TO OCT. 3

In lesser hands, the root comparison of “Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the U.S.” would be almost monstrous: How dare anyone liken the humanistic photographers of the New Deal to Soviet propagandists on the payroll of Joseph Stalin? Fortunately, curator Leah Bendavid-Val takes the show’s reins as forcefully as if she herself were a master propagandist. Bendavid-Val hangs similarly themed images side by side, daring viewers to ignore their common humanity: American and Soviet babies, workers, dams, movies, and musicians, the nationality of each difficult to pinpoint. (Russell Lee’s Roadhouse, Raceland, Louisiana is pictured.) And she unearths images from photo shoots that were discarded or altered to better fit the sponsor’s political purposes: Is that smile on the Soviet woman’s face any more forced than the frown on the Okie mother’s? Once again, it’s hard to tell; documentary photography, for all its seeming precision, comes off in this show as a moldable, murky business. Happily, the exhibit provides evidence of photography’s lasting power: In each country, the decade’s predominant cultural memories were captured and transmitted to the present day through photographs, rather than the ubiquitous moving image. Yet the show also backhandedly reminds us how rare it is, in our era of information overload and compassion fatigue, for citizens to be moved to political action by images of suffering. On view Friday to Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. to Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th & New York Ave. NW. $3-$6 (suggested donation). (202) 639-1700. (Louis Jacobson)