May 29th, 2016

Unsung Masters of Russian Photography, part 6 (Karl Bulla)

Karl Bulla,Homeless Shelter, 1910.

A photograph by Karl Bulla, dated January 1, 1910, depicts lunch at a homeless shelter. We see a mass of humanity as men of all ages crowd around a table eating porridge. They are dressed in dirty, ill-fitting suits, while a few men standing in the background pour out the meal and another, dressed better, looks on in a way that suggests he’s the supervisor. There are three long tables and the deep perspective, underscored by the foreshortening of the coffered ceiling, further emphasizes the thick crowd. Most of the men have tousled hair and long beards; a few are too young to have any facial hair. Most remain intent on the meal, unperturbed by the presence of the photographer, the key exceptions being the middle-aged man in the foreground and the boy to his left. Intentionally or not, their juxtaposition speaks to the depth of suffering: it is as if there were no escape. Hunger lives on, from generation to generation.

The photograph is interesting from a technical point of view as well. There are no windows and the strong light on the foreground suggests that Bulla was using a flash. Note how it lights up the entire room. The technique is one that the famous Danish-born photographer Jacob Riis adopted in the 1890s. Riis had emigrated from Denmark to New York City and, using his connections with newspapers, began to photograph the seemier sides of life in that city. Perhaps Bulla knews these images?

The work of Jacob Riis created an outcry that eventually led to social reform in New York and, more broadly, the United States. What Bulla was documenting was, if anything, more dire. A few years later the Revolution broke out. Bulla was there to photograph it.