Inspiration

Capture Our Souls: Alexander Lyapin — about vintage portraits

Alexander Lyapin — on why people used to look more beautiful in photos.

In the early 90-ties we were collecting materials on Nikolay Kharito, a Russian composer and author of a famous song titled “Otsveli Uzh Davno Chrizantemy v Sadu” (“The Garden Chrysantemums Are Long Gone”). In the process we found out that he had been buried at Lukyanovskoe Cemetery, and that his sister was still alive. So we paid her a visit. The granny, who was around 100 at the time, looked perky and still full of life. She was the “old-school” persona – her mannerisms and style of speech appeared aristocratically refined. She showed us photos from 1910-1912: Nikolay Kharito as a student, then him in the North during his political exile, then as an officer of the White Army, and finally – in his casket. He died in a foolish way during a duel. The faces on all the pictures – genuine, happy. People looked as if they had surrendered themselves to the process of photography as an act of mystical preservation, the opportunity to continue life after death.

Nadezhda Kharito – that was her name – laid out the photographs on the table. A portrait of a very beautiful girl caught my eye, – incredibly expressive and technically flawless. It turned out to be Nadezhda’s own portrait made by Frans de Mezer, one of the wealthiest and most sought after photographers in Kiev (a millionaire who made his fortune on photography). Nadezhda told us that it took her two days to get ready for the shoot. Choosing a dress, having her hair done took a while. The photographer sat her down in the chair and stared at her for a long time, in silence. The daylight was falling from above and from the side through the windows, gently enveloping her face, reflecting into her eyes, bringing out their daunting bottomless depth. I couldn’t stop looking at the picture. It was an amazing work of an artist, a jeweler, a psychologist and a clairvoyant, all at the same time. I never saw anything like that before or after. Mezer made two portraits. One was full-body, another one – just face. He charged as for one. It took him only three hours. Nadezhda put the picture away and glanced at me – and her eyes looked exactly the same as on the photograph. The photographer captured eternity of her soul. Back then a photoshoot was equal to a eucharist or a confession.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_011.jpg”,
“alt”: “Работы Франца де Мезера”,
“text”: “© Frans de Mezer. Portraits, late 19th-early 20th centuries.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_021.jpg”,
“alt”: “Фотографии начала 20 века”,
“text”: “(left) © Charles van Schaick. Portraits of a woman, late 19th-early 20th centuries.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/04.jpg”,
“alt”: “Фотографии начала 20 века”,
“text”: “© Frans de Mezer. Portrait of a woman, late 20th century.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_041.jpg”,
“alt”: “Фотографии начала 20 века”,
“text”: “© Y. Chernov. Portrait of Analiy Fedorovich Koni, a public activist, senator, member of State Advisory Panel, 1921”
}

Nadezhda is no longer alive, her picture disappeared too. Mezer’s archives was destroyed by chekists (editor note – members of a Soviet security organization). They broke thousands of glass discs.

Interestingly, early 20th century photographers who were employed by, let’s say, police, treated their models – various criminals – the same way as studio portraitists did theirs. They created not just a document but also an image, giving murderers, thieves and hookers a chance to stay true to themselves by not having to pose, — in order to truly represent their dark kind and spook the residents. And they were happy to please!

Take a look at the poses and facial expressions of the Australian gangsters. One of them is holding a cigar. A very powerful and devilishly convincing shot. It looks like right after the photosession these guys will be send not to a jail cell, but on another bloody mission. Or how about those frightening Canadian prostitutes from the 40-ties? Where did this type of characters disappear to from the criminal photo-archives? The ladies exude obvious disregard towards the photographer, while putting on display the sense of their own exclusivity and, seemingly, even sexual grandiosity. A master found his model, and the model – his master.

It looks like right after the photosession these guys will be send not to a jail cell, but on another bloody mission.

Photographers of the 20-ties and 40-ties often, besides working for the police, participated in photojournalistic activities. Many of the shots that they did at the police stations made their way onto the pages of the local newspapers. This explains the incredible expressiveness and artistic feel of the photos from the police archives. Photographers needed gangsters to be genuine and natural – the portrait needed to instill fear, to bring the portraitist desired level of fame and recognition. That’s why the criminal characters of the past stir up a much stronger emotional reaction in us than headshots of the modern outlaws do.

However, in the early 20th century this sort of artistic freedom wasn’t allowed everywhere – even back then photographers created pointless facial prints for the punishment-and-control agencies of the totalitarian countries. No one cared about individuality, — and frankly, the souls of most who got photographed by NKVD agents were already gone while their bodies could still function. I know someone who used to be a photographer at the time and who said that the “enemies of the nation” got shot immediately after the photosession, right on the spot. He felt as if he was shooting dead people whose faces had little expression, with glassy eyes and numb skin.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_11.jpg”,
“alt”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века”,
“text”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_06.jpg”,
“alt”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”,
“text”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_07.jpg”,
“alt”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века”,
“text”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_08.jpg”,
“alt”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века”,
“text”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_09.jpg”,
“alt”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века”,
“text”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/photo_960_10.jpg”,
“alt”: “Австралийские рецидивисты начала XX века”,
“text”: “Australian outlaws of the early 20th century.”
}

So what did happen to contemporary photo portrait? Where did the aesthetical juiciness and wholesomeness go – the one that enabled the genre of the “light-drawn portrait” to compete with printed art? Why are there no more virtuosos who could turn their skill into magic, who could establish connection with the eternity through the soul of their object?

Individuality is diluted with informational debris channels that keep us away from concentrating on anything – even on ourselves. Photography suffered great damage from the technological advances: “Snap me!”, “Let’s go take some pics”, the shutter is screeching loudly at a studio where a hundred years ago a lid was gently removed off the aperture and replaced seconds later, emulsion absorbed the complete spectrum of the model’s feelings – if not their whole life. Photographers used be artists with academical degrees while their studios used to be their temples. Perhaps that’s exactly why that portrait by Frans de Mezer is always on my mind and has kept me awake at night for many years now.

Alexander Lyapin worked as a reporter in the international agency GP, had been the head editor for newspaper “Evening News” (“Vecherniye Vesti”) for 10 years. Today – the head editor for internet-magazine Foto.ua, writes articles on photography.

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