The Romanovs’ Last Spectacular Ball Brought to Life in Color Photographs (1903)

In 1903, the Romanovs, Russia’s last and longest-reigning royal family, held a lavish costume ball. It was to be their final blowout, and perhaps also the “last great royal ball” in Europe, writes the Vintage News. The party took place at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, 14 years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, on the 290th anniversary of Romanov rule. The Czar invited 390 guests and the ball ranged over two days of festivities, with elaborate 17th-century boyar costumes, including “38 original royal items of the 17th century from the armory in Moscow.”

“The first day featured feasting and dancing,” notes Russia Beyond, “and a masked ball was held on the second. Everything was captured in a photo album that continues to inspire artists to this day.” The entire Romanov family gathered for a photograph on the staircase of the Hermitage theater, the last time they would all be photographed together.

It is like seeing two different dead worlds superimposed on each other—the Romanovs' playacting their beginning while standing on the threshold of their last days.

With the irony of hindsight, we will always look upon these poised aristocrats as doomed to violent death and exile. In a morbid turn of mind, I can’t help thinking of the baroque gothic of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a doomed aristocracy who seal themselves inside a costume ball while a contagion ravages the world outside: “The external world could take care of itself,” Poe’s narrator says. “In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure…. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade.”

Maybe in our imagination, the Romanovs and their friends seem haunted by the weight of suffering outside their palace walls, in both their country and around Europe as the old order fell apart. Or perhaps they just look haunted the way everyone does in photographs from over 100 years ago. Does the colorizing of these photos by Russian artist Klimbim—who has done similar work with images of WW2 soldiers and portraits of Russian poets and writers—make them less ghostly?

It puts flesh on the pale monochromatic faces, gives the lavish costuming and furniture texture and dimension. Some of the images almost look like art nouveau illustrations (and resemble those of some of the finest illustrators of Poe’s work) and the work of contemporary painters like Gustav Klimt. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that unease lingers in the eyes of some subjects—Empress Alexandra Fedorovna among them—a certain vague and troubled apprehension.

In their book A Lifelong Passion, authors Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko quote the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch who remembered the event as “the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire.” The Grand Duke also recalled that “a new and hostile Russia glared though the large windows of the palace… while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.” As Russia Beyond notes, soon after this celebration, "The global economic crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire, and the court ceased to hold balls."

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began, a war Russia was to lose the following year. Then the aristocracy’s power was further weakened by the Revolution of 1905, which Lenin would later call the “Great Dress Rehearsal” for the Revolutionary takeover of 1917. While the aristocracy costumed itself in the trappings of past glory, armies amassed to force their reckoning with the 20th century.

Who knows what thoughts went through the mind of the tzar, tzarina, and their heirs during those two days, and the minds of the almost 400 noblemen and women dressed in costumes specially designed by artist Sergey Solomko, who drew from the work of several historians to make accurate 17th-century recreations, while Peter Carl Fabergé chose the jewelry, including, writes the Vintage News, the tzarina’s “pearls topped by a diamond and emerald-studded crown” and an “enormous emerald” on her brocaded dress?

If the Romanovs had any inkling their almost 300-year dynasty was coming to its end and would take all of the Russian aristocracy with it, they were, at least, determined to go out with the highest style; the family with “almost certainly… the most absolutist powers” would spare no expense to live in their past, no matter what the future held for them. See the original, black and white photos, including that last family portrait, at History Daily and Russia Beyond, and see several more colorized images at the Vintage News.

via The Vintage News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Arab Photography Archive Puts 22,000 Historic Images Online: Get a Rare Glimpse into Life and Art in the Arab World

The history of photography, as most of us know it, has expanded by several thousand images and several more countries, thanks to the launch last month of the Arab Image Foundation’s online archive of photography “from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora dating from the mid-nineteenth century,” as the Getty's photography blog The Iris reports.

The Beirut-based non-profit AIF has since digitized 22,000 images from its physical collection of 500,000+ photographs, collected since 1997, notes the Foundation, in “research missions and projects in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Mexico, Argentina and Senegal." AIF hopes to eventually upload 55,000 scanned images, but funding issues have made the project a challenge.

Nonetheless, the trove of photos and negatives already made available not only significantly expands our view of photography’s reach and scope, but also our view of the Arab world—recording lost traditions, modernisms, and an array of cultural practices and attitudes that may surprise us, and that have since been suppressed in many of these same societies.

“From same-sex kisses and men in drag,” writes India Stoughton for the BBC, “to nude portraits and children posing with assault rifles, the Arab Image Foundation is replete with startling and sensationalist photographs.”  There are many photographs of flamboyant stage performers and celebrities. And there are many more conventional collections, such as the family portraits of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, and Jaffa before 1948.

Amidst the hundreds of stiff portraits and awkward family photos, the archive features candid street shots and “many images of historic events and figures.” It also documents “watershed moments that have been overlooked by history.” Pin-up photography and pictures of male bodybuilders in Egypt; surrealist experiments with double exposures in 1924 by Lebanese photographer Marie al-Khazen, “one of the first female photographers in the Middle East,” writes Stoughton.

Al-Khazen’s “avant-garde compositions and habit of photographing herself and other women enjoying traditionally male pastimes, such as smoking, driving and hunting, made her a fascinating and unconventional figure.” The same adjectives apply to many of the photographers in this archive, whose work often shocks and surprises, but just as often communicates in more subtle ways the texture of everyday life for people in the Middle East and North Africa over the course of the late-19th to mid-20th centuries.

These images capture the daily lives of overlooked people groups, like the Bedouin hunters of Syria, as well as the lives of regular people before conservative regimes swept into power around the region and wiped away traces of modernization and the personal, religious, creative, and sexual freedoms we see represented. Now this photographic history joins several other comprehensive online libraries of historic photography, such as Europeana Photography, the George Eastman Museum, the Soviet Union’s premier photo magazine, and many more.

While not as extensive as some of these other collections, the AIF’s digital project is no less essential for the light it sheds on a past, and a medium, that continues to prove itself resistant to stereotypes. Enter the Arab Image Foundation's digital archive here, and learn more about how these photographs have been digitally preserved at The Iris.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet Gerda Taro, the First Female Photojournalist to Die on the Front Lines

Gerda Taro by Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons

We may know a few names of historic women photographers, like Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, or Diane Arbus, but the significant presence of women in photography from its very beginnings doesn’t get much attention in the usual narrative, despite the fact that “by 1900,” as photographer Dawn Oosterhoff writes, census records in Britain and the U.S. showed that “there were more than 7000 professional women photographers,” a number that only grew as decades passed.

As photographic equipment became smaller, lighter, and more portable, photographers moved out into more challenging and dangerous situations. Among them were women who “fought tradition and were among the pioneer photojournalists,” working alongside men on the front lines of war zones around the world.

War photographers like Lee Miller—former Vogue model, Man Ray muse, and Surrealist artist—showed a side of war most people didn’t see, one in which women warriors, medical personnel, support staff, and workers, played significant roles and bore witness to mass suffering and acts of heroism.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons


Before Miller captured the devastation at the European front, the horrors of Dachau, and Hitler’s bathtub, another female war photographer, Gerda Taro, documented the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. “One of the world’s first and greatest war photographers,” writes Giles Trent at The Guardian, Taro “died while photographing a chaotic retreat after the Battle of Brunete, shortly after Franco’s troops had one a major victory,” just days away from her 27th birthday. She was the first female photojournalist to be killed in action on the frontline and a major star in France at the time of her death.

Woman Training for a Republican Militia, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

“On 1 August 1937,” notes a Magnum Photos bio, “thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to mourn the death” of Taro. The “26-year-old Jewish émigré from Leipzig… was eulogized as a courageous reporter who had sacrificed her life to bear witness to the suffering of civilians and troops…. The media proclaimed her a left-wing heroine, a martyr of the anti-fascist cause and a role model for young women everywhere.” Taro had fled to France in in 1933, after being arrested by the Nazis for distributing anti-fascist leaflets in Germany. She was determined to continue the fight in her new country.

Republican Soldiers at the Navacerrada Pass, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro met another Jewish émigré, well-known Hungarian photographer Robert Capa, just getting his start at the time. The two became partners and lovers, arriving in Barcelona in 1936, “two-and-a-half weeks after the outbreak of the war.” Like Miller, Taro was drawn to women on the battlefield. In one of her first assignments, she documented militiawomen of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia training on a beach. “Motivated by a desire to raise awareness of the plight of Spanish civilians and the soldiers fighting for liberty,” her clear sympathies give her work depth and immediacy.

Republican Dinamiteros, in the Carabanchel Neighborhood of Madrid, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro’s photographs “were widely reproduced in the French leftist press,” points out the International Center of Photography. She “incorporated the dynamic camera angles of New Vision photography as well as a physical and emotional closeness to her subject.” After she was crushed by a tank in 1937, many of her photographs were incorrectly credited to Capa, and she sank into obscurity. She has achieved renewed recognition in recent years, especially after a trove of 4,500 negatives containing work by her and Capa was discovered in Mexico City.

Although she had been warned away from the front, Taro “got into this conviction that she had to bear witness,” says biographer Jane Rogoyska, “The troops loved her and she kept pushing.” She paid with her life, died a hero, and was forgotten until recently. Her legacy is celebrated in Rogoyska’s book, a novel about her and Capa by Susana Fortes, an International Center of Photography exhibition, film projects in the works, and a Google Doodle last August on her birthday. Learn more about Taro’s life and see many more of her captivating images, at Magnum Photos.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Take a Visual Journey Through 181 Years of Street Photography (1838-2019)

All of us here in the 2010s have, at one time or another, been street photographers. But up until 1838, nobody had ever been a street photographer. In that year when camera phones were well beyond even the ken of science fiction, Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process and one of the fathers of photography itself, took the first photo of a human being. In so doing he also became the first street photographer, capturing as his picture did not just a human being but the urban environment inhabited by that human being, in this case Paris' Boulevard du Temple. Daguerre's picture begins the historical journey through 181 years of street photography, one street photo per year all soundtracked with period-appropriate songs, in the video above.

From the dawn of the practice, street photography (unlike smile-free early photographic portraiture) has shown life as it's actually lived. Like the lone Parisian who happened to be standing still long enough for Daguerre's camera to capture, the people populating these images go about their business with no concern for, or even awareness of, being photographed.

The earliest street photographs come mostly from Europe — London's Trafalgar Square, Copenhagen's former Ulfeldts Plads (now Gråbrødretorv), Rome's Via di Ripetta — but as photography spread, so spread street photography. Rapidly industrializing cities in America and elsewhere in the former British Empire soon get in on the action, and a few decades later scenes from the cities of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East begin to appear.

Each of these 181 street photographs was taken for a reason, though most of those reasons are now unknown to us. But some pictures make it obvious, especially in the case of the startlingly common subgenre of post-disaster street photography: we see the aftermath of an 1858 brewery fire in Montreal, an 1866 explosion in Sydney, an 1874 flood in Pittsburgh, a 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and a 1920 bombing in New York. Each of these pictures tells a story of a moment in the life of a particular city, but together they tell the story of the city itself, as it has over the past two centuries grown outward, upward, and in every other way necessary to accommodate growing populations; transportation technologies like bicycles, streetcars, automobiles; spaces like squares, cinemas, and cafés; and above all, the ever-diversifying forms of human life lived within them.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Creative Commons Officially Launches a Search Engine That Indexes 300+ Million Public Domain Images

Heads up: Creative Commons has officially launched CC Search, a search engine that indexes over 300 million images from 19 image collections, "including cultural works from museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art), graphic designs and art works (Behance, DeviantArt), photos from Flickr, and an initial set of CC0 3D designs from Thingiverse." All of the indexed images are in the public domain and released under Creative Commons licenses--meaning the images are generally free to use in a non-commercial setting.

Head here to start searching.

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Paris in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Panthéon, and More (1890)

The 17th and 18th centuries in England marked a period of ostentation for a growing, and increasingly wealthy, landowning class. These were also times of internal religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, a period that saw the regicide of Charles I, the restoration of Charles II to the throne, and William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution,” deposing his successor, James II. All of this over the span of 28 years. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran high among the people, and it made a particularly convenient political tool.

But there are two groups you might not have found at anti-Catholic rallies during the most heated of political times, not, at least, during the final, formative years of their education. Both young scions of gentry and nobility on a gap year, and artists and poets seeking out the finest training, took the European Grand Tour, for several months or several years, a sojourn through the mostly-Catholic continent. No classical education was complete without a visit to Florence, Milan, Rome, Vienna, and, of course, Paris.

Here, gentleman picked up the latest fashions and dance steps, budding architects studied cathedrals and Catholic art, and everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, gawked at the towering Notre Dame. The importance of the Grand Tour, remarked historian E.P. Thompson, “showed that ruling class control in the 18th century was located primarily in cultural hegemony.” Touring gentlemen wrote memoirs and guidebooks and commissioned paintings. Artists sent back drawings and poems, as both souvenirs and proof of their cultural mastery.

Through these aristocratic tourists the rest of the world came to see Europe as a succession of monuments, like the Greek and Roman cities of antiquity. At the same time, an imperialist craze for Neoclassical architecture began to make Europe’s biggest cities resemble classical models more and more.

The last half of the 18th century saw the construction of the Panthéon, La Madeline—the Catholic church first dedicated as a temple to Napoleonand the Louvre, all monuments to classical architecture.

The Grand Tour approach to looking at cities and the corresponding Neoclassical wave of building came together in the age of photography, when prints of the great places could give their viewers a sense of having been there, or at least hit all the major entries in the guidebook. Wandering gentry and artists became entrepreneurs, using the new technology to not only simulate a Grand Tour, but to sell prints for postcards and the rare photographic book.

By 1890, when the photos of Paris here were taken, such prints were commonplace. They represented a democratization, in a way, of Europe’s great landmarks, and of the literary and fine arts techniques once primarily used to record them. No doubt some few people saw the development as a vulgar one, but art historians today can be grateful that Paris at the end of the 19th century was so well-documented. In this digital collection from the Library of Congress, Beaux-Arts masterpieces like the Paris Opera House sit beside the Gothic Notre Dame and Neo-Classical Panthéon.

It is a shame these photos do not let viewers go inside to experience firsthand the buildings that inspired The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in which are buried such literary royalty as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, and Victor Hugo himself. But this rich archive of early color photographs from just before the turn of the century does capture—for all time, perhaps, now that they are online—the greatest feats of architectural engineering from the old Medieval  order, the Ancien Régime, the Republic, and the Empire.

The collection represents yet another way of digitally preserving the memories of these grand buildings should they one day be lost, as Notre Dame nearly was just a few days ago. It also shows the state of photography at the dawn of the postcard boom, when Photochrom prints like these could be purchased cheaply and mailed for a few cents or centimes. See many more of these stunning photos at the Library of Congress Digital Collections here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Nobody Smiles in Old Photos: The Technological & Cultural Reasons Behind All those Black-and-White Frowns

We've all heard stories of kids who ask their parents if the world was really black-and-white in the 1950s, or maybe even been those kids ourselves. With that matter cleared up, children who've seen even older colorless photographs — say, from around the turn of the 20th century — may follow up with another question: hadn't they invented smiling back then? If they ask you (or if you've wondered about it yourself), you can take care of it in just three minutes by pulling up this Vox explainer on why people never smiled in old photos. Why, in the words of Phil Edwards writing on the video's accompanying page, "did people in old photos look like they'd just heard the worst news of their life?"

"We can't know for sure, but a few theories help us guess what was behind all that black-and-white frowning." The first, and the one you may already know, has to do with the camera technology of the day, whose "long exposure times — the time a camera needs to take a picture — made it important for the subject of a picture to stay as still as possible. That way, the picture wouldn't look blurry." But by the year 1900 that problem was more or less solved "with the introduction of the Brownie and other cameras," which were "still slow by today's standards, but not so slow that it was impossible to smile."

Other theories explaining the smile-free photographs of old include the lingering influence of the painted portrait on the photographic portrait; the dominant idea of photography as a "passage to immortality" that "meant the medium was predisposed to seriousness over the ephemeral"; and that Victorian and Edwardian culture itself took a dim view of smiling, supported by a survey of smiling in portraits conducted by Nicholas Jeeves at the Public Domain Review that "came to the conclusion that there was a centuries-long history of viewing smiling as something only buffoons did." Yet late 19th-century and early 20th-century photography isn't a completely smile-free zone, as the Flickr group The Smiling Victorian proves.

Edwards includes a picture, taken circa 1904, of a man smiling not just unmistakably but hugely. He does so as he prepares to dig into a bowl of rice, that being an important part of the cuisine of China, where Asian-language scholar Berthold Laufer took an expedition to capture the everyday life of the Chinese people on film. "His rice-loving subject may have been willing to grin because he was from a different culture with its own sensibility concerning photography and public behavior," Edwards writes. Whatever the reasons for the smile on that Chinese face or the lack of one on all those Victorians and Edwardians, we must prepare ourselves to answer an even more difficult question from posterity: one about why, exactly, we're doing what we're doing in the billions of photos we now take of ourselves every day.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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