Chronicler of the Caucasus

Ermakov’s Tiflis: The market place (Maidan) of the old town with the Shiite mosque and the old bridge over Kura


This story usually starts being told where some other great stories begin: along the Nile and in the Holy Land, with the photographers who from 1840 onwards provided from here, the most popular East the European audience with albums, and later the participants in the Victorian Grand Tour with post cards representing the local attractions. We will also tell about them later. For now, however, we start the story along the less known Russian thread, with the masters who started taking pictures in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and also reached Persia and Anatolia. Among them, if not the earliest, but one of the most influential photographers was Dmitri Ermakov from Tiflis (1846-1916).


Tiflis (from 1936 Tbilisi), “the jewel of the Caucasus” which had belonged for centuries to the sphere of Persian culture and came under Russian suzerainty only in 1801, with its mixed Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Persian, Russian, German, French population – of which we will write more later – was a unique cultural, political and commercial bridge until as far as 1917 between Russia, Western Europe and the Middle East. We have mentioned, that the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin which inspired a large number of similar publications from Tehran to Bucharest, was founded by an Iranian Azeri editor-in-chief, illustrated by two local German cartoonists and edited by an international board in Turkish (Azerbaijani) and sometimes even in Russian in Tiflis between 1906 and 1917. The roots of Ermakov were similarly complex. His father, Luigi Cambaggio was an Italian architect, and his mother a well-known pianist from an Austrian-Georgian family who later adopted, together with her son Dmitri, the name of her second, Russian husband.

Water mills along the Kura at the time of the flood of 1893. Below: a detail of the picture. Further details here


Ermakov graduated from the military topographic academy in Ananuri, a hundred kilometers north from Tiflis. There he got his first introduction into photography which in the 1860s was already a regular part of the curriculum at military academies. Shortly afterwards, in the early 70s he opened his own photographic studio in Tiflis, on the Dvortsovaya which by this time had become the street of photographers. It was here that in 1846, only seven years after the invention of photography, Henrik Haupt opened the first studio of Georgia, and here worked the “Rembrandt” studio of the greatest contemporary Georgian photographer A. Roinashvili as well. Most probably Ermakov also took over an already working studio, that of Ivanitsky, opened in 1863.

The Dvortsovaya in the 1870s. Photo by Ermakov

Shortly after the opening of the studio Ermakov already became a member of the Société française de photographie, the most prestigious European society of photography. We do not know who nominated him for membership into this society which operated with a strict admission policy. What is certain is that for the 1874 Paris Biennale he already sent 17 pictures, all of them from the Black Sea coast city of Trebizond (Trabzon) in Turkey. By that time he probably also had a studio there, as a lot of photos of him have survived from this region and period.

A Persian mollah from Batumi

By the end of the 70s he was widely considered as a renowned photographer. He won awards in many exhibitions in Moscow, Italy, Turkey and Persia. He regularly took photos in the Persian court and of many Persian aristocratic families, and he was awarded the title of the court photographer of the Shah of Persia.

Zeli-Sultan, son of the Shah of Persia in Austro-Hungarian  (!) uniform

“In the court gallery of the Shah of Persia there are a large number of paintings representing the Shah himself: in their majority, mediocre works. In these days, however, we had occasion to see a large half-length portrait of the Shah, painted by the Tiflis artist Mr. Kolchin on the basis of the photography by Mr. Ermakov. Whoever previously saw any portrait by Mr. Kolchin, Shishkov, Korganov or Penchinsky, will not be surprised by the brilliant quality of this portrait. Soon, this picture will be delivered to the Court of Tehran where, it seems, this will be the first Russian piece of art.”

– wrote in 1884 the Tiflis newspaper Kavkaz. This news sheds an interesting light on a typical application of late 19th-century photography: that it served as a model for portrait paintings, thus saving long hours of sitting for the model of the portrait. Ermakov even had a common atelier with Pyotr Kolchin for a while in Tiflis, just as one of the greatest Istanbul photographers, Pascal Sébah made model photos for the fashionable Ottoman painter Osman Hamdi Bey.

Persian dervish

Ermakov’s reputation and military training gained him the appointment of the official photographer of the Caucasian front in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. As his photos were considered military documentation, they have not been available for more than a century. The National Archives of Georgia published a few of them only in the late 90s.

Doctors and nurses, and (below) Georgian officers taking a rest in the Russo-Turkish war


Ermakov’s passion and specialty, however, was ethnographic photography. He made long trips to the most remote valleys of the Caucasus, in Central Asia and Anatolia where he was the first to take photos of the inhabitants of villages of different nationalities.

Men and women from the Georgian mountains


Taking into account the needs of contemporary technology, the huge camera, the large – usually 50×60 cm sized – glass negatives preferably used by Ermakov and the mobile dark room, these excursions were veritable expeditions with mule caravans and tent camps, and moreover mostly in mountainous terrain where it was not a simple task to organize a military expedition either.

A photo of the Georgian military road series

Ethnographic photography was not only a passion, but also a good business investment for Ermakov. For the St. Petersburg and Moscow social circles the Caucasus was since Pushkin and Lermontov the exotic East, the land of unspoiled, noble simplicity and mysterious strangeness, just as Northern Africa was for the contemporary Western European artist. The unimaginable ethnic diversity of the Caucasus was illustrated from the beginning of the century in a large number of engraved and lithographic albums for the educated audience. Over the years, Ermakov published a hundred and ninety two similar albums with his own photos about the ethnic groups, villages and towns, roads and monuments of the Caucasus. In his printed catalog he advertised himself, as early as the turn of the century, with an astonishing photo stock of 25 thousand items.

Ermakov’s catalog, 1901

Fur hat traders in the Tiflis bazaar

However, what captures today’s viewer the most in the photos of Ermakov is his attention to the model not as an ethnographic curiosity, but as a person; an attention that suspends the distance in time and culture and creates a relationship between us and the model; a sensitivity which has been the privilege of only a few photographers, then like now.

Turkish man

Princess Lazareva in Tatar costume

Persian man

After the death of Ermakov in 1916 his complete huge photographic material was purchased by the University of Tiflis, from where later it got to the Tbilisi State Museum. The following decades were not favorable to their publication. No album, monograph or important exhibition has been made of them, as far as I could investigate. Some of the photos sold by him to the West were eventually exhibited in the 1990s, but I know of no catalog of them. His original albums are a rarity even in the large libraries. We only know some hundreds from his legacy of several thousand photos. Once it will be made public, it will be a huge sensation

The old bridge of Maidan and water-carriers with horses

The son of Ermakov, the first Russian psychoanalyst died in 1941 in prison as a victim of the Stalinist purges. Ermakov’s great-grandson lives today in Moscow. He is a designer and photographer, and a good photographer at that. In his blog he occasionally publishes some scanned photos from the heritage of his great-grandfather. This is one of the most important source of the pictures shown here.

Georgian lady

Another important source is the collection of the New York Public Library, more precisely the legacy of George Kennan digitized by them. George Kennan was the first American in the 1870s to travel across the Caucasus, where he purchased lots of pictures from local photographers. They include some from Ermakov as well, sometimes marked with his name by Kennan, while in other cases their provenience is attested only by the characteristic captions printed in small Cyrillic. Most probably a number of other contemporary legacies also include photos purchased from Ermakov.

House in Tiflis

A third source is the site of Rolf Gross who in the 1980s lectured in Tbilisi. Having made friends with the director of the museum, he received some test prints of Ermakov’s photos made for local exhibitions and calendars, which otherwise would have finished in the waste-paper basket. Now, after twenty years he published them on the internet. A part of them is known from elsewhere, but about twenty pictures were published by him for the first time.

The street to the Botanical Garden with the Sunni mosque

We tried to place on the following map of the Caucasus the almost three hundred photos by Ermakov that we managed to collect, but this is an evocative background rather than a precise localization, for most of the available pictures are from Tiflis. And even the scenes represented on the majority of them do not exist any more. The bazaar, the Shiite mosque, the famous bridge of the Maidan, the most beautiful and most characteristic buildings of old Tiflis were all destroyed. Today you can find the atmosphere of Ermakov’s photos only in the Avlabari neighborhood, from where we have not many photos by him. Of old Tiflis, however, we have a large collection of photos both by him and by others. We would like to publish them by linking each to the respective point of a fin-de-siècle map of the city, in this way reconstructing the old Tiflis that has gone.



J. Grassl: Karte des Kaukasischen Isthmus, 1856. • Overview (5 MB)Original (21 MB)

Armenian woman with child from Shusha

Since we have published this post, a number of more Ermakov photos have cropped up on the web. We no longer publish them in the above map, but in the form of mosaics, which we will gradually expand as new images will be found.

Jew from the Southern Georgian Akhaltsikhe


Kuban territory, Biberdov aul, Abkhaz women


Akhtani, entrance of the church


Tiflis, dragging a 24 arshin long beam with ox cart

9 comentarios:

Araz dijo...

A beautiful collection, Studiolum, thank you for bringing these all together! After a quick look I should make few corrections though: probably your unconcealed sympathy towards Armenian culture was the reason why you forgot Georgians in Tiflis. Tiflis was and is first of all a Georgian city with its oldest fortresses and churches. Also the sequence of ethnic groups do not reflect their numbers at that time (towards the ends of 19th century).

Couple of notes regarding Molla Nasreddin are: the expression "Iranian Azeri" used for Mirza Jalil the founder of this satirical magazine. To not confuse the reader, if we use a modern terminology, he is just Azeri ("Iranian Azeri" is used for Azeri majority living in Iran) and he was not an Iranian. Also the language of this magazine was Azerbaijani (not Turkish in a modern meaning). Besides it was not published in Russian - Russian was used for small remarks or for captions of caricatures.

As I noted, Azeris, that is Azerbaijani Turks were called as "Tatars" or "Persians" by Russians and as "Turks" by Persians. I once wrote about confusion between Persian and from Persia, as well as between Turkic and Turkish.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for the corrections, Araz, which are indeed justified. However, let me explain myself. The omission of Georgians was not an underestimation of their percentage or role in Tiflis itself (although it was certainly not as important as it is today), but it followed from the main point of the – perhaps confusingly long – sentence in which I emphasized the presence of “foreign” nations with ethnic links to other countries which contributed to the role of Tiflis as a bridge between various countries of the West and East. Georgians in this sense were only a bridge to the countryside (if we do not consider the international aristocracy and the small emigration which in itself would have not made Tiflis the mediator city it was).

The list of the nations followed, to my intentions, not their statistical or cultural importance, but the alphabet, with the addition of the more recent German and French “guests” to the end.

Mirza Jalil, as far as I understand, was from an Azeri family from the Iranian Khoy, even if he himself was born in Nakhchivan – here I emphasized his Iranian roots to underline the same international atmosphere as above (as in fact these roots facilitated him to continue his activity in Persia when circumstances were momentarily unfavorable in Russia). By specifying the language of Molla Nasreddin as “Turkish” instead of “Azeri”, I simply followed the consensus of the period before Atatürk’s linguistic reforms, which considered them as two dialects instead of two separate languages. And you’re right, the term “in Turkish and Russian” does not say anything about the proportion of the two languages in the journal (which you have already precised in the cited post): with this I again wanted to hint to its multinational character only.

Buff, I experience once more that speaking about the Caucasus and neighboring regions, even with the best intentions, is like walking over eggs… I hope to gradually learn this particular choreography.

Araz dijo...

Thanks for explanations, Studiolum. I have noticed your noble intention of emphasizing the beauty of the multiethnic character of Caucasus and especially Tiflis. Even though I would agree with the rest of your arguments, I am afraid the first sentence not mentioning Georgians is misleading. The reason why it is "like walking over eggs" was written back in 1902 by Georgian intellectual, Ilya Chavchavadze. Even in 1897 according to the results of the first census in the Russian Empire, after dramatic demographics changes due to the administrative status of Tiflis, although not in the city itself, Georgians were the majority in the greater Tiflis uyezd (Georgian 80.3K, Armenian 57.9K, Russian 55.4K, Tatar (Azeri) 13.8K, German 5.4K, Polish 4.9K, Greek 4.6K, Persian 1.8K, Osetian 1.7K and French only 0.3K) and they were an absolute majority in the whole Tiflis gouvernement.

Studiolum dijo...

Well, now, having read Prince Chavchavadze’s eloquent apology (whose fascinatingly solemn Georgian formulas come through even in the Russian translation), I understand better where the eggs are laid. I did not know about this dramatic chapter of Armenian-Georgian relations. When I was in Tbilisi, in the late 80s and in the 90s, the Armenian population of the town was already, so to say, in defensive, gradually emigrating to Russia and Armenia, and their former houses and monuments in decay.

And of course the ethnic composition of a major trading center as Tiflis does not say anything either about its beginnings or about the ethnic relations of the country. The sharp difference between the ethnic composition of a city and its surroundings is quite well known in my region as well. The fact that I myself have already written about pre-1939 Lwów as a major Polish city and about pre-1900 Budapest as a great German city, does not mean they were not surrounded by a sea of Ukrainian and Hungarian population, respectively, and especially does not exclude their being founded by the King of Galichina and the King of Hungary.

Language dijo...

Amazing pictures, and I look forward to more of them. How absurd and sad that such a remarkable collection has been essentially forgotten for almost a century! I hope there are a decent number of surviving images. Also, I look forward to the fin-de-siècle map of old Tiflis; old city maps are one of my favorite things!

Araz dijo...

Thank you for considering my remarks, Studiolum. Late 80s and 90s were really difficult times for Tbilisi with a full scale civil war erupting there. Many Azeris also left the city at that time. As for the "eggs", unfortunately baby chickens hatched out from these eggs have grown up and laid new eggs already.
I have read your post again, thank you again for a beautiful story and fascinating images, and the map would be great. Check out this JPG image or this PDF file.

Ralph Hälbig dijo...

Thanks for this great post ... more to the Southcaucasus can you find on my blog!!

http://georgien.blogspot.com

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Ralph. I have been following your fascinating blog for a long time, and I have learned from it a lot. I feel really honored by the appreciation of a person who has done so much in and for the South Caucasus as you did.

One Mans Treasure dijo...

I recently bought a cabinet card by the Eglish Studio" in Azerbaijan. I date it to 1900 -1910. It shows four engineers at a table. In the background is a blackboard with some calculations on it. I am curious to know if anyone has heard of the English Studio/