Riis. Riis came to the United States in 1870 at the age of twenty-one. Several years later, he began work at the New York Tribune, where he published a series of articles and photographs devoted to the appalling conditions of the New York slums. Riis’s images of the poverty endured by European immigrants were riveting, and his book, How the other half lives, published in 1890, became a major force in informing public opinion of their plight.
In Russia, a very early pioneer in documenting impoverished society was Maksim Dmitriyev, who captured the anguishing life suffered by victims of cholera, drought, and famine in the Volga region during 1891-1892. His photographs were severely censored by the political forces of the day, and thus not as well known as those of Riis.
Following Jacob Riis, around the same time that Howe created his remarkable images in Russia, the American photographer Lewis Hine initiated his series of photographs, which he termed “photo-interpretations.” Hine chronicled the thousands of European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and especially the squalid conditions in sweatshops and factories where children worked. It was Hine’s graphic exposure of the exploitation of child labor which in part lead to the adoption of child labor laws.
The numerous artists who followed Riis, Howe, and Hine with projects concerned with the human condition included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Roy Stryker. Part of a project instituted by the Farm Security Administration, these American photographers created images devoted to the extreme poverty suffered by many rural Americans during the Depression years. The photographs exhibit a heart-wrenching poignancy and unparalleled sensitivity to the suffering of the poor unlike anything produced today. Television news, movies, newspapers, and other communication advances often barrage the viewer with horrifying pictures of human plight. Although poverty and suffering have surely not diminished, today’s society is over-exposed and de-sensitized to the images and the impact of suffering.
It is important not to dismiss Howe’s and other documentary photography as pure sociological archives. Howe’s work is to be admired and coveted for its inherent aesthetic beauty, as well as its preservation of a vanished and vanquished epoch of Slavic history and culture. In the photograph of a day at the racetrack (fig. 5), Moscow socialites parade down the concourse. Howe magically captured the glamour, vivacity, and verve of the moment. Furthermore, he portrayed the elegance and refinement of the Russian aristocracy, witnessed in their couture, the hats and gloves, the luxurious fabrics, and meticulous attention to detail. This ceremony and celebration of glamour was not repeated or recaptured throughout a half century of Communist rule.
Howe’s photographs of Russia excel in their uncanny naturalism and immediacy. His use of a hand-held Graflex camera, as opposed to earlier cameras which demanded the cumbersome setup of a tripod, afforded him greater freedom and mobility in the selection of subjects, and most importantly, spontaneity. His vivid images of life on the streets represent a precious fragment of life. However, the immediacy inherent in Howe’s photographs is not a mere result of technology, rather Howe’s instinctive artistic ability to place his subjects at ease. Although in many of Howe’s pictures the subjects are clearly aware of his presence (they are often posing), remarkably, the normative barrier manifest between the photographer and subject does not exist, allowing an unobstructed window into the era.
Howe’s evocative images of the poor Russian worker, beggar, and child demonstrate the enormous power of the medium of photography to invoke sympathy, arouse emotions, and influence public opinion. It is also telling of how manipulative, and indeed propagandistic photography may function. Initially, photography was praised for its objectivity, its pure and unadulterated documentation of the physical, external world. Yet, Howe’s photographs are by no means a mere exercise in recording fact and visual reality. A poignancy and subjectivity is invoked by the photographer’s eye, by the angle, by what he included and excluded from his lens. As Beaumont Newhall remarked in The History of Photography, “The documentary photographer seeks to do more than convey information through his photographs: his aim is to persuade and convince.” The intention of Howe is ambiguous; he was clearly both fascinated and moved by the Russians. He gawked at them, pitied them, and remained in awe. Above all, Howe’s photographs are the result of his expansive curiosity of the world surrounding him. During the long transatlantic journey from New York to Hamburg abroad the S.S. Patricia, Howe wrote that the passengers traveling first class were “…bored with the trip and make themselves miserable talking about the good times they might have if they were anywhere else. To me the days are all too short. I find something to be interested in every hour…” Thus, Empire and Empathy reveals not only the inner spirit of Russia, but that of the photographer himself. Empire and Empathy speaks of Howe, what engaged him, and what he wanted to take back to America and announce, This is Russia. As we contemplate today Howe’s images of the aristocrat and the underprivileged, the denizens of Russia’s history, we ponder the present restlessness and chaos of Russia, adjusting to yet again a new social and economic order.
Sally Metzler, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
The author wishes to acknowledge and extend her gratitude to Andrew Murray Howe V, without whom this exhibition and publication would not be possible. As the great- grandson of Murray Howe, Andy has played a pivotal role in this exhibition, devoting many hours advising and assisting me in the inception and production of Empire and Empathy: Vintage Photographs of Russia.
Hervey, J. “Murray Howe, in Memoriam,” The Harness Horse 6 (1941): 946-948.
1. Hoffman, D. “Scenes from a Vanished World. American Trotters in Czarist Russia,”
Hoof beats (Nov. 1995): 32-37, p. 32.
2. Newhall, B. the History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1949), p. 167.