by Gerald Boerner
At the beginning of photography, it appeared to be a miracle that one could let light into a little (or not so little) box that held a light-sensitive material upon which the image passing through the “lens” of the primitive camera. We can still obtain such pin-hole cameras! However, this primitive camera would not satisfy those wanting to obtain images of their family members as a result of the industrial revolution.
Before the early innovators of photographic processes, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, could produce their amazing “light drawings,” they needed a means of refining the process of focusing the light on the sensitized media in the camera.
An early Russian photographer, Sergei Levitsky, developed the concept of the bellows. This bellows allowed the distance between the photographic lens and the recording media to be adjusted for optimal sharpness. As a result, Daguerre, Fox Talbot, and others were able to record their images. Thank you, Mr. Levitsky. GLB
“Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.”
— Edward Steichen
“People don’t have time to wait for somebody to paint their portraits anymore. The money is in photography.”
— Robert Mapplethorpe
“Photography helps people to see.”
— Berenice Abbott
“Photography does not create eternity, as art does; it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.”
— Andre Bazin
“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness.”
— W. Eugene Smith
“Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.”
— Garry Winogrand
“Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.”
— Alfred Eisenstaedt
“Oh my goodness gracious, what you can buy off the Internet in terms of overhead photography. A trained ape can know an awful lot of what is going on in this world, just by punching on his mouse, for a relatively modest cost.”
— Donald Rumsfeld
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Sergei Lvovich Levitsky (1819 – 1898)
An aristocrat by birth, he was a cousin of Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870), the writer and outstanding public figure; husband to Anna Antonovna and father to Rafail Sergeevich Levitsky (1847-1940), famous Peredvizhniki (Itinerant) Movement artist who was court photographer to the ill fated family of Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia.
Sergei was born Lvov-Lvitsky in Moscow but later changed his name to Levitsky. At his parents request he attended and graduated (1839) from the Faculty of Law, Lomonosov Moscow State University and soon after served in the Russian civil service with the Ministry of the Interior, St. Petersburg. His ability to speak several languages allowed him to participate in a government commission to study the composition and therapeutic properties of mineral waters in the Caucasus.
On this mission to the Caucasus in 1843, accompanied by the chemist and botanist Julius Fritzsche, Levitsky made several Daguerreotype views using his camera and the French made Chevalier lens; a lens that Fritzche had brought with him from Paris. Fritzche was an associate of the chemistry department at the Emperor’s Academy of Sciences.
In 1839, Louis Daguerre presented the Daguerreotype, the first form of photography but the Daguerreotype was problematic in that it required exposure times as long as thirty minutes to create a portrait.
Levitsky’s use of the 1840 Charles Chevalier designed lens, known as the "Photographe a Verres Combine" as it combined two cemented achromats; reduced the time needed to capture an image as it improved the camera’s focusing ability. The lens brought speeds down to about f/5.6 for portrait work, and, as a bonus, the lens could be converted for use as a landscape lens.
Between 1843 and 1870 Sergei Levitsky owned and operated a photographic studio at 22, rue de Choiseul in Paris.
It is in Paris that Sergei Levitsky would study photograhy, meet with Daguerre personally and distinguish himself in the technical sphere of photographic development. Daguerre who had heard about the talented Russian photographer met with Levitsky cordially and with great interest.
In 1847, Sergei designed a bellows camera which significantly improved the process of focusing. This adaptation influenced the design of cameras for decades and is still found in use today in some professional cameras.
While in Paris, he would become the first to introduce interchangeable decorative backgrounds in his photos, as well as the retouching of negatives to reduce or eliminate technical deficiencies.
Levitsky was also the first photographer to portray a photo of a person in different poses and even in different clothes (for example, the subject plays the piano and listens to himself).
In 1849, the images of the Caucasus, Pyatigorsk (large Daguerreotype landscape views made on plates 30x40cm and 24x30cm in size) captured by Levitsky, were exhbited by the famous Parisian optician Chevalier at the Paris Exposition of the Second Republic as an advertisement of their lenses. These photos would receive the Exposition’s gold medal; the first time a prize of its kind had ever been awarded to a photograph.
Years later in the Russian Magazine "Photograph" (1864, № 3-4) Levitsky would write about this great success and artistic triumph which "brought to his Paris studio daily orders of some 1500 requests; many of which could not be filled".
Showing in practice that the skillful combination of both natural and artificial light allowed one to create interesting effects, Levitsky’s photographs became recognized throughout Europe for their mastery.
During this time Levitsky was thought to be the first photographer to create true psychological photo-portraits. It is in Paris, that Levitsky would makes a series of portraits of his cousin Alexander Herzen; most notable was his portrait of Herzen leaning in a chair which did not simply capture Herzen in his natural state and attitude but conveyed the essence of him as a thoughtful writer, full of mental fatigue, bitterness and disappointment.
Creating images that captured the sentiment of each sitter was in keeping with beliefs found in Russian art of the mid nineteenth century, such as literature, music and theatre where artists believed it was possible to penetrate into the soul of a person.
This image of Herzen was so strong that Peredvizhniki artist Nikolai Ge would use the repose of Herzen for his Christ figure in his painting The Last Supper (1863). The artist Ge would recall, "I wanted to go to London to paint Herzen’s portrait,… and he responded to my request with a large portrait by Mr. Levitsky". The final painting’s similarity between the Levitsky photo of Herzen and Christ led the press of the day to exclaim the painting as "a triumph of materialism and nihilism". It is the first time photography became the main starting point for the solution to a central character of a painting and speaks to the deep influences that photography would have later on in art and movements like French Impressionism.
In 1851, at an exhibition in Paris, Levitsky would win the first ever gold medal awarded for a portrait photograph.
In Paris, the Levitsky studio took photos of legendary personalities that included U.S. President Millard Filmore (1800-1874) and European Royalty.
The studio was the first foreign studio to be given the title of court photographer to Emperor Napoleon III of France.
St. Petersburg Studio
One of the first major photographic studios in Russia was owned and operated by Sergei Levitsky, who on his return from Paris in autumn 1849, opened a daguerreotype photo studio called "Light painting" in St. Petersburg on October 22, 1849.
It is Sergei Levitsky who first proposed the idea to artificially light subjects in a studio setting using electric lighting along with daylight saying of its use, "as far as I know this application of electric light has never been tried; it is something new, which will be accepted by photographers because of its simplicity and practicality".
On a trip to Rome, Sergei photographed a group of prominent Russian painters and writers including Nikolai Gogol, displaying his learned technical advancements. Levitsky’s portrait of Gogol is now believed to be the only known portrait of this great personality.
These photos were major successes for Levitsky and word spread quickly about a studio that had its employees traveling to the homes of customers with their daguerreotype apparatus.
Considered the best of Russia’s portrait photographers, the Levitsky studio photographed four generations of the Romanov dynasty. In 1877, it was awarded the title Photographer of their Royal Majesty.
Levitsky is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of famous artists, writers and public figures (included among these notable figures were Nikolai Nekrasov, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Vladimir Sollogub, Fedor Tyutchev, Peter Vyazemsky, Alexander Strugovshchikov, Vasily Botkin, Ivan Panaev, Pavel Annenkov, Dmitry Grigorovich, Alexander Herzen, Sergey Volkonsky and Tolstoy).
By the 1890s, the Levitsky St. Petersburg studio was a father son enterprise, with Rafail Levitsky working alongside his father.
Photo cards of this time have the distinctive Levitsky name ‘and Son’ (Russian: Левицкий и сын) both written as a signature and printed on their backs.
In May 1878, Sergei Levitsky was one of the founders of Russia’s first Photographic Societies, part of the Imperial Russian Technical Society; which saw him work alongside Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev and other scientists experimenting with photography using artificial light.
Sergei Levitsky was also a writer of articles for the Russian magazine "Photograph" and was actively involved in organizing national and international photographic exhibitions throughout his lifetime.
He wrote memoirs in two volumes entitled, Reminiscences of an Old Photographer (1892) and How I Became a Photographer (1896).
He is buried in St. Petersburg’s Smolenskoye Cemetery.
Upon his father’s death in 1898, Rafail Levitsky continued the operation and tradition of the Levitsky portrait studio taking the now famous photos of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra and their children Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, and Alexei Nikolaevich, Tsarevich of Russia.
So popular were the photos of the Romanovs that they were reproduced individually for public consumption in an ‘Edition A Bon Marche’ by Rafail.
While running the St. Petersburg studio, Rafail began the tradition of taking photos of everyday Russian actors and everyday Russian people while continuing the Studio’s resume of taking photos that included Russia’s who’s who including such luminaries as Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, Russian General Aleksei Nikolaievitch Kouropatkine and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The Levitsky Studio was located in Moika River Embankment, 30 (1860s), Nevsky Prospect, 28 (1890s), and Kazanskaya Street, 3 (1898, the house is not preserved).
The Levitsky St. Petersburg Studio remained in operation until it was closed by the Soviets in 1914.
The magnitude of Sergei and Rafail Levitsky’s catalogue raisonné remains unknown. Their influence on photographers, artists, their history, and their life’s artistic achievements were erased during the Soviet era; an era where aristocratic origins and ties to the Romanov family were cause for violent repression.
During the Soviet era the official government point of view on the development of photography in Russia in the pre-revolutionary period was: "In our country, before the Great October Socialist Revolution there was no photographic industry. Photographic products were found in only a few semi-artisan factories. Although our compatriots were associated with many of the crucial inventions in photography. .., the ruling circles of autocracy hampered the development of domestic photography as cameras, plates, and photographic paper were mainly imported from abroad".
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Sergei Lvovich Levitsky…
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