A brief history of photography

A brief history of photography

A photo biennale at the Marble Palace documents the last 150 years in Russia through the photographer’s lens.

Published: November 23, 2011 (Issue # 1684)

Aristocratic balls just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Silver Age art exhibitions, military parades in the Stalin era, peasants working hard in the fields and the first trains arriving at provincial stations can all be seen at the Marble Palace of the State Russian Museum as part of a photo biennale that explores the history of photography.

The new exhibit explores the history of photography as a technological process, and showcases a number of techniques used throughout the history of this art from the middle of the 19th century. Daguerreotypes, prints on silver paper, bromoil prints and early experiments with the use of color are all on show.

The Russian Museum has joined forces with the city’s History of Photography Museum as well as a number of archives and libraries in both St. Petersburg and Moscow to create a journey through the past 150 years, as documented by the country’s most talented photographers.

The exhibition showcases 400 incredible prints, including fascinating views of serene city landscapes from the pre-revolutionary era by Karl Bulla, and shots taken by Alexander Chekhov, the elder brother of the writer Anton Chekhov.

Such an exhibition would be unthinkable without featuring Bulla, who is often referred to as the father of photography reporting in Russia. Bulla documented the lives of Russian aristocrats, gentry and merchants, and his vast collection of prints covers the most intricate details of life in St. Petersburg at the start of the 20th century.

Bulla’s photographs of members of the Romanov family and members of other European royal families gained him international recognition. The legendary photographer was awarded state orders from a number of countries, including Italy, Romania and Persia.

His iconic portraits of Russia’s last tsar — Nicholas II — and his family comprise part of the new show.

Both of Bulla’s sons, Alexander and Viktor, followed in their father’s footsteps. Viktor became a star in his own right, carving out a reputation as a war reporter for his photo essays from the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905).

Viktor Bulla also documented the historic events of the year 1917, starting from the summer riots that preceded the revolution. After the Bolsheviks seized power, it was thanks to Viktor Bulla that the priceless photography archives of the Bulla dynasty, numbering more than 70,000 images, did not perish. Viktor Bulla donated them to the Russian state archives, and the current show at the Marble Palace was therefore made possible thanks to the personal effort that he made many decades ago.

The photo biennale embraces all imaginable genres of photography, from portraits and landscapes to chronicles. The oldest items on display are daguerreotypes dating back to the 1840s. Unlike today, when some technologies reach Russia later than, for example, Western Europe, the country woke up to the opportunities of photography almost immediately after it first emerged. Many of the items are on show to the general public for the first time.

The scope of the exhibition is by no means small, embracing photo shoots from rehearsals of some of the first stagings of Gogol’s classic play “The Government Inspector” provided by the archives of the St. Petersburg Theater Art Library. The exhibition also takes a close look at World War I, with its horrors and rare touching moments, such as shots of Russian noblewomen-turned-volunteers in field hospitals.

The Russian Ethnography Museum has added some zest to the show with a collection of photos from a 1867 exhibition of folk art in Moscow. Culture vultures will also be thrilled to see some of the last photographic images of Lev Tolstoy. The author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” is pictured at his country estate of Yasnaya Polyana in central Russia.

In addition to fascinating historical images, the exhibition also showcases various models of cameras and photographic equipment that were in use during the course of the past 150 years.

The 1st Photo Biennale of Archive Photography runs through Jan. 20, 2012 at the Marble Palace, 5 Millionnaya Ulitsa. Tel. 312 9054. M. Nevsky Prospekt.

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