Words By: Ann Svanidze

Isn’t it incredible how photography can magically transport you in the bygone era and walk you through the historical and cultural chronicles of a particular period?

This lengthy post is dedicated to some of the lesser-known yet marvelous and brave Georgian photographers of the 19th century.

19th century Georgia saw the emergence of Russia as the new imperial power, slowly expanding its territorial control over Georgia and the greater Caucasus. Tbilisi, strategically located, served as a meeting point, a thriving metropolis on the crossroads where several empires passed through, leaving their unmistakable cultural influences. Through Mid-1800 to 1900, Tbilisi went through socio-political developments, urbanization, and industrialization. In the final decades of the 19th century, the Georgian national movement seeking to preserve national history, culture, and identity was deep-rooted, and the sentiment to fight against oppression was strong. 

© “Alexandre Roinashvili The First Photographer” 2001, “Alexandre Roinashvili The First Georgian Photographer” volume II, 2007.

Alexandre Roinashvili | 1846-1898

Photography, as a medium, quickly gained popularity in Tbilisi in the 1940s, both commercially and as much-needed machinery of the state. When we talk about photography and its development throughout the 19th century, we think of Alexandre Roinashvili (1846-1898), the founding father of Georgian Photography. Before he made an appearance, it was mostly Russians and Europeans who practiced photography. They either settled in or passed through Tbilisi, and brought with them technical and aesthetic know-how. In the 1860s, photography, to varying degrees, was an instrument of the state, recording the expansion of the Russian Empire. It was a fundamental tool documenting the archeological and military expeditions, topographic and ethnographic studies, and educational and cultural programs that further promoted the imperial agenda. 

© TPMM – Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum. | “Alexandre Roinashvili The First Photographer” 2001, “Alexandre Roinashvili The First Georgian Photographer” volume II, 2007.

During that period, Georgian intellectuals, influenced by liberal philosophy, were fighting to restore the Georgian language and national identity that Russians were trying so hard to diminish. Alexandre Roinashvili was genuinely interested in the history of his homeland, strongly advocated cultural preservation. He traveled a lot in Georgia, Caucasus, and different cities and regions of the Russian Empire, the photographs of which are an integral and unique part of his legacy.

He was particularly fond of photographing historical monuments and cultural artifacts. As early as 1870-80s, he began collecting antiques, and in the 1880s, he set up a museum in Temir-khan-Shura (today Buynaksk, Russia), where he lived for eight years.

 At the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, Temir-Khan-Shura was the administrative center of Dagestan from 1866, and one of the most important midpoints in the entire Caucasus. It was the center where all the North Caucasian antiques came together, as evidenced by A. Roinashvili’s and others’ records. Roinashvili, through his photography, developed a divergent narrative of the Caucasus, one that defied Russian Imperial Agenda.

Born to a poor family in Dusheti, the Eastern part of Georgia, Alexandre Roinahsvili, was raised solely by his mother. His father passed away earlier in his childhood, and Dusheti peasantry helped with paying off all their bills, a very charitable endeavor in tough times back in the days. In his teenage years, at the age of 14, Alexandre was sent to Tbilisi. That is where he started his apprenticeship with the iconic Russian photographer Fyodor Khlamov. In 1860-1865, with the help of Khlamov, Alexander became the first Georgian photographer to open his Photo studio in Tbilisi. Talented as he was, he soon made a name for himself. Roinashvili endeavored to create a social change, bring to the fore Georgian national and cultural identity amidst the imperial ideology. His work spans a very complex period of the 19th century and chronicles the life of the Georgian society from all walks of life.

One of the most ambitious projects he had in mind was his determination to open a Georgian National Museum. First steps towards his dream translated into creating “the traveling museum of the Caucasus” erected in a carriage that would showcase his collection to the public. It is fascinating to hear that the mobile museum was a real success. It traveled to Temur Khan Shura, Astrakhan, Moscow, and Petrograd. The museum presented archeological, ethnographic, numismatic works along with thousands of photographs. Unfortunately, Roinashvili never managed to realize his dream because he died in 1898, at the age of fifty-two. He transferred all of his estates to the Society for the Dissemination of Literacy among Georgians. His will reads as follows “I leave all my property, including a photographic institution, all the negatives, cameras, photographs, also all the archeological and antique objects as a legal property to the Society for Dissemination of Literacy among Georgians.”

Gigo GabaShvili| 1862-1936

Gigo Gabashvili is an exceptional artist, a creative who is considered to be the founder of Realism in Georgian painting. When it comes to photography, he loved to experiment. A female image has a special place in his work. Both through his paintings and photography, he examined conscious and subconscious human instincts. His daring and bold vision was a real revelation for the Soviet era and oppressive regime of the time.

Nino Jorjadze| 1862-1936

Nino Jorjadze – first Georgian woman war photographer who witnessed and captured the horrors of WWI and everyday life on the frontlines. For the 100th anniversary of WWI, Nino Jorjadze’s work became accessible for the public for the first time. Her frank visual documentation of the war happenings, along with the personal diary she kept describing the harsh reality of war, makes for a priceless heritage.

Shalva Alkhanaidze | 1950-1975

© Shalva Alkhanaidze. On the Road To Tusheti. 1950-1975 შალავა ალხანაიძე. თუშეთის გზაზე. 1950-1975

Shalva Alkhanaidze is a self-taught Georgian photographer from Tusheti, Georgia’s remotest mountain region in the northeast, bordering Dagestan and Chechnya. Not much was known about Alkhanaidze until 2005 when his work came to light by accident. Since then, he has been esteemed as one of the distinguished artists of the late 20th-century whose work escapes the soviet photographic dogmas. His portrait series of people seated before a stretched tarp is especially striking with its simplicity and authenticity.

Rezo Kezeli | 1925-1988

Rezo Kezeli is another rare find, a talented Georgian photographer discovered by chance at the beginning of the 90s. The negatives of an unknown photographer were found in the storehouse of the Institute of Physics, which shed light on Kezeli’s work, which completely defies soviet cliches and contextual dogmas. His photographs are free from the strict aesthetics that characterized the Soviet era. With his visual aesthetics, he somehow managed to tell a completely different story of people and places around him, a very non-soviet one.

If you got to this point, I would suggest visiting TPMM (Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum) for inspiring narratives. TPMM is entirely dedicated to the contemporary image in its different forms – photography, new media, video.

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