Flea Market Treasure. Photography by Benedykt Tyshkevich

It was an early morning in 1993.  Two people were having a leisurely time in a café near a flea market in Paris. Over their cups of Café Crème they watched stall owners setting up for work. Most flea markets usually open at 8am, but antique dealers rarely begin their trade before nine.

Serious shoppers avoid visiting flea markets after lunch, as they become too crowded to have a good look at displays; also, it also gets more difficult to bargain for a lower price. Judging by their early arrival, the people observing the market were indeed serious shoppers.
They were not simple antique-fanciers but professional scouts fishing for original old photo prints. Working at Musée Maison Nicéphore Niépce, situated in a town of Chalon sur Saône, France, they had a task to expand the collection of one the most renowned photo museums in Europe named after the French photography pioneer.

The scouts went from one stall to another flipping through random collections of photos and postcards with a vague hope of stumbling upon something truly valuable. This time their efforts were not in vain. One of the dealers handed them a big faded photo album. The scouts looked inside and could barely conceal their astonishment. It was neither an assortment of dull studio photos nor a banal postcard set. The album contained a splendid collection of highly artistic prints, all of them at least a century old. They showed scenes of rural life somewhere in Eastern Europe. Beautiful peasant girls wearing traditional gowns; fellows in caps, fishing or having fun with friends; earnest-looking bearded old men; merry laundresses; a village feast on a lawn in front of a log cabin... All the photos were meticulously signed in Polish with the name of their author, Benedykt Tyszkiewicz. Most of the pictures were taken around 1890 at a place called Wiała. This name did not say much to photo scouts.

One of the things that stroke them most was the air of naturalness and ease which the photos emanated. The technique of photography was still at its early stages in 1890s. The models had to spend about a minute in front of the camera with as little movement as possible. However, the photos did not make an impression of being set up and tense. Instead, they were more like spontaneous or even reportage-like photo portraits.
The museum acquired the entire collection of 86 photos without a second thought. Its author turned out to be Count Benedykt Tyshkevich (1852-1935), rich and somewhat eccentric aristocrat, who spent his last years of life in his estate near Paris experimenting with photography. 
However, getting the information about his models was a bit more complicated. After all, Benedykt Tyshkevich was a keen traveler, who had seen many countries, from China to America. Fortunately, the author gave a hint by signing some pictures with titles such as  “a Lithuanian peasant girl”. It was a logical step for the specialists of the museum to turn to their colleagues in Vilnius. “Sure, this is our cultural heritage!” they replied. As a result, the photos went on display at an exhibition in Vilnius in 2000.
Siarhey Chareuski, prominent expert of Belarusian culture, happened to be in Vilnius at that time. He couldn’t miss the occasion to see the old Lithuanian photos by Benedykt Tyshkevich. After all, many members of this aristocratic family, well known since the 16th century, contributed a lot to the development of Belarusian culture.
When Mr. Chareuski noticed the name Wiała, he couldn’t help smiling into his mustache. Vialava (Wiała in Polish) was a place in Belarus, where Benedykt Tyshkevich had one of his several estates. It was situated about 70 km from Minsk, in a large virgin wood called Naliboki Forest.
One shouldn’t blame the French museum specialists for being perfunctory by addressing their inquiries to Vilnius instead of Minsk. Benedykt Tyshkevich took his photos in the centre of what we today know as Belarus; at that time, however, it was part of the Russian Empire. Still, he signed the pictures in the Polish language. Moreover, he called the people he photographed “Lithuanians”. Such a jumble of national definitions will make even the most highbrow researcher scratch his bald patch in bewilderment.
Why did Benedykt Tyshkevich call the people on his photos “Lithianians”?
As it often happens, something important was lost in translation. Today, the same word “Lithuania” is used to describe two different phenomena – the modern Lithuanian state (Republic of Lithuania, first founded in 1918) on one hand, and, on the other, the legendary area of Litva as well the historic legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the 1890s neither Lithuania nor Belarus was independent. Both lands were part of the Russian Empire. When Tyshkevich described his models as “Lithuanian” he referred to the people who lived on the former lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This large state consisted  almost entirely of lands of  present-day Belarus. The majority of the Duchy’s population was Slavonic. These people spoke the Ruthenian language (Belarusian researchers prefer to call it Old Belarusian). It was completely different from the Baltic family of languages that modern Lithuanian belongs to. The people on the photos by Benedykt Tyshkevich were forefathers of present-day Belarusians that lived westwards from Minsk.
Calling Belarusians “Litvins” (‘Lithuanians) was not unusual. In a similar manner the prominent poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote “Litva, the motherland of mine” about his native Navahradak region. Navahradak, a town in western Belarus, was the fist capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the way, it is situated some 80 kilometers to the south of Tyshkevich’s estate in Vialava.
Siarhey Chareuski told about the exhibition to his friends and colleagues. As a result, in 2009 the exhibition was officially displayed at the National Museum of History in Minsk.

Benedykt Tyshkevich was a rich aristocrat, who inherited various real estate objects and capital. However, instead of wasting his wealth on balls and entertainments, he 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 was one of his favourite. There he built a studio with large windows and a photo laboratory. People from nearby villages, who worked at his estate, became his favourite models. It was a good time in the count’s life, and the pictures show it very well.

Benedykt Tyshkevich exhibitied his best pictures in 1876 in Philadelphia, USA. There he received his first medal for the photos. 
After the death of his wife in 1883, Benedykt Tyshkevich left for France with his three children. There he settled in a respectable suburb of Paris and completely dedicated himself to photography.

The archive of Benedykt Tyshkevich that included his Vialava collection of art and photos was destroyed during World War I. The mansion is now a ruin. Only majestic oak trees and a small river, which one also recognizes on the count’s pictures, remind us about the life that was once in full swing here.

 The album from the Paris flea market is probably the last surviving piece of that legacy. This is a real miracle that the photos by Benedykt Tyshkevich returned to Belarus after more than a century,  even if for a short period of time.
“None of his pictures is incidental”, says Siarhey Chareuski. “He made every photo with a feeling of responsibility. The pictures by Benedykt Tyshkevich are true masterpieces of Belarusian photography. The photos of peasant beauties tell a lot about the open world-view and attentive eye of the master. Photographers of his time preferred to disguise their models with clothes which were not typical for their time and social background. Benedykt Tyshkevich, on the contrary, captured the most important characteristics of Belarus and Belarusians of his time”.

The exhibition became a great self-discovery for the people who visited it in Minsk. The ideologists of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union tried their best to propagate the image of Belarusians as an oppressed and dull peasant nation “with elf-locks in dirty hair”.
The people on the duke’s photos from Viala were, undoubtedly, usual Belarusians. Skeptics may argue that the rich landlord attempted to make them appear nicer on the photos. However, the look of dignity and calmness in their eyes is something one could not possibly fake. These people radiate peacefulness and are not plagued by constant fear. This is something we rarely encounter in Belarus today.