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Retro style photographic portrait taken for album

In our modern days, it’s easy to have your photo taken. Digital cameras simply require the push of a button; most families have one. Even children quite often have their own. Few people print photos these days, as so much easier to store them on a computer. Of course, in the early 19th century, when photography was in its infancy, the idea actually made people afraid, as the process was commonly thought to capture the soul.

By Maria Kuzmicheva


Emerik and Josephina

An unusual man lived in Minsk in the mid-19th century — Emerik Adamovich. He married a noble girl, Josephina (both names were common for Minskers at the time) and launched a photographic studio in 1858, within his wooden cottage on Minsk’s Shirokaya Street (now known as Kuibyshev). As photography was only invented in 1839, this proves that Belarusians were hardly much behind the pioneers of the most mysterious 19th century invention.

It was a true challenge to set up a photographic studio, since the business required significant financial injection; cameras cost as much as houses. However, the romantic couple decided to take the risk, buying the necessary equipment and designing their studio interior carefully to imitate a furnished home. They welcomed the public and their location in a residential building later influenced the trend elsewhere in Belarus (in Europe, studios tended to open on central streets but Emerik and Josephina lacked the financial sources to do the same). Their workshop quickly gained popularity among Minsk’s elite.

To recreate the atmosphere of the capital’s mid-19th century photographic studio, the Office of Light exhibition is being launched in the village of Strochitsy, near Minsk — marking the 35th anniversary of the Belarusian State Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life. A late 19th-early 20th century reconstructed photographic studio is located inside a cottage, moved from a Minsk suburb to the open air museum.


Soul on paper

Emerik and Josephina’s ‘office of light’ operated for thirty years. As noted by the Head of the museum’s Scientific-Exhibition Department, Alexander Isakov, this was longer than any other. “The success of this family business relied on friendly relations with the nobility, who came to have their photos taken. At that time, Minsk was home to just 23,000 people, so all members of the gentry knew each other well. One shot on show depicts Duke Tyshkevich — an ethnographer, folklorist, archaeologist and owner of a museum collection in Logoisk,” he tells us.

Only a few photos have survived from Josephina’s studio, as photography was so costly at that time that it was viewed as conferring status to have one’s photo taken: the preserve of only the wealthy. The studio opened twice a week, with visitors making an appointment to attend. Arriving without prior notice was seen as quite rude and visitors always arrived by horse-drawn carriage.


Photo album as a symbol of memory

The late 19th century Minsk wooden photography studio at the Belarusian State Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life uses furniture from Minsk’s suburbs, in addition to photography equipment purchased from Minsk collectors. Guests are first ‘welcomed’ by a reception desk (byurka), on which was placed a casket holding cardboard files of clients’ photos in various sizes. A medicine box is situated nearby, holding the chemicals used to develop photos. Mr. Isakov explains that these were so expensive that assistants were rarely trusted with these in their pure form.

On coming inside, visitors were able to use a large mirror to check their appearance and selected a format for their photo: ‘cabinet’, group, minion (small in size) or ‘American’. Emerik and Josephina’s studio also sold advanced European-made photography equipment, buying cameras from Germany, France and England, and selling at a profit.
Visitors waited their turn in one corner, browsing the photo frames, and then chose a background depicting one of several Minsk streets, in front of which they sat in a chair.

Photos from those times are amazing, charmingly capturing the spirit of past centuries. The sepia shades depict faces of diverse professions and fates, each with its own light and energy.

Visitors to the Office of Light exhibition can have a sepia tint photo taken, with old-fashioned hats, gloves and umbrellas. The show is to last two years so all those interested have plenty of time to visit.

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