The Beginnings of a Collection

Sometime early in 2005, while prowling through the thousands of listing in the ‘art’ section of EBAY, I stambled upon a collection of striking glass plate negatives. The seller had listed them as works by an Armenian woman photographer called Aram Alban. My ‘intrigue’ radar went through the roof. I had never heard of an Armenian female photographer, let alone from the early 20th century and with such astounding quality of work. Having bought only a couple of rather ordinary works by Australian photographers (both for under 10 dollars) I was making tentative attempts to expand my humble art collection by including photography in it. Without much ado I proceeded to purchase as many of the Alban negatives as I possibly could (in retrospect, not nearly enough). It was fascinating to contemplate the many questions that this accidental discovery at an online auction posited. Who was Alban? Why was her magnificent oeuvre so thoroughly forgotten? Who were Alban’s peers?  How did her work fit into the annals of Armenian art and photographic history in general? What was Armenian photography anyway? Could it ever be defined considering the fragmentation and lack of geographies that characterize Armenian culture of the past two hundred years? Many of these questions remain to be answered, but it is at least a lot clearer who in fact the mysterious lady was.

The objects were listed on EBAY by a British seller who had acquired the lot from an old estate in Belgium found during a spring cleaning in an attic of an old house. I entered into correspondence with him, trying to spread some light on this alluring female artist. The narrative that was cooking in my mind was so dramatic and full of conjecture that I even started writing a film script based on a ‘true story of the first Armenian woman photographer who defied societal conventions and became the toast of Parisian bohemia.’

As the listings came coming over the next few months (it was a huge bulk comprised of over a thousand objects), I rummaged the net for any bit of information. Through this research, it soon became apparent that the creator of these gorgeous works was in fact, a bold, dwarfish man in his fifties with a penchant for money, queens, fine music and intellectual soirees. The misunderstanding had come from the fact that Alban produced numerous self-portraits, where his shadow – dramatically elongated – would lovingly drape over some stunning nude model. Rather touchingly and revealingly, the photographer had simply aligned his ‘self’ with his gaze.

Alban had a major photographic studio in Brussels and Paris during the 1920s and 30s after he moved there from Alexandria, Egypt. So the images covered his most creative and artistically experimental period. The combination of three factors became a deciding factor in the purchase: Alban was Armenian, a photographer and obviously, an important modernist. He was also at the time practically unknown (though a book was published on his work by the Arab Image Foundation).

In a way this first, major acquisition provided the parameters and policies (however loose) for what today is the Lusadaran collection. I would focus on works by Armenian photographers from all periods and geographies in an attempt to define some kind of a theory of what ‘Armenian photography’ could be. But that was not enough somehow. The fact that a photographer of Alban’s calibre, once a significant presence in the Parisian art circles who showed and published his works alongside Man Ray, could be so easily written out of history seemed astounding and unfair. The more I searched and the more I saw, the clearer it became that photography had many histories, many centers and many masters – most of whom still await to be rediscovered. These lost and neglected ‘heritages’ became the other key praxis of the collection – regardless of their cultural or temporal location. I was keen to uncover as many diverse voices in photography as I could, because they provided a framework of how one might construe an ‘Armenian’ photographic history as well as expanding and challenging received notions about the medium in general. So, simultaneously with the Alban works, I also acquired from the same seller, the first 19th century photograph to enter into my collection – the wonderful study of actress Ellen Wallis made by one of the best British portrait photographers Henry Rose Barraud (1845 – c1896).

Today, almost five hundred acquisitions later, these voices keep multiplying and diversifying. It did not even surprise me too much, that my seemingly silly fantasy about a rebellious Armenian woman photographer turned out to be not so outrageous after all. Only two months ago, one of my colleagues based in Beirut informed me about an exciting discovery of a huge cache of glass negatives and vintage prints in Istanbul. The  photographer was an Armenian woman working at the turn of the century and well into the 1930s. Her name and her work could cause us to rewrite a few pages in the history of photography yet…