Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sophia Tolstoy, Photographer

"Joe's Bench" paper negative image by Joe Van Cleave

I'm studying a book about Countess Sophia (Sonya, to her family) Tolstoy, wife of author Leo Tolstoy. I say "studying," versus reading, because my interest is bound to the fact that the Countess was an accomplished amateur photographer, producing a body of work comprising about a thousand prints.

She produced her work using a wooden Kodak bellows plate camera, exposing 13 x 18 cm. glass plates, a "dry" emulsion much like modern black and white films, except its tonal range was actinic, blue sensitive only. This resemblance to my field of interest in paper negative photography is rather striking, one of the attractions that drew me to this book.

The countess was a busy woman, with 13 children and a husband in constant need of attention. Yet she managed to pursue her photography as an interstitial passion, between everything else.

I've struggled with finding the time, or rather the motivation, to pursue my photography with greater passion. Perhaps it's because my interests are so diluted amongst so many disparate activities. Jack of all trades, master of none. There's something to be said for a narrow focus upon a particular interest, pursuing it to the nth degree, mastering it with all of one's energy.

An excerpt from Sonya's diary of 14 July 1897: "I have been developing photographs all day, and making prints of the ones people have asked for..."

She developed her glass plates herself, then found time later to contact print them. She didn't have the formal dedicated darkroom space of the modern hobbiest, her's was found fitted in a closet under a stairwell, or other secluded location, makeshift and make do. Her photography, however, was a source of both inspiration and frustration, as are all things in life that inspire passion.

Diary entry 15 July 1897: "I got up late, developed some prints, then went swimming with Sasha and the governesses. Afterwards I did some more developing..."

Diary entry 16 July 1897: "I spent the evening pasting photographs into the album. I shall give them all away tomorrow, and shan't waste any more of my time on my photography. I did about 80."

Diary entry 17 July 1897: "I did more copying [of Tolstoy's manuscripts] and developed more photographs. I gave them all away today, and shall soon give up this hobby."

Diary entry 20 July 1897: "I stayed up late working on some photographs which had come out unsuccessfully..."

Diary entry 21 August 1897: "I took photographs all yesterday and today - flowers, the apple harvest, the apple trees, a hut and so on."

Diary entry 23 August 1897: "I waste my time on unsuccessful photographs ... which makes me feel very guilty ..."

It's evident from this chronology that she was both drawn to, and frustrated by, this creative passion that rewarded her successes as it reinforced her seeming lack of talent through every failure. Anyone who has attempted to do silver gelatin photography, and do it well, will instantly relate to these cycles of animated passion followed by forlorn doubts of one's skills.

In the shadow of contemporary imaging technology whose methods are designed, it seems, to cater to every whim of convenience for the photographer, continuing to pursue contact printing of large format, silver gelatin negatives seems not only anachronistic, but downright unnecessary, especially given the reality of Sonya's time when there were no alternatives. She can be forgiven for her employment of such crude methods, but we are left with no excuse, or so it would seem.

I still have more studying to do of this remarkable woman's life and photographic work. What I find remarkable about her work is her dedication and passion to her hobby, all the while taking care of her domestic affairs; and the uncanny technical resemblance her photographs have to the paper negative images that I create; the washed out whiteness of the skies, the tunnel-like central zone of sharp focus, the off-axis optical aberrations of her camera's lens. What is also striking, in comparison, is my obvious lack of talent. Another striking observation, from having studied many of her photographs, is the universality of her compositions. All of the usual "rules" seem to be observed, with an innate sophistication that seems derived from an inner aesthetic sensibility. For instance, in many of her outdoor group portraits she composes the image based on logical structural elements of the environs - nearby trees, columns of buildings, etc. - then places her subjects within this setting. A mere novice would be interested in only centering the group within the camera's frame, ignoring the surrounding environment, but Sonya takes into account the entire periphery of the scene in her pictures. The subjects are placed within a setting, rather than the setting being mere distractive background. This serves as reminder, in our time of inundation within digital media, that the basic elements of pictorial composition have been with us for millennia, predating the technical arts, and implies that we have much to learn in this regard from the study, rather than the destruction, of past culture.


Blogger Shute said...

Catching up...enjoyed this one.

1:38 PM  

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