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Their photo draws you into a space at the same time familiar and abstruse. They’re a group of nine young people in total, lined up together with their musical instruments against a background a lot less neat and orderly than their attire. You feel like you know what they sound like, and you wish you could hear them play. On the drum, the photographer scratched a title and a date, one of the personal touches that he sometimes left on his undeveloped work: “Music. Jaz [spelled like this in the photo]. Slobozia 1943. “ Underneath he wrote “Foto Axinte.”
There are thousands of people like them: enrolled in the army during World War II, bearing traces of the war in their clothing; women holding their hands behind their backs, looking at the camera in a way that’s perhaps shy, perhaps contrived; people leaning against the fence of a house that may or may not be theirs; children dressed in traditional Romanian blouses, ii, at the end of the school-year celebrations; barefoot children next to adults wearing shoes; people next to coffins and people next to newborn children; a family who brought its calf to the photo studio – all of them having in common that they’ve been photographed before 1950 by Costica Acsinte, the best-known photographer in the Baragan Plain in southeastern Romania.
Costica – who sometimes spelled his last name Axinte, and other times Acsinte – had a photographic studio on Matei Basarab Street, which is, up to this day, the main boulevard in Slobozia, a city 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Bucharest. Around 1984, after his death, the Ialomita County Museum obtained, through a donation from his family, Acsinte’s negatives, the glass photographic plates, and sheet film.
A former employee of the museum said that they found the negatives stored in a sort of shed, exposed to humidity and dust. They cleaned and made records for some of them, and, in the absence of experts who could take care of them, stored them in wooden boxes, wrapped in insulation material. Throughout the years, the museum – which boasts about its exhibits going back to prehistory, but also about its ethnographic or World War I artifacts – used some of Costica’s photos in exhibitions about the city, but never had the resources to turn the few thousand negatives, from objects kept in boxes, into memories.
The Ialomita County Museum has 20 employees and two locations opened for visitors: the research base at Orasul de Floci and the art and religious culture monument Maia-Catargi, where 19th century politician Barbu Catargiu is buried. The former was built on the ruins of the homonymous medieval market town, which served as the birthplace of renowned 16th century Wallachian ruler Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave).
The situation persisted until Cezar Popescu, a 38-year-old photographer from Slobozia with an inquiring mind and some leisure time at his disposal, became curious about Acsinte in 2007, after the museum released a limited series of postcards based on the latter’s photos. Popescu then volunteered to make Acsinte’s work more widely known.
Most of the information available about Acsinte comes from Foto Splendid Acsinte, a bilingual biography in Romanian and English published by the museum in 2009, and written by George Stoian, a journalist and former school inspector. Constantin (Costica) Axinte was born in 1897, in the village of Perieti, a stone’s throw from Slobozia, the second of seven children of a family where the father was a plowman, and the mother was a housewife. Following his dream of becoming a pilot, he enrolled in the Cotroceni pilot training school, but he did not receive his pilot license. He did, however, fly during World War I, after enrolling as volunteer, and worked, until 1920, as an army photographer.
In 2007, the Ialomita County Museum bought from his descendants an album containing personal photographs that Acsinte took on the frontline. The price paid was 4,500 leu ($1,512, or around 1,285 euros at the 2007 exchange rate).
According to what Stoian found out, the Perieti native learned about photography while working as an apprentice in a photo studio in Bucharest, and, using equipment borrowed from the studio in the capital, he managed to build his career little by little. His most prolific period was between 1930 and 1950 – everybody knew him and came to have their photo taken at Foto Splendid, his small photography studio and lab right in the heart of Slobozia. And yet Acsinte did not take all his photos in the studio. He would get on his bike and roam the surrounding villages, going as far as Calarasi, a city located 45 kilometers away. At the beginning of the 20th century, Slobozia was a small town that had only two paved streets and only gained its status of county seat in 1968.
Acsinte retired in 1960 and, a short time after, his studio was demolished. Nothing is known about the photos he might have taken after his retirement; except for his photo on the cross by his grave, no photo of him seems to have survived. Only a handful of buildings from the city he knew survive, the biggest one being the 17th century Slobozia monastery; the rest of the city was completely transformed by communism. The houses in the old city center became four- or eight-floor buildings, and the population, formerly made up of famers and small entrepreneurs, also included workers in nearby chemical factories.
But the glass photographic plates, once rediscovered by Popescu, brought that world back to life.
Cezar has a bristly, salt-and-pepper beard and hair; his eyes sparkle playfully behind his glasses; and he always wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, even at the different events in Bucharest where he was invited to talk about the collection. In 2013, he applied for a grant from the County Council, but, up to this date, still hasn’t received any answer. Because he didn’t want to wait any longer, he spent 2,000 euros on a laptop, a high-performance scanner, a hard disk where he could save all his scans, and the necessary software.
In November 2013 he started taking the plates one by one, cleaning and scanning them – a few dozen a day, depending on his time and energy. The total number of plates is most likely up to 5,000; given that a plate sometimes has two or three photos on it, the total number of scanned images could end up being as high as 10,000.
Cezar created his own technique, based on what he read on online forums and in books. He usually lines up all the plates on a table, and then wipes them on the back with window cleaner. Using a small ruler, he removes the occasional dirt and soil from the glass, if necessary. Once the back of the plate is clean, he wipes the other side, which is covered in gelatin, with microfiber tissue doused in isopropyl alcohol mixed with water. In order to obtain a better result while scanning, he uses silicone oil bought from car shops to cover the micro-fissures of the photonegative. The scanning is the easiest part, followed by image processing, and the posting of the images on colectiacosticaacsinte.eu, and on every major social network.
Although his father was a photographer who worked at a craftsmen’s cooperative in town, Cezar learned most tricks of the trade on his own – his father never insisted on passing on the torch. With his first camera, a Soviet-made Smena he bought with the money he earned caroling when he was 10, Cezar shot one roll, and then, disappointed by the small size of the photos developed by his father, he gave up. He took up photography again after high school, using a Fuji-brand compact camera.
He graduated from law school and worked for a few years as a legal adviser in Slobozia and Calarasi, but resigned because he had to commute, and because, once he got to work, he finished too quickly what he had to do. “It’s not nice to sit around doing nothing, or at least I got bored of it. And I left [this job] and started working as a photographer on a boat.” With the money earned from his first commission in the United States, he bought a DSLR camera. Nowadays, he makes a living by working at a company doing thermal treatments for refineries, where he is one of the people doing these treatments, and by administering some websites. When he is not checking if pipes across the country are properly welded, Cezar can work from home, which allows him to take care of his eight-year-old daughter – while his wife works as a lawyer – and to devote time to his projects, presented on the website of the NGO Atelierele Albe, which aims to promote cultural projects. “Precisely because I have so much spare time, I took on this funny Acsinte project,” Cezar told me at the end of last winter.
“They’re getting lost, you know, they’re getting lost,” he says about his decision to scan the negatives. “If nobody scans them, they’re gone. And besides, these are cool photos.” Cezar knew what to expect once he started scanning, but he didn’t expect the reactions he got.
Still, everything seemed fit for the project’s reach to spread beyond Romania’s borders, given that the site had the .eu domain, and was in English. His collection became the first Romanian one on Flickr: The Commons, an archive for museums and institutions that have old photos, which are no longer protected by copyright licenses.
Once they are uploaded to the site, the photos he scans on a particular day automatically get posted on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google +. Thanks to Twitter, which Cezar never used before starting to scan the collection, a TIME magazine journalist found out about him. The collective fascination for past images is constantly stoked on the internet, where the Twitter HistoryInPics account is followed daily by 1.5 million people; where sites like Retronaut and Shorpy feed Tumblr and Pinterest boards; where the happenchance discovery of Vivian Maier, a nanny with an eye for photography, became a phenomenon and a theme for two documentaries. Those feeding on internet images automatically come across a past that, as remote geographically or culturally as it might be, leave them asking for more.
The TIME article dedicated to him at the beginning of 2014 was enough for news about the photographer from “Ialomita county” to spring into international media. Local, county media, which consist of a couple of newspapers and a TV station, weren’t exactly abuzz about the treasure at the museum, which was, however, covered by the UK’s Daily Mail. “I didn’t give this much thought. I initially only wanted to upload them to the internet and that was all, to scan them as quickly as I could, so that they wouldn’t get spoiled. After that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I still don’t,” Cezar says.
Although he accepted one interview after another, aware that the media exposure increased public awareness of the collection, he knew that the spotlight lasts as long as the lights are on you, and then, once it disappears, it leaves too little trace. “You feel cool when you’re trending, when you receive a call from people at TIME. But nobody knows about you anymore the following day or week. It’s not such a big deal. I find it more important to go about my business, and get through with [the things that I do]. What I’m most afraid of is that I’ll lose my mojo. I’m in the mood for something, and then for something else; I jump from one thing to another.” For a while he collected camera lenses bought on eBay, and dozens of them are now stored on his balcony. And a few years ago he learned LaTeX, a programming language for making books, which he used for a while by collaborating with a publishing house in Slobozia. He got bored of both hobbies.
Cezar is also considering the possibility of exploring an archive of thousands of photos, found, from what he heard, at the National Agriculture Museum in town. Museums across Romania are in need of volunteers, given the documents and photos waiting, in storage, for brighter days. Cezar keeps bringing up the example of the Finnish Ministry of Culture, which founded The National Digital Library, an institution in charge of digitizing all the materials found in the country’s cultural institutions, and which managed to digitize 16 million objects in 10 years.
Ioan Cernau, a 34-year-old archeologist from Targoviste, a larger city northwest of Slobozia, which has been in charge of the fund the Costica Acsinte collection is part of, would spend hours looking at the plates once they were discovered. “Everybody was aware of the value of this archive, but not to the extent of understanding its potential impact. It’s like having a very old book, written in Chinese. You know that it’s very old; you don’t know what exactly is written in it; and so you’re quite afraid to touch it, since you’re not knowledgeable. This was the case with those plates as well. Nobody had the courage to say: ‘I will take them and I’ll take care of them.’ You also need somebody who will do this fulltime, and, given how few people are at the museum, we couldn’t do that.”
Out of the collection’s more than 4,000 Facebook fans, some offered to help Cezar with the scanning, while others went through their photos looking for some with Acsinte’s stamp on the back, and sent them to Cezar. Others tried to somehow explain, as well as they could, the world encrypted in Acsinte’s photos.
Florin Rostariu is a 35-year-old photographer who lives in Germany and colors old photographs, posting them on his Facebook page Colorostariu. Driven by the force of attraction that colors have on the human eye, he spent days on some of the photos in the collection. Acsinte’s world reminds Rostariu of the world of the Serbian film director Emir Kusturica – a land where the Balkans meet the Roman Empire’s legacy – and inspired him to work. It took him four days to finish the “jaz” musicians, one of the stars of the collection; he spent more than a few hours looking up on the internet the accordion on the photo so that the colors could be as close to reality as possibly – he tries to spend as much time as he can in the documentation phase, before he chooses the colors.
Emil Boboescu, a 29-year-old military historian who has just completed a PhD about communist-era uniforms, is another who has become involved in the collection. Since 2007, he has been working almost exclusively on studying uniforms, and he “translates” for the collection’s Facebook page the meaning of what some of the characters in the photos are wearing. In the epaulettes, medals, and military caps, he sees dates, military ranks, and war wounds – minimal clues to the identity of the people in the photos. A friend of his who is an expert in arms joined him. “You should think that this is a total project [covering all areas of life during those decades]. You take a photographer, almost the only one in a particular town, and you digitize his collection, making it public domain.”
If Boboescu offers a key to the interpretation of the reality shown in the photos, Cezar came up with an idea that would complete the project in a different way: a series of short fiction stories inspired by the photos. The first one came from Denisa Nita, a journalism student and a fan of the project, whom Cezar asked to write something. Denisa, who was fascinated by her grandfather’s photos as she was growing up, tried to express as succinctly as possible what certain images inspired in her. She doesn’t pretend that she can explain what life was like for some people in the photographs, but she believes that such texts are a way at looking more closely at those who lived in those days.
Cezar’s endeavor translated, at the begging of June, into 2,200 photos taking up more than 130 GB on Flickr, and receiving 16 million views. Through a crowdfunding project to preserve the archive, Cezar has raised around 4,000 euros through this ongoing campaign.
Alex Galmeanu, a photographer who created the Museum of Photography, an online archive of old Romanian photos, believes that the main merit of Costica Acsinte’s photos is not technical, or artistic, but documentary. At the time they were taken, these photos captured the banality of some people’s lives, and had no other purpose than documenting a moment in time. “Those banalities become very important simply because of the passing of time. If you consider the human side, it’s not a fascination with photos, but with the past.”
There are some photos in the collection on which time and storage conditions left their mark so that some parts look like they have exploded, and are so torn and so corroded, as if [the storage conditions] have been eating away at the faces of people shown there. Cezar liked such marks left by time, so he scanned those photos too. Strangely enough, some of them are among the most beautiful images in the collection.
Like most vintage images circulating on the internet, Costica Acsinte’s photos are a time-worn portrait to which we are and we aren’t at the same time connected – a world we carry with us without necessarily understanding it. It shows how far we’ve gone without things changing in their essence. In the big loop of life and repetition, the people in those photographs aren’t more of a stranger than the neighbor whom you don’t know. If you look at them long enough, the photos are no longer about those people, but about life as it was and it is now, both just as passable and exposed to oblivion, both with an infinitesimally small chance of being discovered somewhere, some time, and brought to life through a pair of eyes that would give meaning to them again.
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