Images of St Petersburg

Background

The exhibition ‘Images of St Petersburg’, which includes over 100 photographs from the Hermitage collection, provides a unique opportunity to see life in St Petersburg in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city was still the capital and lively centre of the Russian empire. Visitors to St Petersburg will discover that in spite of revolution and war the centre of the city and the Hermitage were very well preserved, as can be seen in the historic photographs offering pleasantly familiar views in this 9th exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam.

Russia was one of the first countries in the middle of the 19th century to take up the new invention of photography. It soon had a rapidly growing number of practitioners, both professional and amateur. As the technique became ever simpler and more accessible, its potential began to be fully exploited and photographs came to be part of everyday life in many layers of society. By the late nineteenth century a family without at least one cherished family portrait would have been rare.

From 1860 to 1890 portrait photography was dominated by Sergey Levitsky and Carlo Bergamasco, who were also two of the first to be accorded the status of Court Photographer. They always used the very latest technological achievements, but their works tended to look rather uniform. The reason for this was that they always employed similar compositional devices and props, in accordance with the wishes of their clients, who usually wanted their portraits to be set either in a sumptuous interior or in a picturesque landscape. Levitsky and Bergamasco were so highly admired in St Petersburg in the 19th century that they exerted a huge influence on the city’s many other photographic studios. Often the only means of differentiating works by other masters is through the marks and logos on the mounts.

In 1883 Bergamasco took photos at the most splendid ball of the time in St Petersburg, where the guests were dressed in ‘historical’ costumes. In 1903, the year of the city’s 200th anniversary, this ball was repeated at the Winter Palace. At the personal request of the Empress, the city’s best photographers captured the guests wearing their costumes. One popular (and extremely expensive) studio by then was that of Elena Mrozovskaya (one of the very few female photographers). Some of the guests had their own photographs taken, such as Princess Orlova-Davydova, whose enlarged tinted portrait by Mrozovskaja is strikingly different from the others.

But not everyone concentrated on society portraits. Some photographers sought a wider use of photography, among them William Carrick. Not only did he produce large city views such as that of the Stroganov Palace, but in the 1860s and 1870s he was one of the first to photograph genre subjects – scenes from everyday life. A large portion of his numerous shots of lowlife figures, many of them posed in the studio, were published in a big series in the 1870s, under the title Petersburg Characters and Scenes. His pictures of clerks, merchants, soldiers, street traders and delivery men, street sweepers, coachmen and other city dwellers were clearly inspired by the increasingly fashionable Russian genre paintings.

Cityscapes made their appearance in photography in St Petersburg right from the start, although the rare daguerreotype views were not entirely successful and it was not until the 1850s that cityscape photography really took off. Among the earliest views of St Petersburg were those of Ivan Alexandrovsky, who recorded the ceremonial unveiling of the monument to Nicholas I on St Isaac’s Square in 1859. In 1852 Giovanni (Ivan) Bianchi opened a studio where he not only created the portraits which were to bring him such fame, but also the city views which gradually came to dominate his work. Born in the Italian part of Switzerland, Bianchi had come to Moscow as a child and had studied art there before turning to photography.

From the 1860s and 1870s come a considerable number of city views by Albert Felisch. His static shots of bridges and churches are remarkable for the high quality of their technical execution. Karl Schulz from Derpt (now Tartu, Estonia) initially trained as a lithographer, but applied the methods he had learned in lithography to photography. His majestic panoramas of the city’s greatest squares – Palace Square, Senate Square, St Isaac’s Square – provide a unique record of the city’s appearance.

One of the most famous names was that of Alfred Lorenz, who had opened a studio on Nevsky Prospekt in 1855 where he produced photographic views of the city and the surrounding area. His view of Admiralty Square during the Easter festival shows some of the pavilions that were put up, with sliding hills and stalls selling spiced drinks and hot pies, the usually empty square filled with a colourful crowd of people from all levels of society.

However, the most famous of the St Petersburg photographers was Karl Bulla, the Court Photographer, who came to be known as the ‘godfather’ of reportage photography. The Hermitage has an outstanding collection of his work, part of which will be exhibited in Amsterdam. Bulla’s work combines two characteristic features: a sense of reportage and an artistic vision. He was drawn both by events which defined the era and by those which seemed more ordinary. He recorded the city’s monuments and its pulsing life: street festivals, transport, everyday occupations. It would be difficult to gain a true picture of life in St Petersburg around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries without the work of Karl Bulla, who presents us with whole pages of the city’s history. We see Nevsky Prospekt with people hurrying in different directions, horse-drawn trams rattling past, colourful poster columns and signs for shops and studios, banks and restaurants. On one of the most famous buildings in the avenue, the Gostiny Dvor trading rows (precursor of the department store), we see a large and elaborate cupola, which does not match the rest of the building at all. It was added in the 1880s to mark Gostiny Dvor’s hundredth anniversary and removed again during restoration in the 1950s.

Bulla’s new kinds of photographs were made possible by more advanced cameras which enabled him to shoot objects on different planes. Now that an exposure lasted only a fraction of a second, the photographer could aim for a documentary style, faithful to the original, in an attempt to capture passing impressions and close-ups with a very sharp focus. Reportage photography was born.

Bulla and his contemporaries captured the very aura of their age. For example, their photographs reveal the ‘winter’ electric trams that ran across the Neva when the thick ice formed. Electric trams came to St Petersburg in the winter of 1895, but for a long time they could only run across the ice since exclusive rights to trams on land had been granted to the Association of Horse-Drawn Trams until 1907. Sometimes tragic incidents were photographed, such as the collapse of a bridge in 1905. In 1909 photographers flocked to the unveiling of the vast equestrian monument to Alexander III on Znamenskaya Square, which now stands in the grounds of the Marble Palace.

From the middle of the 19th century onwards photography was a fixed part of everyday life in Russia, an obligatory element in interior decoration. Even in the art-filled houses of the Counts Stroganov and Sheremetev and of statesman Alexander Polovtsov the walls, desks and tables were covered with large numbers of photographs. One of the best masters of interior photography was Giovanni Bianchi, whose camera recorded the interior of the Stroganov Palace on Nevsky Prospekt. Although some of the original decoration has been lost or altered, this palace, like many others, stands unchanged today. The city in its entirety has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photographers were also given access to the imperial residence and the imperial museum. In the late nineteenth century an anonymous photographer produced a series of elegant images for an album of interiors of the Imperial Hermitage Museum. This album, issued in a limited edition for the court, contains photographs of the Hall of Ancient Sculpture, the Gallery of Ancient Painting and the magnificent halls of Italian and Spanish Painting. These photographs show how well preserved the museum is today.

We do know the name of the photographer who made a detailed series of images of the private interiors of the Winter Palace: Karl Kubesch. After the abdication of Nicholas II in the wake of the February Revolution of 1917, his apartments were taken over by the Provisional Government. At that point Kubesch had an opportunity to take photographs of the private apartments of Nicholas II, before Lenin seized power, heralding a new age in which the Winter Palace was eventually turned into what is now The State Hermitage Museum.

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on April 26 and December 25

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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