Friday, June 15, 2012

Song Without Words

In the process of reading Anna Karenina recently I recalled that Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, was a photographer.  I went looking on line for information about her and turned up a nice little review of the book, Song Without Words by Leah Bendavid-Val.  The review author is himself a blogger, photographer and resident of Albuquerque, Joe Van Cleave.  He does a nice job of selecting excerpts from the book and giving them some perspective from the point of view of a photographer.

I thought the book was excellent in its presentation of the life of Sophia Tolstoy in her own words and pictures.  A few of the photographs have been published elsewhere, but the great majority are made available for the first time in the book.  I checked out the book from our library, but I'll likely get a copy for myself as it can be had for near nothing from on line booksellers through Amazon.

There is one question which I have about pictures at the beginning and end of the book which show a small 5x7-format view camera said to be the one used by Sophia Tolstoy.  As Van Cleave faithfully reports in his review, the illustrated camera was said to be a Kodak purchased around 1895.  At that time, George Eastman was in the process of buying up camera companies in Rochester and slapping his company name on the products, which did include view cameras.  I looked through the online catalogs from the period and could not find anything that looked very much like the camera in the book.

I did find several on line illustrations of very similar cameras such as this one at the Live Auctioneers site which is a back-focusing tailboard model.

This camera and the others like it I found were identified as being of German origin, circa 1880.  In the above illustration, you can see a shutter module in the background which is not shown in the book.  Given the style and content of the pictures made by Sophia, it seems very likely that she would have had a shutter on her camera, rather than just relying on a lens cap for making the exposures. I think it is pretty clearly not a Kodak, so one has to wonder if the camera in the book made the photos, or if recollections about the camera's origin have become clouded by time.

In any case, the camera's identity is a pretty small part of the well-told story.  The book contains facsimiles from Sophia's diary entries and the there is no question about the authenticity of the photographs.  There is a nice selection of the photos from the book which can be found at the photo-eye bookstore site.


robert said...

Looks an interesting book to be sure. I wonder if Leo encouraged her pursuit of photography or thought that she was just the family biographer.

Mike said...

Leo Tolstoy admired his wife's energy and compassion, and he modeled his admirable female characters such as Kitty on her. However, the idea that Sophia could have a somewhat independent creative life apart from supporting her husband's endeavors was not an idea he would entertain.

Mike said...

I came across another camera listed on ebay that closely resembles the camera in the book. This one is identified as being made in 1884 by Rudolph Widmayer,Leipzig. Could by yours for the bargain Buy-It-Now price of $4,500. (