A Boy With A Fotokor

Vladimir, my father’s older brother, developed a passion for photography in unconventional circumstances. Having survived polio, which he caught during World War II, Vladimir suddenly couldn’t move. The disease had ravaged his muscles, leaving him crippled, and while he couldn’t join other children playing, he observed their games from his chair. Then a neighbor, a military captain, gave him his first camera. It was a Fotokor-1, a folding bed plate film camera from 1934, and taking a cue from its name–Fotokor means “photo journalist”, foto korrespondent in Russian–a thirteen year old boy began to photograph everything around him. Eventually, Vladimir grew strong enough to move around unaided, but photography has remained his lifelong interest, which he passed on to me.

girls

This is the Kyiv of the early 1950s. Vladimir takes pictures in the streets of the city–of girls jumping rope, of boys teasing girls, of girls taunting boys, of boys doing naughty things, of soldiers marching, of women waiting in line, of kids having fun, of life as it carries on in a place still marked by war. The photos of Vladimir himself were taken by his younger brother, Valery, although he directed the composition. A small selection I made for you gives a unique, candid glimpse into the Soviet Union of the postwar period as well as the world of one feisty boy.

Cricket1952

Dior New Look debuted in 1947, but in the Soviet cities of the 1950s there were still lots of heavy coats and 40s style dresses. Magazines from the period show much more elegant outfits, but for most women they were in the realm of fantasy.
1953 street

The 50s are generally seen as the period when the Soviet economy started taking off (although not as fast as its propaganda machine claimed). As a vast portion of the state budget went towards the military complex, the daily life of ordinary citizens hadn’t seen much improvement. There were plenty of guns and very little butter.

army cadets1954 boyssmokersjumping rope

One of my favorite images in the series is the one of Vladimir standing in front of a billboard advertising the 1953-54 season. One poster announces the circus program. Another features a bill of concerts and plays. The Ukrainian Theater of Opera and Ballet is staging Lakme, Qon Quixote, The Humpbacked Horse, Prince Igor, and Faust, an eclectic range. His clothes are too big for his thin body, but he stands firmly, one hand tucked into a pocket, another into the front of his jacket–a tough guy stance that masks his lifeless right arm. He has been ill and he has suffered, but he refuses to be seen as a victim.

Vladimir has retired from his profession as an economist and now lives with his daughter and two grandchildren. He spends his free time inventing electronic gadgets, exercise equipment and new vegan recipes. He is in his eighties.

1953

All photography copyright Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.

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65 Comments

  • parker scout: Thank you Victoria for sharing those memories with us. There were tought times but your writing also points the intimate, tiny and more important moments. I’m also learning from a world and culture I barely know a thing, but my curiosity is eager to fix that gap. August 15, 2016 at 8:08am Reply

    • Victoria: When history is written, one rarely understands the depth of human costs, suffering, but also, even harder is to understand how people overcome it. This is why I find these photos so unique–they don’t obscure the difficulties, but they also show hope and resilience. August 15, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

      • parker scout: You are right, more things to learn than just facts and figures. August 16, 2016 at 4:41am Reply

        • Victoria: Which is why I also like reading memoirs and letters from various historical periods. They give such an intimate view into someone’s time. August 16, 2016 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Sandra: Thanks for sharing your family and their stories with us August 15, 2016 at 8:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for taking a look! August 15, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

  • Erin: These are such moving photos. Thank you for sharing, Victoria. August 15, 2016 at 8:52am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad you liked them. August 15, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

  • Tom J: Your archive is invaluable. I hope that you can scan it all to make sure nothing gets lost. August 15, 2016 at 9:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it was important. Vladimir scanned all of it already. August 15, 2016 at 11:20am Reply

  • brenda: My ancestors are of Polish and Ukranium descent and these telling photos make me want to open neglected boxes of family pictures – and think, once again, about what their daily lives were like. We all smile so fiercely in photos now….yet, when I observe photos of that era – and see serious expressions – I get a greater sence of credibility and honesty. There seemed no need to prove that “fun” was being had – it was a more honest snap shot of the moment. Thank you. August 15, 2016 at 9:21am Reply

    • Victoria: So true, especially in our age of Facebook and Instagram and the need to prove to all, but above all ourselves, how perfect our lives are. I like these photos, because they are so candid and unvarnished. August 15, 2016 at 11:24am Reply

      • Austenfan: I so agree with this! August 15, 2016 at 1:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: I read a fascinating book not long ago called Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I think you might find it interesting. August 15, 2016 at 2:35pm Reply

          • Austenfan: Thanks for that; I’ll look into it.

            Very recently I saw part of a documentary on the same issue called: A Strange Love Affair with Ego.
            http://www.vpro.nl/programmas/2doc/2016/a-strange-love-affair-with-ego.html

            I think it is mostly in English. August 16, 2016 at 12:51pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you, I will take a look.

              The book also upon the latest brain research, so that was another interesting aspect. August 17, 2016 at 12:30pm Reply

              • Austenfan: It’s been put on my wish list on Bol.com. I’v since read a review of it in, I think, the NYT (online).

                The thing about the documentary is that for the life of me I can’t remember whether it was in Dutch or English. August 17, 2016 at 3:41pm Reply

                • Victoria: I haven’t had time to check it out yet, and I’m saving it for the weekend. So will see how far it will tax my Dutch skills. 🙂 August 18, 2016 at 12:59pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, thank you so much for sharing these remarkable photos! I love looking at old photos. What a wonderful assortment. I wish I had that many of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. August 15, 2016 at 10:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Our family isn’t particularly large, especially in comparison to my husband’s family, but it’s close-knit. Also, because of the Soviet housing situation, families lived together. For instance, Vladimir lived with us, and sometimes my father’s middle brother too. August 15, 2016 at 11:26am Reply

  • one-of-five: Thank you so much for sharing these moving photographs by a remarkable child. I am glad to hear this precocious, creative boy is well and still creative in his 80s, and hope he is writing his memoirs. I signed up for your blog because of your unparalleled perfume sensibility and gift for description, but did not imagine there would be inspiration, poetry, and beauty given to us in so many ways. August 15, 2016 at 10:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for such nice words, which mean a lot to me.
      Vladimir is impressive. We were just chatting via Skype about his new computer program on how to determine your constitution according to the Ayurvedic theories of health. I keep encouraging him to write, but he’s more of an engineer than a writer. August 15, 2016 at 11:29am Reply

    • Maya: I second that! August 15, 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Kelly: Thank you so much for sharing this. I especially loved the part where you wrote, Vladimir has suffered but, refuses to be seen as a victim. That to me shows his true strength and character. So encouraging and inspiring. I have 2 boys who are in wheel chairs and they also refuse to be seen as victims. Great story and pictures. Thanks again. August 15, 2016 at 1:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Vladimir has decided when he was still a child that he will not let his illness dictate his choices. That he will learn to live with it and still have a rich, fulfilling life.

      My best wishes to your boys, Kelly! Growing up around Vladimir, I have seen how important it is to believe in yourself. And how much one can achieve, all handicaps notwithstanding. August 15, 2016 at 2:34pm Reply

      • Rachel: “…decided when he was still a child that he will not let his illness dictate his choices…”
        That is really just remarkable. I am always amazed by people who come into the world seemingly with so much wisdom, right away. Or, maybe it’s that they are very connected to some essence of themselves. Maybe living closer to tragedy does that… wars etc. I expect it sharpens your eye for truth.
        Thanks for sharing your family they way that you do. The stories are so intimate in a way. I really enjoy the range of things you share. August 16, 2016 at 1:00am Reply

        • Victoria: Perhaps it does. He became ill when he was quite small, and he only learned to walk by himself in his teens. But he always wanted to try everything else his brothers did. August 16, 2016 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Lovely pictures, and very touching story. Another thank you!

    I’ve never actually seen a polio patient, although we have had polio outbreaks in the Netherlands as late as the early nineties. I’m glad your uncle recovered enough to be able to lead a full life. And what a brilliant idea to give him a camera. August 15, 2016 at 1:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!

      Polio is not pretty. Vladimir was too young when the war started and didn’t get vaccinated. It was a miracle that he survived (thanks to a captured German officer doctor, by the way). When he came to Israel, doctors were amazed he was still alive. That was about 10 years ago. August 15, 2016 at 2:44pm Reply

    • Alicia: When I taught in a College in California, I lived in the Faculty Village. Next to my little house lived an elderly Professor, the Chair of the English Department. She was a lovely lady, a distinguished Milton scholar. Very fond of Lattin riddles, sometimes both of us passed the evening deciphering them over a glass of sherry and several pieces of her delicious plum cake.She had had polio when she was a child, and was unable to walk without braces, and that with some difficulty. Nevertheless she was able to have a very active professional life.She kept been elected as Chair by all the members of a Department who venerated her for her unfailing kindness and impeccable fair play. Adored by her students and colleagues, she was te Sage of the College. When she retired to her native town in Maine, she left a void, who no one else was ever able to fill. God bless her. August 16, 2016 at 10:29am Reply

      • Michaela: Beautiful story, Alicia! Thank you! August 16, 2016 at 10:49am Reply

      • Victoria: This is an inspiring story, Alicia! August 16, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Johanob: Love your pictorial,Victoria!Very poignant and honest account of a time we can only read about in books,and hear tales of from our elders.It is so important to acknowledge one’s roots,and to appreciate the creature comforts we have now,that we take for granted daily. August 15, 2016 at 3:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very true! I can’t agree more. August 16, 2016 at 11:49am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Wonderful photographs and story. Thanks for sharing August 15, 2016 at 4:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very glad that you liking them. August 16, 2016 at 11:49am Reply

  • kayliz: Thank you for letting us see these treasures!
    Vladimir had a real eye for the moment at such a young age. I love the two boys fighting/playing foot to foot! August 15, 2016 at 5:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: He does, doesn’t he! I also love that photo. The one of shy but curious girls is also touching. August 16, 2016 at 11:50am Reply

  • spe: My favorite is the one with the mom and baby and kids in the background – optimism and resilience!

    A preference for sweet print dresses must be in my DNA….

    Great photos! Thank you! August 15, 2016 at 7:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 The Soviet clothes factories made lots of those kind of dresses. I still see them around in the villages in Ukraine. But the prettiest ones were the dresses my grandmother designed herself and had stitched at the atelier. That would be my maternal grandmother, though. August 16, 2016 at 11:53am Reply

  • annemariec: Hi Victoria, you have often mentioned members of your family and their stories but in distant Australia (which was becoming quite prosperous in the 50s), I’ve found it quite hard to picture. So thank you!

    I’ve especially enjoyed looking at little details to try and understand what people’s lives were like. Would it have been true that people in rural districts did better than city folk because they could raise their own vegetables and chickens and cows and things? August 15, 2016 at 10:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: My great grandmother’s village, which is essentially a suburb of a big provincial center didn’t have running war or gas until the mid 1990s, so you can imagine that the early 1950s were far from prosperous in the USSR. Yes, having your own plot of land really made a difference, and many people, even those who lived in the cities, managed to obtain a small vegetable garden. Ukraine’s climate is mild enough and its earth is fertile enough for this to be a feasible undertaking. But life in the village was very hard for the lack of basic amenities. August 16, 2016 at 12:02pm Reply

  • Alicia: Remarkable how this young boy knew how to frame a picture. He often looked for symmetry, with the eye of a Renaissance painter, and he was as effective when he went for an active diagonal composition. Even more remarkable is how courageous he was. Persons like him are the true aristocracy of our species, the best among us. August 15, 2016 at 10:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: He also would stage photos with boys performing various acrobatics.

      My mom’s side of the family also loved to photograph and be photographed. I need to pull some of those images together. August 16, 2016 at 12:04pm Reply

  • Karen A: Thank you for posting these photos! It is so fun and interesting going through old photos, especially when you have a connection to the people or place. We take for granted the ease of photography now, but back then it required a lot of planning and thought. Wonderful views in to people’s lives! August 16, 2016 at 7:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Imagine! I looked up what Fotokor looked like, and it was quite a complicated machine. Not to mention that you needed to know how to develop the film properly. August 16, 2016 at 12:11pm Reply

      • Karen A: Exactly! I used to have a darkroom (or would set one up) to develop film and print photos. It was all such a process! But I have heard that film is making a comeback – just like records. It’s funny how in our world where everything is now moving faster, what we crave is just slowing down and savoring the doing of something, not just the result. August 16, 2016 at 5:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: The quality of film photography is still different from the digital. I don’t think I will make a switch anytime soon, but I love that film is not disappearing. August 17, 2016 at 12:36pm Reply

  • Michaela: Tears, then tears of joy… Thank you so much!
    I’m so glad your uncle is well now and he lives a beautiful life. August 16, 2016 at 7:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Michaela! August 16, 2016 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: Thank you for sharing Victoria. Beautiful precious memories of good times and bad which all together makes for a full life. xo August 16, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Aurora: I enjoyed this so much, thank you for this tribute to your uncle. I especially love the photos of the little boys engrossed in their game (which looks like croquet?) and the two sneaking a cigarette. It’s incredible the way you make your readers travel in place and time, Victoria. August 16, 2016 at 1:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Looks like croquet to me too. And aren’t they totally oblivious to all but the game! August 17, 2016 at 12:32pm Reply

  • maja: Such a brilliant idea to give him a camera. And such good news that he’s alive and in his 80s despite the disease. I love post-war pics, there is always life and hope bursting in them.
    ps. I think that camera still is the best gift you can buy. August 16, 2016 at 4:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, all of the scars and yet happiness to experience simple things. August 17, 2016 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Neva: I really love documentary photography and these pictures are a beautiful portraits of a point in time. This it truly life, not the pictures we see daily in magazines and I appreciate it very much. Uncle Vladimir was lucky to find a way to participate actively in life despite his “illness” and I am thankful for the photos he made. God bless him! August 17, 2016 at 6:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: So am I! I lived in Kyiv and I heard various war and postwar time stories, but these photos reveal something completely different to me. August 18, 2016 at 1:01pm Reply

  • Therése Mellby: Fantastic! August 18, 2016 at 3:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! August 19, 2016 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Mia: Thank you, absolutely adorable young man and captured gray scale 50s! The afterwar relief, even if also sorrow, is present at least implicitly in all the pictures. August 18, 2016 at 11:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have never developed filmed, although I watched it being done. And yes, I love the gray scale he captured. August 19, 2016 at 1:47pm Reply

  • Amalia: So touching! Greece after II World War and civil war -we was so” ingenious”!- was in same condition. Thanks for sharing stories and drops of real life. August 22, 2016 at 3:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t even imagine what a terrible time it has been. Greece has suffered tremendously in the war and in its aftermath. August 23, 2016 at 5:53am Reply

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