19th Century and the Rise of the Photographic Arts

The focus of the collection is the legacy of Armenian photographers working across the globe during the past one hundred and fifty years. In its acquisition policy, the foundation aims to both research and define what might constitute and be read as ‘Armenian’ photography within the context of international practice. Due to historical circumstances that befell Armenia and the Armenian nation in the last three hundred years, Armenian photography can not be encompassed within the narrow geo-political framework. Thus our collecting approach is defined by a cultural lens, which acknowledges the cross-cultural, multifarious nature of the legacy of Armenian photographers.

Beginning with a small number of early ambrotypes and tintypes the collection surveys burgeoning forms of photographic representation in the mid 19th century. It was these kinds of commercial studio portraits and genre photographs that the first Armenian photographers – the brothers Abdullah of Constantinople – were exposed to both in their home city and while studying overseas. Their experiments with photography date back to mid 1850s, effectively marking one of the first instances of photography by native Middle Eastern practitioners. Much work is yet to be done to correctly date many of the photographs that the Abdullah Freres produced, from the foundation of their studio in the Pera district of Constantinople to its close at the turn of the 20th century. However, the increasing number of their works held in Lusadaran, give a good idea about the scope of their practice from 1870s to 1890s.

Working both as commercial photographs who catered to the Western or the tourist market, as well as being official photographers to the Soultan, the brothers Vicen, Kevork and Hovsep Abdulhanians (active 1860s-1900) left a remarkably complex and multifaceted legacy that defies easy defenitions within the schemes of 19th century photographic histories. While strongly influenced by conventions borrowed from European photographers, the Abdullah Freres photographs are also notable for the tangible regard and shared understanding they have with their subjects. In Turkish shoemakers shop for example,  we see a conventional photograph of an ‘ethnographic type’. Yet the subjects are obviously engaged with the photographer, their animated faces indicating a complicity in this act of image-making. It is this insight and sympathy into the lives of local people that transforms many of Abdullah Freres photographs from mere ‘typological’ photographs into psychological portraits.

Constantinople was the central hub in which Armenian photographers prospered. Numerous studios opened in quick succession. The collection contains carte de visit portraits by photographers such as G. Baghdasarian (1860s-1880s) and Boghos Tarkulian (whose studio Phebus was among the most favored by the Ottoman elite). The carefully composed and elegant portraits produced by Tarkulian indicate the strong Eurocentric inclinations of the Armenian community in the Ottoman capital during the 19th century. Tarkulian was a master at conveying a sense of wealth, education and privilege while at the same time aiming to capture something of the character of his clients.

Other notable photographers catered to the tourist market with a catalogue of ‘view’ photographs. The studio of Gülmez Freres captured numerous prominent sights of the capital such as the Seraskerat square and the port at Emin-Eunu. Photographer Mihran Iranian, working during the 1890s focused more on the suburbs and back streets of the capital, creating gentle and surprisingly melancholy images of a city that was undergoing a rapid transformation. His Rue d’Istanbul is an early form of proto-documentary street photography that would become increasingly popular amidst a later generation of Turkish photographers and in particular, Ara Guler.

Constantinople was not the only major centre for Armenian photographers. Emigrating to Cairo around 1882, the young painter Gabriel Lekegian (active 1880-1920s) established ‘Photograph Artistique G. Lekegian & Co’, which very quickly rose up the ranks of local Egyptian photography studios. Lusadaran owns approximately twenty albumen and gelatin silver prints produced in the studio of this extremely important master. Covering practically every aspect of life in Egypt, Lekegian albumen photographs traveled far and wide across the Western world, influencing and forming perceptions about the country. While highly premeditated and composed, Lekegian was among the rare local photographers who gave his native subjects a sense of some dignity and complexity. His photographs are noticeably less theatrical and orchestrated than those by other émigrés who also had studios in Egypt, such as Hyppolyte Arnoux and Pascal Sebah.  Alongside numerous exotic, Orientalist works, such as the two nude studies of Egyptian girls in our collection, Lekegian also photographed the rapid modernization and industrialization of the country, producing images that break up the artificially monotonous view of a land frozen in the past.

Photography was also avidly patronised in other cultural and commercial capitals of the Near East. Armenians played a particularly important role in Tiflis and Baku, where many of the most prominent photographers came from the Armenian community. Of these, Grigor Ter-Ghevondiants (active 1860-1920s) deserves a special mention. Beginning his practice during the 1860s, Ter-Ghevondiants was conscious about the significance of photography as an educational and political tool. Throughout his long and successful career he almost single-handedly created an enormous gallery of portraits of the Armenian intelligentsia that either lived in or passed through Tiflis. Many of his portraits have now become iconic and his attentive eye sets them apart from the mundane fare that was produced during those years. The flamboyant Baku-based photographer D. Rostomyan had a penchant for the dramatic. His Portrait of a young boy in Caucasian costume 1900s, is instilled with a hint of narrative and theatricality. Meanwhile, the Tiflis-based Vartanov’s (early 20th century) Portrait of an unknown man (1900s), emphasised a kind of sensuality that was typical of the Art Nouveau aesthetic popular in the Caucuses at the turn of the century.

Portraiture by numerous other Armenian studios in various corners of the Ottoman and Russian Empires indicate the extent to which Armenians embraced and monopolised this new ‘craft’ in the 19th and early 20th century. This was conditioned not only by their multi-cultural perspective and ability to quickly integrate into their adopted societies. Relative religious tolerance and a far-sighted business acumen contributed to the rapidity with which Armenians embraced the medium by the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the establishment professionals also took in young apprentices, usually of Armenian origin, who in turn opened their own businesses some time later.

Of particular note in this regard are the studios Nadar in Alexandria, Egypt, Sarraffian Freres in Beirut, Lebanon, Garabed Krikorian in Jerusalem, brothers Avetisov in Akhaltskhi, Georgia, Markarian brothers in Bulgaria, brothers Parunakian in Alexandrapol (Gyumri), Armenia all of whom are represented in Lusadaran’s collections. These holdings are augmented by select works from European photographers that display the variety of both aesthetic approaches and their international reach. The full figure portrait of a Man in a top hat, produced in the Prague studio of J. Thomas (active 1890s-1910s) displays an increasing attraction towards modernist trends with its ascetic minimalism. Meanwhile the charming triple-exposure untitled (portrait of a young girl in different states) by the Italian photographer T. Burato (active 1870-80s) has a cinematic quality that mischievously hints at the manipulative possibilities of photography and the performative nature of individuality. These portraits are transitional, prefiguring later explorations of photographic vision by the surrealists and futurists during the 1920s and 30s.