Alexander Roinashvili, photographer

Alexander Roinashvili was born in 1846 into a family of farmers in Dusheti, at the foot of the Caucasus, about fifty miles from Tiflis, not far from the Georgian Military Road. We do not know how he discovered photography, but I imagine him posing, as a teenager, in front of an itinerant photographer like this Persian in Tabriz, represented in this miniature of 1856 – at that time they did not yet photograph the photographers, they painted them.

In the early 1860s he came to Tiflis, where he learned photography and painting with Theodor Chlamov. He opened his own studio in 1875, thus becoming the first professional photograph in Georgia, and allowing photography to find its place among the members of the Georgian intelligentsia, who decorated their houses with his photos on monuments of celebrities. Literary celebrities, like the poet, lawyer, journalist and politician Ilia Chavachavadze, one of the fathers of the modern Georgia; the poet of the return to the nature, Alexander Kazbegi, who lived as a shepherd in the mountains, and the central character of whose novel The Patricide, Koba, was one of the models of the young Stalin; or the epic poet and ethnographer Vazha-Pshavela, an explorer of the mythological pass of his native mountainous region Pshavi. And also celebrities of the theater, or foreign persons, like Oliver Wardrop, a diplomat, a future commisssioner of the British Legation from 1919 to 1921, during the short-lived Republic of Georgia, and at this time, in the 1890s, translator of the 17th-century collection of fables, The Book of Wisdom and Lies by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, while his sister Marjory translated the masterpiece of medieval Georgian poetry, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in Panther Skin.

Roinashvili was one of the founders of the Society of Amateur Photographers in Tiflis, which gave origin to the Museum of the Antiquities of the Caucasus. During his years of travel in the Caucasus, as far as to Daghestan, he collected all kinds of ancient objects, weapons, vases, silverware, furniture, textiles, which he then presented at exhibitions traveling as far as to St. Petersburg. He was also a philanthropist, who was intensively involved in the cultural life of his country until his death: he organized theatrical performances in his studio, published articles on all sorts of subjects, donated books to schools and libraries in the countryside.

Library-mseum of the Society for the Diffusion of Education

After his death, the fate of his studio and his archives long remained uncertain. For a while, his students continued his work, but then they founded their ow studios in Tiflis or in Telavi. Ultimately, Dmitry Ermakov bought all of what remained in 1905.

After the latter’s death in 1916, the negatives of Roinashvili were acquired together with those of Ermakov by the Historical and Ethnographic Society of Tiflis. The National Museum of Georgia recently published some of his works.

As this photo suggests with the four different inscriptions on its frame, the work of Roinashvili reflects the diversity of the peoples of the Caucasus. In these, Greeks, Armenians, Tatars, Lazs, Lezghins join the Georgian mountaineers or city dwellers. Actually, few of these pictures were taken outside, as a documentary, as it was done by Ermakov at the same time: at most a tree, or a piece of a wall support the subject – but most of he photos were takein in studio, with artificial lighing, and long exposition.

The bazaar of Tiflis, seen by Ermakov

Paradoxically, these photographs seem to have no connection with the reality. The background is often an opaque gray, or a plain black. On each of them, one single, intensely attentive face, whose gaze is hidden, as if listening to an inner world – faces of poor people, faces of women, faces of mountaineers, faces of princes or of artists.

For us, nearly a century and half later, it is mostly the costumes that tell a story: Muslim women in bouffant skirts, often in ballet slippers, admired so much by the Shahinshah visiting Paris or St. Petersburg, who will later distribute it to the women of his harem before the fashion spread all over the Persian world; the hairstyles decorated with jewels and coins; the rich embroidery and weaving; turbans and fur; copper jars, daggers and firearms. And the decoration and rugs of the studio evoke a world that survives for some more decades along the Maidan of Tiflis and in its bazaar.

In the cities, and not only in Tiflis, many people wished to be portrayed by Roinashvili, and visited his studio. Aristocrats, sometimes warriors, sometimes poets, women of a strange hairstyle, and fragile teenager girls dressed in dark, whose thoughtful faces and serious looks remains forever with us.

Nikoloz Chavchavadze

2 comentarios:

Araz dijo...

What a beautiful set of photos! Thanks for the post. Yet I was intrigued by a miniature from Tabriz. Could you please tell more about it?

Catherine dijo...

I couldn't tell you much more. It was displayed in the new display of Oriental Arts at the Georgian National Museum, among other minatures and painting of the qadjar era without any other information than "photographer in Tabriz, 1856" — at least in English. My Georgian being limited to two-third of the alphabet and twenty words, I can not say if the Georgian notice was more precise…