18 January 2008

Book: Moscow photos, 1900-1917

A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say, and here's a new book that will provide insight into Russia's history, 1900-1917, when many of our ancestors still lived there. This story appeared in The Moscow Times.

"20th Century Russia in Photographs: 1900 to 1917" (Rossiya XX Vek v Fotografiyakh 1900-1917) is published by the Moscow House of Photography. The photographs are also available to view here; some 100,000 photos are now accessible, dating from 1840.

The site, of course, is entirely in Russian. What I have determined, with my basic Cyrillic is that images are organized according to decade. Visitors may set the view from 10-100 images per screen for each decade. There is a detailed multi-level geographical index, followed by a theme index and two different name indexes at the bottom.

This sounds like a good project for One-Page guru Steve Morse's talents.

Even if researchers don't find family photographs, the range certainly gives us an idea of the environment, social activities and a feeling for the times our ancestors lived. The photos are also valuable in dating images we do have and especially for forensic genealogists who specialize in decoding images, such as Maureen Taylor.

Additionally, in February, the web site will begin accepting photos uploaded by Russians themselves, so there should be an exponential increase in what is available, and add to our knowledge. We may even find eventually copies of the photos we have already, as long lost cousins begin to upload their own images. I'd like to include some of the Moscow images of our Talalay branches, and see if any of them are recognized.

In any case, back to the story, which is fascinating.

In a picture from 1907, an eager crowd gathers on a cobbled street of Petersburg to see Russia's first car show, a small boy in knickerbockers racing across in a blur of excitement. In others, bonneted women admire the first electric lighting in a shopping arcade and pilots wheel out a Bleriot monoplane to take part in a 1910 air show.

But despite these signs of technological progress, abject poverty is never far from the camera's lens. Headscarfed women wait in an endless line at a pawnbroker's and bums fight outside a night shelter, whose Dickensian walls are painted with the slogans: "No drinking vodka, no singing songs, behave yourselves quietly."

There are hundreds of full-page archival images of politics, documentary images and family portraits.

The state-owned gallery - Moscow House of Photography - is in an ongoing project to collect and catalogue historically interesting images of the past 100 years. Another four books are planned: pre-war, World War II, Kruschchev and Brezhnev eras, and perestroika to 2000.

The Tsar's family and revolutionary leaders are not in the book, replaced by

"memorable images instead show strange scenes from a forgotten past: swollen-faced residents of a leper colony pose in peaked caps; opera singer Anastasia Vyaltseva lazes in her private train car, the equal of the one now used by pop star Alla Pugachyova; and prize fighters at a Petersburg circus - three of whom are black - flex their muscles and handle-bar moustaches."

More than 50 archives were involved, from internationally known museums, such as St. Petersburg's Ethnography Museum, to museums in provincial cities (Ryazan, Yeletsk and Murom), as well as many private collections.

Most of the 50,000-copy run are being given to schools and libraries. A few copies are available at $245 each. This first book took eight years to compile; the story addresses some of the problems encountered.

If you can't obtain a copy, the published photos and many more are on at Inphoto.ru, created by the gallery. The Moscow House of Photography has publication rights from the archives, but not the images themselves. Many had only negatives and the gallery made prints; each image is given a full page in the book.

Although many photographers' names are lost, the book includes images by "well-known pioneers of Russian photography, such as Maxim Dmitriyev, who chronicled Nizhny Novgorod markets and lowlifes."

It is, according to the story "a history of Russia in photographs, which is a little different from a history of Russian photography." Some images have technical defects, but the subject matter was more important than the artistic value. Many are intimate, family images.

Also interesting are the comments by gallery director Olga Sviblova on family history and photographs:

Citing her own family history, she said that most families didn't hold onto their photographs in the Soviet era. "If you live in a communal apartment, you think mostly where you will put a bed for your child, not where you will put books with your archive," she said. "Family history during Soviet times was completely destroyed, like all history."

Sviblova's own grandparents avoided talking of their past -- much less displaying photographs -- since her grandfather, an engineer who headed the Volga-Don canal construction, spent time in a prison camp and his wife came from a family of priests. She found one album after her grandmother's death with a few photos of her grandfather in the early 1930s and of her great-grandmother doing Red Cross work during World War I and "nothing more," she said. "It's a strange feeling when you live without history."

About the future books, she says there is incredible material in the 1920s-30s, when Soviet photography came to the forefront, but complains that publications and archives often failed to credit the photographer or caption the subjects.

An interactive component will be added in February to the Inphoto.ru site, and Russians are invited to send in their own family photos for online display. submissions will be sorted according to chronology and themes, and there are already more than 100,000 photographs.

Additionally, the gallery is also taking history into contemporary times, and commissioning photographers to visit various Russian cities and offering an annual Silver Camera competition for the best Moscow photographs. In February, the gallery's new competition for the best photographs of Russia will be launched, with entries submitted on the website. Each year's best entries will be published annually.

Read more here.

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