May 26th, 2016

Unsung Masters of Russian Photography, part 4 (Sergey Levitsky)

Empress Consort of Alexander II Maria Alexandrovna. by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky, 1855.

Given the masterful quality of his work and his many innovations, how is it that Levitsky is not better known in Russia and abroad?

Maybe he was just born at the wrong time. His major patrons—Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II—could not have been better chosen to help him fall out of grace once the Bolsheviks came to power. Despite photographing Herzen, the father of socialism, Levitsky’s work smelled of tsarism and that was enough to undermine his position as a leading innovator in early photography.

Tsarevitch Alexander later Alexander III and Princess Dagmar of Denmark, by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1865.

Bolsheviks also believed that photography smacked of a corrupting Western influence and that real photography only began after the Revolution, as it acquired aims and techniques compatible to the new regime.

Tsarevitch Alexander later Alexander III, by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1865.

Perhaps, too, the imperial patronage he enjoyed undermined his later work from an artistic point of view. Photographing a great thinker seems to have given him a freedom to peer beneath the surface. Taking such liberties with a tsar or tsarina would not do. There were conventions to be observed, proprieties to respect.

Tsarevitch Alexander later Alexander III, by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1865.

Levitsky presents one of the great “ifs” of photographic history. What if he had stayed in Paris longer and developed his contacts with the artists and photographers there? What if he had been allowed to develop his talent? Would posterity have treated him more kindly if the Revolution had not instilled a new series of values? History is written in the indicative; sometimes we need to write think about it in the conditional.