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The evolution of St. Petersburg photography. From the first shot to drone footage


This is the first photograph of St. Petersburg. Literally the first. Pushkin had been gone for a few years, Tchaikovsky was just born, Nicholas the I is on the throne. And that was in the early 1840s when Iosif Hamel took the first shot - that of Academy of Sciences. This picture started the history of St. Petersburg’s photography


Lets be honest - the shot is not a good one. From the perspective of photographic art, its absolutely empty. Almost like Iosif Hamel was testing out his gear. But even if so - it kick-started a photo hunt, which sees no end. Here’s a huge panorama which dates back to 1861, several meters in length. «Right of ownership» was only just abolished, but an unknown St. Petersburg photographer was already atop the Admiralty to take a picture of the city. St. Petersburg is the city of photo fanatics!

All first St. Petersburg photographs were empty - due to technical peculiarities and huge … Lifeless streets and squares, empty rivers and canals. But everything changed at once - with Karl Bulla’s photorevolution. He modified lenses - so photographs became sharper and the residents appeared on those.

We bring a camera from the times of Karl Bulla on top of the photo shop - the spot where he made his famous shots of Nevskiy Prospect. Even wheels on tripod’s legs do not make our task any easier. Definitely - you had to break a lot of sweat in those days to make a picture.

- Valentin Evgeniyevich, i understand that this one and others were made approximately from this spot here?

Valentin Elbek, president, Fund of historic photography named after Karl Bulla: «Yeah, those were indeed made from here - because the panorama of Gostinnyi Dvor, those iconic pictures of Nevskiy were made from this angle and in this direction».

  • and that was the city which the whole world saw at the time?

  • That picture and many others spread across the world for another reason too. That no-one could have imagined something like that. This was something unnatural for that era.

Around the same time, St. Petersburg witnessed the arrival of «open letter» - postcard! In 1895 the first postcard with St. Petersburg’s views was printed - and dozens of photographers began to roam the city, with a governor’s special permission. Thanks to postcards, photographic images of St. Petersburg spread in Russian and then the whole Europe.

  • Every St. Petersburg resident knows too well what «postcard view of the city» means. We trademarked it! But how were those views chosen by photographers?

Irina Panchenko, head researcher at State Russian Museum: «Considering that lightography appeared later than all other forms of art, it combined art and graphics - so it largely used the same views as painters opted for. Its bizarre - photographers did not create a new St. Petersburg with their pictures, they recreated the St. Petersburg which had been portrayed earlier by painters».

That postcard lasted for only 20 years. After revolution classic St. Petersburg postcard vanished, and only decades later it was replaced by Leningrad postcard - with its own views, specifics and rules. It became part of photo-history, but photographers went further than just postcard views. They broke them and turned them inside out - like the great Leningrad photogrpapher Boris Smelov.

Photo reporter Anton Vaganov has been capturing the New St. Petersburg - the one which we have seen over the last five years. Using a long-scoped lens from different parts of the city, Anton manages to fit class St. Petersburg with the Petropavlovskaya Fortress’ spire, Soviet Leningrad with its suburbs and the modern one with Lakhta-Center, the stadium and the WSD.

Anton Vaganov, photo reporter: «Really, there are interesting shots where you can see different epochs within one frame. Some have the stadium and the cathedral, some have the Lakhta-Center and the spire of the Petropavlovskaya Fortress, or - to the contrary - the suburbs with the Stadium rising above them. It could be interesting from an aesthetics point of view. But im engaged in news photography, so it has to carry some information. So it tells a story - there was a city before the stadium and after».

Vaganov’s pictures give us a chance to see three St. Petersburg’s in one shot and think of the city as one. There is another way too - with a bird eye’s view, using a drone. Sergey Degtyarev has been filming the city from above, creating an absolutely new look. Walking down a beach, see an interesting angle, light or twilight - and lift the drone in the air immediately.

- if you look at history, the city has really been filmed only from the land or water - but I saw a picture from up above. Its totally different and the city looks different on it.

Sergey Degtyarev, photographer: «Look, for me - drone pictures are a logical continuation of pictures made from rooftops. Because perception of St. Petersburg becomes complete with shots made from elevated spots - and we’ve been looking for such spots at squares and buildings. Sometimes we managed to find a good angle, sometimes not. Drone allows you to fill without any compromises. Just how you want it!»

Meaning that you would want to see a chariot above the archway of the Headquarters in the middle of the shot. Or to have the angels of the Isaakievskiy Cathedral in the forefront. From this height one can see the geometrical blueprint of rivers and streets of our city. And from there you can make the city unrecognizable. Although St. Petersburg looks even more peculiar from space - lets thank our cosmonauts at the ISS for this historic shot.