The Early Age of Belarusian Photographic Art (I)

For most of us today, photography is merely a process of capturing the routine of our daily lives. Photo cameras are squeezed into tiny mobile phones and internet social networks encourage us to share hundreds of photos with just a couple of clicks. The art of ‘drawing with light’ (for which the word photography actually stands) has turned into the skill of pixel-shuffling.

How different it was a century ago!

A photographer was almost a magician. He not only captured reality, but, having hidden himself under a black coat, created a whole new universe with the help of his magic tripod-mounted box. A photographer’s studio resembled a theatre scene. Its walls were decorated with landscape paintings and the floor often strewn with leaves or sand in order to create the atmospheric illusion of real space.

As photography set out on its triumphal march across the globe, photo studios began to appear in cities and towns on Belarusian lands. At that time, Belarus was part of the Russian empire, the land, where various cultures – Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish, and many others – mixed under the influence of the Russian power. Since photographers deal with images, not words, it is all the more difficult to determine which cultural tradition they adhered to, even though they lived and worked in Belarus. Anyways, let us discover some interesting names of photo pioneers, who captured everyday life on Belarusian lands with their lenses.
In these times, it was difficult to tell photo art from mere handicraft. Also, photography was a rather elitist hobby. Equipment was very expensive and had to be ordered from abroad. An aspiring photographer had to possess a high level of technical knowledge and artistic taste. Moreover, masters strictly guarded their secrets. That is why a young photographer had to figure out the details of photographic process all by himself. As a result, first photographers working in Belarus were, mostly, people of aristocratic origin, keen intellect, and considerable wealth. 

There is hardly any student in Belarus, who has never seen the famous photograph of Kastuś Kaĺinoŭski, leader of the 1863-1864 anti-Russian uprising on Belarusian lands. It shows a sturdy man with a heavy jaw and determined look in his eyes. However, hardly anyone knows that it was one of the first photographs taken in Belarus. Its author is Achille Banoldi, a bright personality so typical of the early masters of photography.

Kastuś Kaĺinoŭski by Achille Banoldi


Kastuś Kaĺinoŭski by Achille Banoldi

Achille Banoldi was born into an Italian-origin family in Barcelona. He was an opera singer, dance master, and photographer. In 1842 he moved to Viĺnia (Vilnius), where he got fascinated by the anti-Russian liberation movement. Banoldi’s photographic studio in Viĺnia secretly hosted a printing shop for leaflets of Belarusian patriots. After the uprising had been crashed, Achille Banoldi emigrated to Paris, where he stuck to his interest towards photography and dissent: he even fought on the barricades during the Paris Commune.

 It is no wonder that we learn about another prominent Belarusian photographer, Duke Prušynski, from a police report, filed to the office of the Tsar-appointed governor of Minsk in 1861. The report claimed, that “the photograph Duke Prušynski ordered a mass at the local catholic cathedral” in order to commemorate the 1831 anti-Russian uprising. A revolutionary anthem and a prayer to the slain brethren have been sung during the church service.

Duke Prušynski is the author of yet another photographic portrait, widely famous in Belarus – that of Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič. Vincent was a Belarusian playwright, who wrote successful comedy plays in the Belarusian language, which helped to create solid grounds for modern Belarusian literature. The writer is captured wearing a čamarka - a coat of hand-woven fabric with dark stripes on his chest, which was en vogue among the anti-Russian insurgents.

Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič by Duke Prušynski
Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič by Duke Prušynski

It is owing to the liberal worldview of the early Belarusian photographers, that the valuable portraits of famous historical and cultural personalities have been preserved (by sad irony, police mug shots would be another important photographic source).

Along with studio portraits, landscape and architecture photography was another important element of the emerging art of light drawing. The panoramic view of Viĺnia is, arguably, the oldest known Belarus-related photograph, created aroung 1850s by Albert Śviajkoŭski.

Jan Bulhak, born in 1876 in Astašyn, a small estate near Navahradak in western Belarus, was one of the photo pioneers of the land. Today, at least three modern nations claim the right to call his heritage their own – Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian. Jan Bulhak was born in Belarus, he wrote his essays in Polish, and the most fruitful period of Bulhak’s life was spent in Viĺnia, where he created a series of urban cityscapes on the order of the city’s government in 1912-1915. This project resulted into a comprehensive photo archive of the city. The whole Viĺnia on photos, street after street, house after house, window after window – something similar to what Google Street View aspires to do on a global scale (albeit with far less artistic ambition). Unfortunately, 30,000 of Bulhak’s Viĺnia negatives (just comprehend the scope of the loss!) have been destroyed in 1944 by a fire during World War II. However, even the remaining negatives are impressively numerous. Jan Bulhak also extensively traveled across the territory of western Belarus and captured many landscapes of our country with his camera.

Viĺnia by Jan Bulhak
Viĺnia by Jan Bulhak

Today, Jan Bulhak’s former estate in Astašyn, which is still in a relatively good shape, has been acquired by a local Belarusian entrepreneur, who plans to convert it into a center of tourism and photography, commemorating the great master.

Another prominent father of Belarusian photography is Bieniedykt Tyškievič (we have already written about him in He was a very wealthy and rather eccentric aristocrat. He preferred balls to travels and became one of the first masters of photography in the world. Tyshkevich rented ships in order to travel to India, China, and Japan.  He had estates all over the world, but the one in Naliboki Forest in central Belarus was his favourite. There he built a large studio and a photo laboratory. People from nearby villages became photo models for Bieniedykt Tyškievič.

A Belarusian woman by Bieniedykt  Tyškievič

A Belarusian woman by Bieniedykt  Tyškievič 

However, the age of steam and steel was giving way to the age of electricity. From an elitist pastime of tech-savvy aristocrats, photography was turning into an art for the masses. This was also true for Belarusian photography.

It is necessary to mention, that Belarusians contributed directly to the progress of photography. In 1882, Zyhmunt Jurkoŭski, photographer from the eastern Belarusian city of Viciebsk, invented the first focal-plane shutter, which enabled cameras to shoot photographs in an instant. It revolutionized the photo process – the models no more needed to spend long minutes immobilized in front of the camera. However, at that time the international patent system was far less guarded than it is today. In 1890s western firms began to produce the Jurkoŭski-type cameras on a mass scale, and his name soon sunk into oblivion. By the way, Jurkoŭski also wrote studies on the usage of photography in criminology, which proves that he was a real visionary in the field. 

The new age promised new opportunities and challenges for photography and its adepts.

The panoramic view of Viĺnia by Albert Śviajkoŭski
The panoramic view of Viĺnia by Albert Śviajkoŭski
(click to enlarge)

To be continued
By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB