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Page 44 (10 pages)
A well-dressed man with a flowing beard is stepping cautiously as he makes his way up a dusty hill. Carefully guiding a small cart loaded with lacquered wooden boxes, he tries not to rattle his load. The man strains as he pushes his cart to the summit, where he pauses to take in the view. Below, rushing between steep banks and sandy shoals, cutting a path through gullies and forested slopes, Russia’s mighty Volga stretches from one horizon to the other.
Old Believers in the village of Kuznetsovo, Semyonovsky uyezd, late 1890s.(Photo courtesy of Russian Museum of Photography, Nizhny Novgorod)
The man begins unpacking his load. Out comes a massive tripod, an unwieldy portable camera, and 12-inch glass plates. It will soon be ten years since he began one of history’s greatest photographic essays: a chronicle of the Volga from its headwaters to its delta, spanning nearly 3,700 kilometers and capturing thousands of images, a hundred cities and villages, and the way of life of dozens of peoples. In short, it captures the state of a nation on the verge of the twentieth century.
The man’s name was Maxim Petrovich Dmitriev. His ancestors were serfs, and he was both a talented artist and a successful entrepreneur. Photography was his art and his business, but he also used it to highlight pressing social issues.
Dmitriev was Russia’s first photojournalist. Equally talented at taking portraits of nobles and beggars, his photo archive came to include both great writers and destitute gypsies. He earned good money through studio photography and spent tens of thousands of rubles on his documentary projects (what those in the business today call “personal projects”).
His documentary work garnered enthusiastic reviews for their authenticity and relevance – and ended up being criticized for the same qualities. His photographs won dozens of awards at exhibits in Russia and abroad. Albums of his work were wildly successful, yet Dmitriev became neither a star nor a legend. He did, however, preserve an entire era for posterity.
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