Placing the Past in a Frame: The Paradoxical Practice of Looking Back at Late Imperial St. Petersburg in Photographs and Picture Postcards

Julie A. Buckler, Harvard University

Photography has been characterized as democratically reproducible (Walter Benjamin), as comment or quote (Susan Sontag), and as a medium possessing an “evidential force” that must nevertheless be “developed” by the viewer (Roland Barthes). Christian Metz has productively explored the connections between photography and fetish, photography and death. Most recently, performance theorist Peggy Phelan has suggested that “photography might be the best medium we have for responding to the ongoing temporality of the work of mourning,” since as an art photography “both serves as a witness to life and as a rehearsal for death” (Signs, 2002). My talk treats two related types of visual artifacts that capture vanished aspects of late imperial St. Petersburg – photographs and picture postcards based on photographic technology -- and the different ways in which these representations were received as cultural texts asserting presence in their own time and now asserting absence in ours. I consider cultural phenomena such as the new technological and artistic possibilities in the early years of the twentieth century, the growth in mass tourism, and the evolution of photography into an elective individual or family documentary form as well as an official one, alongside the nostalgic framing of cultural-historical fragments that survived from this period one hundred years later in the post-Soviet context, a double framing, in fact, due to the post-revolutionary eradication of so much imperial-era realia. Both of the “documentary” visual forms treated here developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and over the course of the twentieth century, both forms came to function as counterparts to the physical preservation of artifacts in museum-culture. On the one hand, photographs and picture postcard themselves became material artifacts to be archived, displayed in museums, and reproduced in book “collections,” while on the other hand, these visual representations made possible an alternative strategy for framing and preserving the past, one by which the tangible traces of this past were simultaneously rendered present and absent.

Among the topics under consideration in my paper are the numerous “picture postcard” books that have been published since the 1990s and the sale of such postcards in antiquarian shops since the early 1990s, the publication of albums such as the St. Petersburg volume from the series “Rossiia, kotoroi net” (Russia That Is No More), which features images originally produced by the photography house of Karl Bulla and Sons, currently archived in the Central State Archive of Documentary Films and Photographs (TsGAKFD), and a recent book called The Camera and the Tsars (Charlotte Zeepvat, 2004), which features photographs dating back as far as the reign of Alexander II. My paper will attempt to reconstruct hypothetical “readings” of such images from the juxtaposed perspectives of historical and contemporary viewers.