Patti Smith Reads Her Final Letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, Calling Him “the Most Beautiful Work of All”

If you go to hear Pat­ti Smith in con­cert, you expect her to sing “Beneath the South­ern Cross,” “Because the Night,” and almost cer­tain­ly “Peo­ple Have the Pow­er,” the hit sin­gle from Dream of Life. Like her 1975 debut Hors­es, that album had a cov­er pho­to by Robert Map­plethor­pe, whom Smith describes as “the artist of my life” in Just Kids, her mem­oir of their long and com­plex rela­tion­ship. A high­ly per­son­al work, that book also includes the text of the brief but pow­er­ful good­bye let­ter she wrote to Map­plethor­pe, who died of AIDS in 1989. If you go to hear Smith read a let­ter aloud, there’s a decent chance it’ll be that one.

“Often as I lie awake I won­der if you are also lying awake,” Smith wrote to Map­plethor­pe, then in his final hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and already unable to receive any fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Are you in pain, or feel­ing alone? You drew me from the dark­est peri­od of my young life, shar­ing with me the sacred mys­tery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and nev­er com­pose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowl­edge I derived in our pre­cious time togeth­er. Your work, com­ing from a flu­id source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of hold­ing hands with God. Remem­ber, through every­thing, you have always held that hand. Grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let it go.”

Smith speaks these words in the Let­ters Live video at the top of the post, shot just a few weeks ago in The Town Hall in Man­hat­tan. “Of all your work, you are still your most beau­ti­ful,” she reads, “the most beau­ti­ful work of all,” and it’s clear that, 35 years after Map­plethor­pe’s death, she still believes it. That may come across even more clear­ly than in Smith’s ear­li­er read­ing of the let­ter fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture back in 2012. As the years pass, Robert Map­plethor­pe remains frozen in time as a cul­tur­al­ly trans­gres­sive young artist, but Pat­ti Smith lives on, still play­ing the rock songs that made her name in the sev­en­ties while in her sev­en­ties. And unlike many cul­tur­al fig­ures at her lev­el of fame, she’s remained whol­ly her­self all the while — no doubt thanks to inspi­ra­tion from her old friend.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Remem­bers Robert Map­plethor­pe

Vin­tage Footage Shows a Young, Unknown Pat­ti Smith & Robert Map­plethor­pe Liv­ing at the Famed Chelsea Hotel (1970)

Pat­ti Smith’s Award-Win­ning Mem­oir Just Kids Now Avail­able in a New Illus­trat­ed Edi­tion

Pat­ti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Let­ter De Pro­fundis: See the Full Three-Hour Per­for­mance

Pat­ti Smith Doc­u­men­tary Dream of Life Beau­ti­ful­ly Cap­tures the Author’s Life and Long Career (2008)

The Life and Con­tro­ver­sial Work of Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Map­plethor­pe Pro­filed in 1988 Doc­u­men­tary

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

How Photos Were Transmitted by Wire in 1937: The Innovative Technology of a Century Ago

When did you last send some­one a pho­to? That ques­tion may sound odd, owing to the sheer com­mon­ness of the act in ques­tion; in the twen­ty-twen­ties, we take pho­tographs and share them world­wide with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought. But in the nine­teen-thir­ties, almost every­one who sent a pho­to did so through the mail, if they did it at all. Not that there weren’t more effi­cient means of trans­mis­sion, at least to pro­fes­sion­als in the cut­ting-edge news­pa­per indus­try: as dra­ma­tized in the short 1937 doc­u­men­tary above, the visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to a suf­fi­cient­ly impor­tant scoop could also be sent in mere min­utes through the mir­a­cle of wire.

“Trav­el­ing almost as fast as the tele­phone sto­ry, wired pho­tos now go across the con­ti­nent with the speed of light,” declares the nar­ra­tor in breath­less news­reel-announc­er style. “It’s not a mat­ter of send­ing the whole pic­ture at once, but of sep­a­rat­ing the pic­ture into fine lines, send­ing those lines over a wire, and assem­bling them at the oth­er end.”

Illus­trat­ing this process is a clever mechan­i­cal prop involv­ing two spin­dles on a hand crank, and a length of rope print­ed with the image of a car that unwinds from one spin­dle onto the oth­er. To ensure the view­er’s com­plete under­stand­ing, ani­mat­ed dia­grams also reveal the inner work­ings of the actu­al scan­ning, send­ing, and receiv­ing appa­ra­tus.

This process may now seem impos­si­bly cum­ber­some, but at the time it rep­re­sent­ed a leap for­ward for mass visu­al media. In the decades after the Sec­ond World War, the same basic prin­ci­ple — that of dis­as­sem­bling an image into lines at one point in order to reassem­ble it at anoth­er — would be employed in the homes and offices of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans by devices such as the tele­vi­sion set and fax machine. We know, as the view­ers of 1937 did­n’t, just how those ana­log tech­nolo­gies would change the char­ac­ter of life and work in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. As for what their dig­i­tal descen­dants will do to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, as they con­tin­ue to break down all exis­tence into not lines but bits, we’ve only just begun to find out.

via Kids Should See This

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Watch a Local TV Sta­tion Switch From Black & White to Col­or for First Time (1967)

Cre­ative Uses of the Fax Machine: From Iggy Pop’s Bile to Stephen Hawking’s Snark

The His­to­ry of Amer­i­can News­pa­pers Has Been Dig­i­tized: Explore 114 Years of Edi­tor & Pub­lish­er, “the Bible of the News­pa­per Indus­try”

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Oldest Known Photographs of India (1863–1870)

After about a cen­tu­ry of indi­rect com­pa­ny rule, India became a full-fledged British colony in 1858. The con­se­quences of this polit­i­cal devel­op­ment remain a mat­ter of heat­ed debate today, but one thing is cer­tain: it made India into a nat­ur­al des­ti­na­tion for enter­pris­ing Britons. Take the aspir­ing cler­gy­man turned Not­ting­ham bank employ­ee Samuel Bourne, who made his name as an ama­teur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with his pic­tures of the Lake Dis­trict in the late eigh­teen-fifties. When those works met with a good recep­tion at the Lon­don Inter­na­tion­al Exhi­bi­tion of 1862, Bourne real­ized that he’d found his true méti­er; soon there­after, he quit the bank and set sail for Cal­cut­ta to prac­tice it.

It was in the city of Shim­la that Bourne estab­lished a prop­er pho­to stu­dio, first with his fel­low pho­tog­ra­ph­er William Howard, then with anoth­er named Charles Shep­herd. (Bourne & Shep­herd, as it was even­tu­al­ly named, remained in busi­ness until 2016.) Bourne trav­eled exten­sive­ly in India, tak­ing the pic­tures you can see col­lect­ed in the video above, but it was his “three suc­ces­sive pho­to­graph­ic expe­di­tions to the Himalayas” that secured his place in the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy.

In the last of these, “Bourne enlist­ed a team of eighty porters who drove a live food sup­ply of sheep and goats and car­ried box­es of chem­i­cals, glass plates, and a portable dark­room tent,” says the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. When he crossed the Manirung Pass “at an ele­va­tion of 18,600 feet, Bourne suc­ceed­ed in tak­ing three views before the sky cloud­ed over, set­ting a record for pho­tog­ra­phy at high alti­tudes.”

Though he spent only six years in India, Bourne man­aged to take 2,200 high-qual­i­ty pic­tures in that time, some of the old­est — and indeed, some of the finest — pho­tographs of India and its near­by region known today.

In addi­tion to views of the Himalayas, he cap­tured no few archi­tec­tur­al won­ders: the Taj Mahal and the Ram­nathi tem­ple, of course, but also Raj-era cre­ations like what was then known as the Gov­ern­ment House in Cal­cut­ta (see below).

Colo­nial rule has been over for near­ly eighty years now, and in that time India has grown rich­er in every sense, not least visu­al­ly. It hard­ly takes an eye as keen as Bourne’s to rec­og­nize in it one of the world’s great civ­i­liza­tions, but a Bourne of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry prob­a­bly needs some­thing more than a cam­era phone to do it jus­tice.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

The Old­est Known Pho­tographs of Rome (1841–1871)

The Ear­li­est Sur­viv­ing Pho­tos of Iran: Pho­tos from 1850s-60s Cap­ture Every­thing from Grand Palaces to the Ruins of Perse­po­lis

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

Around the World in 1896: 40 Min­utes of Real Footage Lets You Vis­it Paris, New York, Venice, Rome, Budapest & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

130+ Photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece Fallingwater

We’ve fea­tured a vari­ety of build­ings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright here on Open Cul­ture, from his per­son­al home and stu­dio Tal­iesin and the Impe­r­i­al Hotel in Tokyo, to a gas sta­tion and a dog­house. But if any sin­gle struc­ture explains his endur­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a genius of Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture, and per­haps the genius of Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture, it must be the house called Falling­wa­ter.

Designed in 1935 for Pitts­burgh depart­ment-store mag­nate Edgar J. Kauf­mann and his wife Lil­iane, it sits atop an active water­fall — not below it as Kauf­mann had orig­i­nal­ly request­ed, to name just one of the dis­agree­ments that arose between client and archi­tect through­out the process.

In the event, Wright had his way as far as the posi­tion­ing of the house on the site, as with much else about the project — and so much the bet­ter for its stature in the his­to­ry of archi­tec­ture, which has only risen since com­ple­tion 85 years ago.

Inspired by the Kauf­man­n’s love of the out­doors, as well as his own appre­ci­a­tion for Japan­ese archi­tec­ture, Wright employed tech­niques to inte­grate Falling­wa­ter’s spaces with one anoth­er, as well as with the sur­round­ing nature. Time mag­a­zine wast­ed no time, as it were, declar­ing the result Wright’s “most beau­ti­ful job”; more recent­ly, it’s received high praise from no less a mas­ter Japan­ese archi­tect than Tadao Ando.

When he vis­it­ed Falling­wa­ter, Ando expe­ri­enced first-hand a use of space sim­i­lar to that which he knew from the built envi­ron­ment of his home­land, and also how the house lets in the sounds of nature. Though such a pil­grim­age can great­ly expand one’s appre­ci­a­tion of the house, rare is the view­er who fails to be enrap­tured by pic­tures alone.

Near­ly as astute in the realm of pub­lic­i­ty as in that of archi­tec­ture, Wright would have known that Falling­wa­ter had to pho­to­graph well, a qual­i­ty vivid­ly on dis­play in this archive of 137 high-res­o­lu­tion images at the Library of Con­gress. From it, you can down­load col­or and black-and-white pho­tos of the house­’s exte­ri­or and inte­ri­or as well as its plans, which — so the sto­ry goes — Wright orig­i­nal­ly drew up in just two hours after months of inac­tion. Falling­wa­ter thus stands as not just con­crete proof of once-brazen archi­tec­tur­al notions, but also vin­di­ca­tion for pro­cras­ti­na­tors every­where.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Tour of Falling­wa­ter, One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Finest Cre­ations

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Hous­es Offer Vir­tu­al Tours: Hol­ly­hock House, Tal­iesin West, Falling­wa­ter & More

What It’s Like to Work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Icon­ic Office Build­ing

What Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unusu­al Win­dows Tell Us About His Archi­tec­tur­al Genius

The Unre­al­ized Projects of Frank Lloyd Wright Get Brought to Life with 3D Dig­i­tal Recon­struc­tions

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Only Color Picture of Tolstoy, Taken by Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1908)

The pho­to above depicts Lev Niko­layevich Tol­stoy, bet­ter known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world as Leo Tol­stoy. It dates from 1908, when he had near­ly all his work behind him: the major nov­els War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na, of course, but also the acclaimed late book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His own death, in fact, lay not much more than two years before him. (See footage of the final days of his life here.) This did­n’t offer much of a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to the chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who had recent­ly devel­oped a pho­tog­ra­phy process that could cap­ture the great man of let­ters in “true col­or” — and who under­stood that such a por­trait would score a pro­mo­tion­al coup for his inno­va­tion.

“After many years of work, I have now achieved excel­lent results in pro­duc­ing accu­rate col­ors,” Prokudin-Gorsky wrote to Tol­stoy ear­ly that same year. “My col­ored pro­jec­tions are known in both Europe and in Rus­sia. Now that my method of pho­tog­ra­phy requires no more than 1 to 3 sec­onds, I will allow myself to ask your per­mis­sion to vis­it for one or two days (keep­ing in mind the state of your health and weath­er) in order to take sev­er­al col­or pho­tographs of you and your spouse.” After receiv­ing that per­mis­sion, Prokudin-Gorsky spent two days at Yas­naya Polyana, Tol­stoy’s fam­i­ly estate, where he took col­or pic­tures of not just the man him­self but his work­ing quar­ters and the sur­round­ing grounds.

“A few months lat­er, in its August 1908 issue, The Pro­ceed­ings of the Russ­ian Tech­ni­cal Soci­ety ran the fol­low­ing announce­ment describ­ing ‘the first Russ­ian col­or pho­to­por­trait,’ a col­or pho­to­graph of L. N. Tol­stoy,” accord­ing to Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal. The result­ing fame drew Prokudin-Gorsky an invi­ta­tion to show his work to Tsar Nicholas II, who sub­se­quent­ly fur­nished him with the resources to spend ten years pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ing Rus­sia in col­or. “To this day, nobody knows exact­ly what cam­era Prokudin-Gorsky used,” writes Kai Bernau at Words that Work, “but it was like­ly a large wood­en cam­era with a spe­cial hold­er for a slid­ing glass neg­a­tive plate, tak­ing three sequen­tial mono­chrome pho­tographs, each through a dif­fer­ent col­ored fil­ter.” This appears to be a tech­no­log­i­cal descen­dant of the process devel­oped in the ear­ly eigh­teen-six­ties by Scot­tish physi­cist-poet James Clerk Maxwell, cre­ator of the first col­or pho­to­graph in his­to­ry.

To view that pho­to­graph, Maxwell “pro­ject­ed the three slides using three dif­fer­ent pro­jec­tors, each affixed with the same col­or fil­ter that had been used to pro­duce the slide.” Prokudin-Gorsky, too, had to project his pho­tos, though he did lat­er make col­or prints; “he also pub­lished it, in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, as a col­lectible post­card,” says Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal, adding that the ver­sion seen here is a scan of one such post­card. How accu­rate­ly a lith­o­graphed repro­duc­tion like the one above of Tol­stoy rep­re­sents the ‘real’ col­ors of Prokudin-Gorsky’s orig­i­nal pro­ject­ed image is debat­able”; the basic tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence between “sub­trac­tive” lith­o­g­ra­phy and “addi­tive’ pro­jec­tion means that we can’t be see­ing quite the same pic­ture of Tol­stoy that the Tsar did — but then, it’s a good a like­ness of him as we’re ever going to get.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Rus­sia in 70,000 Pho­tos: New Pho­to Archive Presents Russ­ian His­to­ry from 1860 to 1999

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

The Very Last Days of Leo Tol­stoy Cap­tured on Video

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

Col­orized Pho­tos Bring Walt Whit­man, Char­lie Chap­lin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Earliest Surviving Photos of Iran: Photos from 1850s-60s Capture Everything from Grand Palaces to the Ruins of Persepolis

The tech­nol­o­gy and art of pho­tog­ra­phy emerged in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe. And so, when a part of the world out­side Europe was well-pho­tographed in those days, it tend­ed to be a trav­el­ing Euro­pean behind the cam­era. Take John Thom­son, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, for his pho­tos of Chi­na in the eigh­teen-sev­en­ties. Even before that, an Ital­ian colonel and pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Lui­gi Pesce was hard at work doc­u­ment­ing a land geo­graph­i­cal­ly clos­er to Europe, but hard­ly less exot­ic in the Euro­pean world­view of the time: Per­sia, or what we would today call Iran.

“Accord­ing to schol­ars and his­to­ri­ans, the first pho­tog­ra­ph­er in Iran was Jules Richard, a French­man who, as stat­ed in his diaries, arrived in Tehran in 1844,” says the web site of the Nation­al Muse­um of Asian Art.

“He served as the French lan­guage tutor of the Gul­saz fam­i­ly and took daguerreo­types of Moham­mad Shah (reigned 1834–48) and his son, the crown prince, Nasir al-Din Mirza.” Alas, these pho­tographs seem to be lost, much like most oth­ers tak­en before Pesce’s arrival in the coun­try in 1848, “dur­ing the reign of Nas­er al-Din Shah Qajar, to train Iran­ian infantry units.”

Pesce’s pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects includ­ed Nas­er al-Din him­self, pic­tures of whom appear in the online col­lec­tion of Pesce’s work at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. It was the Met that received a copy of the pho­to col­lec­tion Pesce pro­duced of Iran’s ancient mon­u­ments — prob­a­bly the very same copy that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had orig­i­nal­ly sent to Prince William I, King of Prus­sia.

In those days, even such exalt­ed fig­ures had a great deal of curios­i­ty about far-flung realms, and before pho­tog­ra­phy, they had no eas­i­er way of see­ing what those realms real­ly looked like than mak­ing the ardu­ous jour­ney them­selves.

The sites cap­tured in this col­lec­tion include Toghrol Tow­er, the Tomb of Seeh‑i Mumin, and the Mosque of Nass­er-eddin Shah — as well as Pasar­gadae, Naqsh‑e Rus­tam, and Perse­po­lis, the famed cer­e­mo­ni­al cap­i­tal com­plex of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, which Pesce was the first to pho­to­graph. Or at least he was the first to suc­ceed in doing so, Nas­er al-Din hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly sent Richard off to make some daguerreo­types of Perse­po­lis that nev­er came out.

But even Pesce’s pho­tographs, ful­ly exe­cut­ed using just about the height of the tech­nol­o­gy at the time, no longer have the imme­di­a­cy they would have when Prince William gazed upon them; more than a cen­tu­ry and a half lat­er, they have a pati­na of his­tor­i­cal dis­tance that shades into unre­al­i­ty, mak­ing them feel not unlike ruins them­selves. You can also view more pho­tos on Google Arts and Cul­ture.

Relat­ed con­tent:

New Archive of Mid­dle East­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy Fea­tures 9,000 Dig­i­tized Images

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

Behold the World’s Old­est Ani­ma­tion Made on a Vase in Iran 5,200 Years Ago

The Old­est Known Pho­tographs of Rome (1841–1871)

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized & Free Online

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

The Romanovs’ Last 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, and 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 through 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 see sev­er­al more col­orized images at the Vin­tage News.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch Scenes from Czarist Moscow Vivid­ly Restored with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (May 1896)

Dos­toyevsky Got a Reprieve from the Czar’s Fir­ing Squad and Then Saved Charles Bukowski’s Life

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

 

 

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The Oldest Known Photographs of Rome (1841–1871)

The rav­ages of COVID-19 have been fol­lowed by the rav­ages of the post-pan­dem­ic tourism boom. If you’ve been read­ing recent cov­er­age of aggres­sive trav­el and its dis­con­tents, you may well assume that it’s too late to have a gen­uine expe­ri­ence of, say, the great cities of Europe. Paris, Vien­na, Barcelona: none are as they used to be, we’re told, and the same may even be true of the Eter­nal City. Lovers of such places were com­plain­ing about tourists decades and decades ago, of course, but how far back in time would one have to trav­el in order to take in the glo­ries of a Rome that had­n’t yet fall­en to the invad­ing T‑shirt-and-flip-flopped hordes?

One would have to trav­el back about 150 years, at least accord­ing to the pic­to­r­i­al evi­dence pro­vid­ed in the video above from Youtu­ber Jarid Boost­ers, who appears to have a strong inter­est in his­tor­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy.

His most pop­u­lar videos include gath­er­ings-up of pic­tures of old Los Ange­les, of the lost archi­tec­ture of the Ger­man Empire, of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Iran. In this new episode, he presents the ear­li­est known pho­tographs tak­en in Rome, which date from the ear­ly eigh­teen-for­ties to the ear­ly eigh­teen-sev­en­ties. Most were tak­en by an ear­ly Ital­ian adopter of pho­tog­ra­phy named Gioacchi­no Alto­bel­li.

Soon after pick­ing up a cam­era in the eigh­teen-thir­ties, Alto­bel­li ded­i­cat­ed his career to “pho­tograph­ing some of the most ancient and most infa­mous sites through­out Rome,” says Boost­ers. “From 1841 through 1871, Alto­bel­li, along with a team of oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers, includ­ing Richard Jones, took it upon them­selves to doc­u­ment the most famous and ancient city of Rome as com­plete­ly as pos­si­ble.” Their sub­jects includ­ed the still-rec­og­niz­able likes of the Colos­se­um and Hadri­an’s tomb, nat­u­ral­ly, as well as the Arch of Drusus, the Tem­ple of Venus and Roma, and the Por­to di Ripet­ta. Hav­ing been demol­ished by the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Por­to di Ripet­ta stands out as one of the fea­tures that sets the Rome of Alto­bel­li’s day apart from the Rome of today — well, that and the absence of self­ie-tak­ers.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Rome Comes to Life in Pho­tochrom Col­or Pho­tos Tak­en in 1890: The Colos­se­um, Tre­vi Foun­tain & More

New Dig­i­tal Archive Puts Online 4,000 His­toric Images of Rome: The Eter­nal City from the 16th to 20th Cen­turies

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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