Early 20th century photographer unveils poignant picture of a lost Bulgaria
In early 2021 veteran Kazanlak-based photographer Alexander Ivanov went to the Shipka community culture house called Svetlina, founded in 1861, to inspect "some negatives" that had been gathering the dust in cardboard boxes. The boxes were donated to the culture house in 1995. Previously, they had been stashed at the Chirpanliev House in Shipka in the course of 26 years.
What Alexander Ivanov discovered in those boxes changed his life – and the story of what little there is to 20th century Bulgarian photography.
A family portrait
Ivanov's discovery consisted of about 500 mainly 4x6' glass plates in various stages of decrepitude. They were produced by Antip Koev Obushtarov (1888-1942), the village photographer of Shipka. Though almost every household in Shipka owned at least one image produced by him, no one in the wider world had heard about him, Ivanov included.
Going through the glass plates and some remaining contact prints Ivanov gradually became obsessed with Obushtarov's life and work. Here was a unknown early 20th century man who was obviously neither very well educated, nor very famous. Yet that man produced stunning imagery that by far surpassed anything done at the time in the big Bulgarian cities including Sofia. Obushtarov photographed village weddings and funerals, local men going to wars and drinking in the Shipka taverns, White Russian emigres congregating at the notorious Russian Church at Shipka and workers at the local lemonade factory. His models included high school graduates and customers of a shop for fur coats and hats, whole families going out for a picnic and unmarried girls sporting the fashion of the day.
Russian priests and nuns at the Russian Church at Shipka
Possibly the most dramatic images produced by Antip Koev Obushtarov depict his slain mother, pregnant sister and brother-in-law. Why would a photographer want to take pictures of his dead relatives – and why were these relatives dead in the first place? In 1925 the Bulgarian Communist Party organised a terrorist attack at the St Nedelya Church in Sofia by placing a bomb in its dome. 134 people died, over 500 were wounded. The king himself narrowly avoided the blast as he ran late for the funeral service of a general that was taking place at the time. The "Red Terror" of the Communists was followed by the "White Terror" of the agencies of the state. The police at Shipka hunted down a known and active Communist, whom they ambushed and shot. Antip Koev Obushtarov's mother, sister and brother-in-law were just passers-by, but the tsarist police did not want to take chances by leaving any witnesses. The three were shot dead and left on the road. Obushtarov took his camera and documented the gruesome scene.
Antip Koev Obushtarov's mother, pregnant sister and brother-in-law murdered by the tsarist police in 1925
There is a plethora of stories like this that Alexander Ivanov researched and gathered as a result of that fateful visit to the Svetlina culture house in 2021. Slowly, village life in Shipka and its vicinity opened itself up for his inquisitive eyes – with all its joys, sadness and dramas. But what impressed him most was not the work of a human but of... nature. The glass plates that had spent almost 100 years in a dirty and damp environment, under the stairs of Antip's brother's house, were in many cases tarnished by the elements beyond repair. Yet nature worked selectively. While some plates were almost blank, with their emulsion peeled off, there were those where nature had played out as an artist. In almost Rorscharchian fashion various fungi had eaten parts of the photographic emulsion creating surreal and abstract artworks in the process.
Self-portrait of Antip Koev Obushtarov
Characteristically, the Bulgarian Culture Ministry was unimpressed by Ivanov's discovery and the work of Antip Koev Obushtarov. The coffee-table sized book and the exhibition that he curated and produced were paid for entirely by private donations.
It took Alexander Ivanov over a year to select and curate Antip Koev Obushtarov's glass plates
All photographs © Svetlina Community Culture House-1861, Shipka
Curated by Aleksandar Ivanov, Kazanlak
Scanned and processed by Victor Gerasimov
At the village tavern
An outing by a novel automobile
A group portrait
A glass plate "eaten" by time and the elements