The collection of photographs and negatives of the Museum of the Bolshoi Theatre has a great number of unique items. The collection comprises masterpieces by Russian photographers who have been recognized as classics of theatrical photography, including C. A. Fischer, M. A. Sakharov, A. A. Gornshtein, E. P. Umnov, and G. F. Solovyev. The collection serves as an excellent source of materials to study the history of Russian theatrical photography.
The most valuable portion of the collection is its corpus of photographs dating from the 1860s–1910s. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, many theatrical companies acknowledged the significance of photography, and many theatres established their own studios.
For example, in the Moscow Art Theatre, K. S. Stanislavski and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko introduced a system for the compulsory photographing of scenes from plays and actors, and then organized backstage photo shoots after rehearsals. In the Bolshoi Theatre, it was A. A. Gorsky that initiated systematic photo shoots.
The Directorate of the Moscow Imperial Theatres promoted photography-related initiatives, which was expressed in the 1893/1894 Yearbook of the Imperial Theatres: “Photography is of great importance in the context of theatres and artistry. The photographing of individual artists wearing costumes and makeup, and, above all, in complete stage settings, should be extremely helpful to theatre with regard to the practical endeavor of both artists and directors, and as a valuable contribution to the history of theatre.1 The Office of the Moscow Imperial Theatres engaged the best Moscow photographers, who obtained exclusive rights to work at the theatres and gained the status of “photographers of the Imperial Theatres,” of which they were very proud, and for which they had to compete quite fiercely with their peers.
The directors and choreographers of the opera and ballet companies were the main participants and managers of photo shoots at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Photographs enabled them to analyze the expressiveness of mise-en-scène, make adjustments to makeup, costumes, and postures of performers. Photographs were made when cinema was taking its first steps; therefore, they were often the only means to keep a visual image of a certain performer or theatrical performances, the memories of which were otherwise recorded only in written documents.
The first photographs of performances at the Bolshoi Theatre were taken at the end of the 1880s and beginning of the 1890s. Moscow-based photographer R. Yu. Thiele used a magnesium flash lamp to take pictures of scenes from the opera “Othello” and the ballet-féerie “The Magic Pills”. However, the method of taking photographs caused fire safety concerns at the Office of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, and the photographs themselves were considered of poor quality — they turned out to be overly retouched, which spoilt the general impression of the pictures.
Positive results were achieved in the first half of the 1890s. Scenes were shot at the Bolshoi Theatre during dress rehearsals. Prior to shooting, a frame with a reflector on it were centrally installed at a distance of 16 arsheen from the stage to mount flash lights and photographic cameras.
When the actors approached the selected scene, the director gave orders to the photographer to open the lids of the cassettes with highly sensitive negative plates, and then camera lenses. At that moment, all of the stage and audience lights went on, and the photographer used the magnesium flash light. This sort of shooting was referred to as “momentary” or “almost momentary”, although it lasted for a few seconds, and the actors on stage had to remain static, which affected the action on stage and made it less natural.
For this reason, shoots were often conducted at the very beginning or the end of acts. Despite these intricacies, the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres was aware of the importance of the photographic documentation of the shows and went to great lengths to promote this work. Magnesium flash lights were later replaced by electrical lamps with voltaic arcs and special electric lighting systems. The time required for photographic fixation was reduced as new technologies emerged, which markedly improved the quality of photographs.
Portraits of the artists employed by the Imperial Theatres were shot at photographic studios in the second half of the 19th century. An artist could commission any Moscow photographer to make his or her portrait, but there were favorites — those specializing in theatrical photography. A. F. Eykhenvald did not have the status of a “photographer of the Imperial Theatres”, but he was immensely popular with artists and created in the 1870s–1880s a gallery of excellent portraits, including the photographs of A. G. Rubinstein and Désirée Artôt, who was on a tour of Russia at that time.
Apparently, he owed his popularity to the fact that his wife I. I. Eykhenvald I, née Papendik, and daughter N. A. Eykhenvald II, married name Donskaya, played the harp in the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, while the other two daughters — M. A. Eykhenvald-Trezvinskaya and M. A. Eykhenvald-Dubrovskaya — were singing in the opera company of the Bolshoi Theatre.
The daughter of another, official, photographer of the Imperial Theatres, M. N. Konarsky, who received the status in 1868, was also an opera singer. A bit later, after 1872, the photographer I. G. Dyagovchenko became an official photographer of the Imperial Theatres, and his successor K. A. Fischer, began working for the Bolshoi and Maly Theatres starting the 1890s.
Shooting artists in costumes in studios was somewhat inconvenient, because actors and actresses had to transport their costumes, accessories, and some of the properties to studios, and then had to put on their makeup and costumes.
They posed against the backdrop of an abstract stage set in a studio, where only the makeup and costumes helped the viewer identify the dramatic character. The artist of the opera company of the Bolshoi Theatre B. B. Korsov could be photographed against the backdrop of the same drawn landscape in the same studio whether he was posing as Mizgir in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden” or Count of Nevers in “The Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The decorative papier-mâché rocks served as the same background for the ballet dancer E. V. Geltser and the singer L. V. Sobinov.
The ballet-master A. A. Gorsky was one of the initiators of the creation of the Bolshoi Theatre’s own shooting studio. A special room was designated in the hold section under the stage, and artists went there after dress rehearsals, still filled with emotions and having a strong connection to their character.
The appearance of the artist at the shooting location had to correspond to the artistic concept and comply with specific standards. On 4 May 1901, head of the assembling section N. K. Bool reported to the general manager of the Moscow Office of the Imperial Theatres V. A. Telyakovsky that the artist of the ballet company A. A. Giuri “voluntarily cut her tunica in the presence of other dancers in order to be in the photograph in a shorter skirt. The following day, she was summoned to the Office, where she was reprimanded for the ruined costume and received an instruction that “the photograph needed to be made anew, for short skirts were disallowed.”
The directors and choreographers of the opera and ballet companies were all involved in photo shoots. They adjusted the settings and examined test prints provided by photographers, and gave authorizations to print numerous copies of any given photograph. Special notebooks were preserved in A. A. Gorsky’s archives with photographs and comments (pieces of librettos, dialogues of characters, stage directions, etc. The images helped choreographers to analyze the expressiveness of their productions and technical mastery of dancers.
Ballet dancers are known to have a special attitude to photography. They do remember the advice by the prominent Italian ballet-master Carlo Blasis, who said that a dancer must serve as a worthy model for an artist and a sculptor at any moment — and they remember it even when they are in front of the camera.
They believe that their mastery should be captured in the picture, but theatrical photographers operated machines that were quite imperfect, so they never took risks and mostly shot “poses.” It was inconceivable for the photographers of the Imperial Theatres to fix jumps — the culmination of the act of dancing. The first attempts to capture flying dancers and the dynamics of movements became possible as late as the second half of the 1920s.
Curator — Bolshoi Theatre