Il'ia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov are two Soviet writers and journalists whose two novels – Twelve Chairs and Little Golden Calf – written in the late 1920s are still among the most popular Russian books ever published. Born in Odessa in 1897 (Ilf) and 1903 (Petrov), they didn't meet until after they came to Moscow in the early 1920s. Their creative partnership lasted ten years until Ilf's death in 1937. Petrov followed in 1942, killed in a plane crash as he covered WWII.
Ilf and Petrov began their careers in journalism with short pieces written for humor magazines. In the early 1930s, after the success of their two satirical novels, they were invited to write for more prestigious publications like "Pravda" and "Ogonek." Occasionally they were sent abroad to report on events of interest to the Soviet public; the most significant of these trips was their American tour, undertaken in the winter of 1935-35 as correspondents for "Pravda."
By the time Ilf and Petrov were sent to America, Soviet Russian writers like Maxim Gor'ky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Boris Pil'niak had all written their own impressions of America, establishing the proper Soviet model for understanding Americans: as a ideologically biased and a negative one, excoriating the American people and government for their uncontrollable greed, speed and racism. Ilf and Petrov, however, steered clear of this model, giving their own sarcastic, amused, often impassioned, and always balanced view of America. While they met Hemingway, visited Henry Ford, and wrote a screenplay in Hollywood, their focus was on the average American, on the America of one-story buildings, rather than skyscrapers. While they too had many criticisms of the American attitude and way of life, they also found much to praise, enjoy, and emulate. Their guides were the Tron family, referred to as "Mr. and Mrs. Adams" in their book. Tron, an engineer, had spent years in the Soviet Union and was a staunch supporter of Communism. He did the talking while his wife did the driving: two months and 3,000 miles from New York to California and back, in an unheated Ford.
Ilf was a devoted amateur photographer who trained diligently, filling pages with precise tables recording the duration, angle, and lighting of dozens of practice shots. He took his Leica to America and took over 1,000 photographs during the trip. Upon their return to the Soviet Union in 1936, he and Petrov published a photo-essay in "Ogonek" called "American Photographs," followed in 1937 by a much-expanded book version without Ilf's photographs called "One-Story America." This exhibit presents twenty photographs that were not used in the 1936 photo-essay, juxtaposing them with twenty excerpts from "One-Story America." By presenting the America of 1935 as Ilf and Petrov saw it, we invite audiences to reflect on the America of 2005 and consider how much it has - or has not - changed.
The photographs for the exhibit were provided by Aleksandra Il'f. This exhibit is made possible through the generous support of the University of Michigan's Institute for the Humanities, Slavic Department, International Institute, and Center for Russian and East European Studies.