Searching for the Soviet Woman:

Photojournalist Lisa Larsen in the Soviet Union, Spring-Fall 1956

Patryk Babiracki
The essay examines photojournalist Lisa Larsen's experiences in the Soviet Union in the period from spring through fall 1956. It concentrates on her written and visual explorations of what it meant to be a woman in the USSR against the backdrop of her long standing interests in the roles of women in society worldwide during her work for Life magazine. As a woman rising through the ranks in a profession dominated by men in the United States, Larsen likely absorbed certain normative ideas about women's roles and bodies from her environment. Yet this essay aims to show that Larsen's visual and written storytelling goes far beyond the commonplaces of mid-century America. Especially when photographing Soviet women, Larsen aimed to capture the multifaceted nature of their identities and experiences. In so doing, she complicated and ultimately challenged Life magazine's own dominant narrative that focused on how Soviet women often failed to reflect the aspirations, tastes, and possibilities of America's white middle class. In order to fully appreciate Larsen's unique sensibility and narrative style, I suggest that it is helpful to understand her 1956 visit to the Soviet Union in the broader context of her biography. The essay also aims to highlight more of Lisa Larsen’s photography, much of which has never been published anywhere and remains unknown.
Lisa Larsen; Nikita Khrushchev; Josip Broz Tito; Ekaterina Furtseva; Soviet women; Soviet Union; photojournalism; photography; Life magazine; Cold War; sport; fashion; Soviet everyday.






Suggested Citation


"Who is this girl"? The Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev asked the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, pointing with his finger at someone during a May 1956 party at the French Embassy in Moscow, "Is she Russian or French"? The diplomat "smiled roguishly" and replied: "She is neither, she is American". Khrushchev went for a hug, but at the last minute offered her a warm handshake. The "girl" was a thirty-four-year-old Lisa Larsen, a New York-based Life magazine photojournalist (1922-1959). In the spring of 1956, she travelled to the Soviet Union on a mission to document Soviet society in flux, parting with Stalinism and embracing something new.

This was an extraordinary spring, so unprecedented, surprising, joyful, surreal, and full of hope that many people at the time described as "magical".1 In February, Khrushchev had denounced Stalin's murderous legacy during the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. Rejecting total isolation and dangerous Cold-War brinkmanship, the Soviet Union began slowly opening up to the West. Life wasted no time, sending Larsen to discover what the Soviet citizens were like and how they were experiencing the changes in policies and Party line. Known for her determination and ability to connect with people, Larsen photographed ‘up close’ top Soviet dignitaries and their foreign guests. She shot countless photos of ordinary Soviet people going through their daily routines. Life ran some of Larsen's photo essays, selecting those stories that catered to mainstream middle-class sensibilities in the United States, mixing human interest with snapshots of Soviet life, validating the distinctly American values, gender norms, capitalism, and consumerism.

Yet Larsen's understanding of the Soviet Union was far more nuanced than Life's coverage implied. The photojournalist's unpublished visual and written work reveals a woman who grappled with the many contradictions of her Soviet experience, showing Larsen to be a dialogic thinker more than a didactic scribe. This essay aims to showcase Larsen's complex, visually engaging, yet little-known work. It builds on my research of Larsen's life as a Jewish émigré from Germany who moved to New York with her mother as a teenager, developed a promising career as a photographer for Vogue and then Life magazines, covered Poland's de-Stalinisation of 1956-57 not only as an American photojournalist, but also as someone who used her Polish trip to register her critical outlook on the United States (Babiracki 2021). Writing about Larsen's Polish assignments, I drew on her unpublished book manuscript notes, archival material from the International Center of Photography and the New York Historical Society and a few other sources. The written materials related to her Soviet trips are fewer, and include mostly a few typewritten stories in various stages of editing. Perhaps some of her work on the Soviet Union has been lost. Or maybe, Larsen wrote more about Poland because she visibly sympathised with the Poles. It's also likely that by the time of her 1957 Polish trip, Larsen knew she was terminally ill and was eager to leave an account of the last moments of her life.

Regardless, Larsen's available accounts from the Soviet Union speak to the thousands of photos that she took there during the magical spring of 1956. This abundance of visual sources and paucity of written ones becomes a chance to go against the grain of the standard academic practice of privileging text over image. It is a chance to showcase, rather than efface, the ambiguity of individual experience. It is also an occasion to honour the form of photo essay that Life magazine championed (having first adopted it from German and French illustrated weeklies in the 1930s), but do so in a way that recasts the magazine's Soviet story somewhat differently, without the looming pressure to promote the ‘American Century’. Ultimately, it is a wonderful opportunity to showcase Lisa Larsen as a thinker, a storyteller, an artist, a woman and a human being with all her quirks and contradictory impulses. Larsen was, after all, a "hyphenated American", one who was born in Berlin, growing up there in a Jewish family in the 1920s and 1930s; who took on a Danish surname, married a Dane (Nils C. Rasmussen, son of the famous polar explorer), and felt home in many places around the world, while retaining an emotional distance to her adopted country. As an individual, she felt at once attracted to and repulsed by crowds which could be empowering and destructive at the same time. She developed a similarly conflicted relationship with the Soviet Union, where beauty drowned in drabness and humanity capitulated to the immense bureaucracy of the authoritarian state. To go back to Khrushchev's question, who was Lisa Larsen? It is hard to say because she was young and curious and continued to evolve. And she resisted being pigeonholed, content to be many things at once.

In fact, next to Larsen's cosmopolitanism, three aspects of her biography are relevant to framing her experiences in the Soviet Union. First, unlike so many others who travelled to the Soviet Union, she seemed little interested in going there to validate some broader ideological stance. This is important because, in the United States, the question of one's attitude to the Soviet Union has been historically tied to an entire package of perspectives on international politics, social policy, and morality (Hollander 1997). Certainly, this was the case during the Cold War. She was once called "a communist bitch" at a McCarthy rally at the Madison Square Garden, but this was likely an expression of anger at an ostensibly unsympathetic photographer more than anything else; if Larsen had any strong political sympathies, they, too, remain a mystery.2 It is known that she was fascinated by people and had a highly developed aesthetic sense; consequently, her approach to the places she visited was aesthetic, visceral, and behavioural, rather than political or ideological. German and Russian curses sounded particularly offensive to her ears. "Somehow swearing always sounds worse to me in German than in any other language except Russian", she once wrote, suggesting she recoiled merely at the harsh notes (Larsen 1957a: 7). We can only suspect that behind her reaction, and behind her fascination with crowds, were also her personal experiences and associations with Europe's two major totalitarian regimes.

Second, Larsen was keenly interested in the position of women in the societies she observed. Ever since she began working for Life in 1949, she photographed female grassroots political activists, the world's top political figures, celebrities, fashion models, workers, and students. Larsen admired powerful women. She believed that women should be able to develop as professionals and shape public life. She challenged her male colleagues on gender roles in daily situations, once even asking a fellow US photographer to hold her handbag so that she could shoot a scene. The request did not go down well (Babiracki 2021).

Larsen also held strong opinions about the ideal feminine body, which dovetailed with the prevailing 1950s standards. In the May 1, 1950 article in the men's magazine Esquire, Larsen wrote: "A woman should have firm shoulders, rounded breasts, a slender waist, and legs that remind you of a woman rather than a beanstalk" (Larsen 1950: 75). This could not be considered a polemic against 1960s aesthetics, which were, after all, a full decade away. Rather, it might be seen as an emancipatory affirmation of women's corporeal realities that had often been misrepresented in art, if not denied. She continued, in the same Esquire piece:

Tastes in photography change just as in art and literature. If I had used a camera fifty years ago, I would have tried to make the women I photographed resemble the lovely ladies of Renoir – pink, delicate, romantic. In Renoir's day, female beauty was supposed to have a dreamlike quality, and women were expected to decorate and inspire a man's world. Later on, the veil was lifted – slightly. Still out of focus, our cameras tried to capture the woman in all her glamour. We no longer wanted her so pink and fragile, but we weren't ready for complete honesty. We're in focus now – momentarily, at least. When I photograph a girl today, I do my best to see the truth; for I've discovered that the truth, which may sometimes seem ugly, is always, at the same time, breathtakingly beautiful (Larsen 1950: 75).3

Larsen was always after the truth, which, for her, meant the essence of things. But she also knew that truths change overtime.

In this context, we might interpret Larsen's confession that in her models, she was looking for "sex, of course [...]" something that "is never absent from a photograph of the human body". She liked models "to be young, sturdy, and above all natural and unaffected". She added that "the best way to capture a man's imagination [...] is to picture reality for him", rather than "a fragment of a dream world" (Larsen 1950: 75). It is tempting to see Larsen's views merely as a passive reflection of the beauty standards of her era, which were to a large extent shaped by men. But Larsen's appreciation of beauty as historically evolving, and her art-historical perspective on her own photographic explorations reveal that what really inspired her were the novel aesthetic possibilities enabled through photographic engagement with female form and sexuality. Of course, Larsen personally embodied the mid-century ideals (one Italian journalist once described her as a "buxom blonde photographer, a sort of Marilyn Monroe") (Bulletin: 7). In any case, Larsen saw no contradiction in her dual commitment to the cause of women's empowerment and normative ideals to the beauty standards of her day. And if anyone found it difficult to square Larsen's views, she did not seem to care.

Lastly, I would suggest that Larsen aspired to become more than a photojournalist – she wanted to be an artist. Like so many photojournalists, she aimed to convey the message and the mood of a given moment, and she had to know the technicalities of the photographic craft related to composition, optics, light, etc. But as we have seen in her comments above, she was also keenly aware of her own role in the longer story about how humans in history told stories visually. Larsen's own writings are replete with examples of her art-historical awareness. Upon entering a reception at the Czechoslovak Embassy that the journalist Daniel Shorr of CBS invited her to on her first day in Moscow, Larsen recalled that she "felt like a movie camera, on a dolly, doing a great trucking shot that never ended. Like Alice in Wonderland you walk and walk, till you finally reach the head of the table, where the King and Queen must be" (Larsen 1956b: 5). A year later, in Poland, she would compare the atmosphere in a bohemian Warsaw nightclub to Johan Strauss's famous waltz titled Wein, Weib und Gesang / Wine, Women and Song, oblivious, affectionate, sexual, "exactly as an American expects to find in Paris, but never does" (Larsen 1957b: 5). Her pictorial imagination reached far back and spanned other genres, such as music and film. Given all this, it was hardly surprising (and immensely gratifying) to learn from one of Larsen's relatives that she studied art photography at Berlin's famous Reimann School before the owners moved to London in 1937 as a result of Nazi persecutions. A unique institution led by Albert Reimann, a Jewish man from Prussian Poland, the school promoted applied and commercial arts, actively engaging with the arts and crafts in the tradition of the German Werkbund, teaching the design of everyday objects, interiors, commercial displays, poster art, and photography (Suga 2013). Her applied arts background helps us to understand Larsen's professional trajectory in the United States. And her experience in the Reimann School also helps explain her sound orientation in art history.

It is in the light of Larsen's evident art-historical interests that striking resemblances between her photographs and certain works of art suddenly become meaningful. Art historian Michael Fried has argued that in the second half of the eighteenth century, painters like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze began depicting people 'absorbed' in their own activities. Fried saw this as a way of creating a new relationship between art objects and their beholders. As people began frequenting the art salons, he suggested, they began viewing art publicly and collectively; the 'absorbed' paintings, by showing individuals concentrated on things and activities, created the illusion that the audience did not exist, inviting the beholders to appreciate art mindfully, with concentration and care. Thus Chardin's painting Le Château de cartes” / The Card Castle (1736) portrays an adolescent boy focused on erecting the eponymous structure of playing cards. More recently, Fried extended this argument to twentieth-century studio photography. As photographs moved from newspapers to museum walls and became larger, he observed, photographers renewed the concern about the nature of the relationship between beholders and the photographs. For instance, Jeff Wall's photograph "Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver" shows Walker, fully concentrated on his task (Fried 1988; Fried 2008).

Many of Larsen's photographs operate as did absorptive art. On the one hand, they show people deeply concentrated on their activities. On the other hand, the tension between the depicted individuals' concentrated state and what Fried termed "to-be-seenness", i.e. a visual indication that the lack of concern for the beholder is an illusion, is sometimes unresolved. Of the many cards in Chardin's painting one is facing directly towards, and another away from us, drawing attention to the very act of beholding, and thereby dissipating the fiction that the world of the painting is a self-contained reality.4 The realism of the "Adrian Walker" photograph likewise disappears when we realise that within that sterile, quiet space, Walker would have been aware of the photographer. It is tempting to over-interpret Larsen's role in carrying that conversation forward, of course. For her, photographing 'absorbed' individuals was often a question of convenience, as it enabled her to circumvent asking her subjects or local bureaucracies for permission. But on many occasions, she staged the 'absorbed' activities, rejoicing when a young Moscow female construction worker played along and pretended she did not see Larsen shoot her moving pipes into a ditch (Larsen 1956a: 6). Some of her other photographs have it both ways, showing us crowds of people engrossed in observation of a visiting celebrity, with one or two individuals looking at us directly through the lens of the photographer. In that sense, consciously or not, Larsen contributed to the conversation about the nature of making and beholding photography.

For this essay, I chose mostly photographs that did not appear in Life, at least not in the 1950s stories for which they had been taken. The idea here was twofold: first, to showcase more of Larsen's photography, only a fraction of which has seen the light of day; second, to highlight how Larsen's work can be read in the context of her own writings, biography, and photographic gestalt, apart from the distinct framework of Life's storytelling. Larsen's interest in Soviet women's experiences, and women more generally, helped me further narrow down the selection of photographs.


Larsen arrived in the Soviet Union sometime in early spring 1956, and the Chairman of the All-Union Soviet Sports and Physical Culture Committee, Nikolai Romanov (to whom she mistakenly referred as “minister”), "a handsome man in his early fifties", contacted Larsen on the third day of her Moscow stay. By then, she was demoralised after a string of rejections from officials to her meeting invitations and was almost ready to go back home. "Russians, perhaps more than most people I know, seem to have developed the 'nyet' technique to a high degree of competence. At the U.N., the Soviet Union is famous for its many 'nyets'. Cast in the Security Council, and in Moscow the nyet, nyet, nyet sounds are drummed into your ear daily. 'Nyet', the Militia whistles at you if you try to cross the street in front of the National Hotel, instead of walking 5 minutes across four intersections to reach your destination. 'Nyet', answers the minister's secretary firmly over the telephone, the minister is not in today. Tomorrow he will be out of town, the day after he is likely to be sick, or going abroad [...]. The chubby woman director of a fashion house says 'nyet,' you cannot photograph our models" (Larsen 1956a: 1). But Romanov "surprised" her with his "friendliness". "I talked about my program, and the minister laughed and said that I could go and see for myself how their athletes trained” (Larsen 1956b, 7; Larsen 1956f).

Larsen aimed to capture the unique conditions in which Soviet athletes train. "There is a popular concept at home and abroad", she wrote in a dispatch on July 9, 1956, "that Soviet athletes are not amateurs in the strictest application of the word". But having met with many athletes all around the Soviet Union, Larsen noted that they were, it is just the Soviet system that subsidised the studies and life of student-athletes, allowing them to spend considerable time on sports practice. Larsen pointed to Galina Zybina who received 350 roubles per month "and the family helps out" (Larsen Dispatch 1956d).

Track athlete Galina Mikhailovna Popova (née Vinogradova), whom Larsen called by her (incorrectly transliterated) diminutive first name Gala, had a similar routine. In a July 23, 1956 dispatch to Life (quoted verbatim to convey Larsen’s emphasis and tone) Larsen noted:

[...] she gets up at 8 to 8:30 am. She hates getting up and her husband Sergei usually wakes her up by spitting a mouthful of cold water in her face. Then Gala puts on Gym suit and does twenty minutes morning exercise. She has hard time getting started, so Sergei joins her in the exercises in the tiny bedroom. They jump over hassocks pretending they're hurdles. They exercise with dumbbells. Gala lies down on the floor and lifts her 82-kg husband. Her record is 25 times. [...] Gala takes a shower and cooks breakfast. SHE IS NOT REPEAT NOT EXPERT COOK, AND MORNING EYE VISITED HER PANCAKE DOUGH CURDLED AND HAD BE THROWN IN INCINERATOR. The Popovs ended up eating Western breakfast scrambled eggs and Nescafe prepared by me. [...] At breakfast they talk to each other and THERE'S NO REPEAT NO READING OF NEWSPAPERS. After breakfast Gala makes beds and studies for her exams (Larsen 1956e; original capitalisation).

Larsen wanted to understand the rhythms of life of Soviet athletes as individuals and couples. In a dispatch to New York, she noted that Sergei does all the shopping while Gala is resting after her training session. Sergei was twenty-seven (four years older than Popova), a physician completing his terminal degree. Larsen's photos centre on Popova, however, showing Sergei as her helper and a key prop in the story of his wife's success.

Galina M. Popova training in her small apartment (Photo by Lisa Larsen, 1956). Courtesy: Lisa Larsen/