About the Villagers and Photography in Two of Chudomir’s Stories


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Throughout its over one-hundred-and-eighty-year history, photography has had a complex and contradictory relationship with painting. In contrast, it has always been close to literature – the two represent the complementary universes, as different as they are inextricably linked, of the material and the spiritual. The artistic impact of literature unfolds slowly and gradually – in the form of a spiral. Photography, on the contrary, attracts attention suddenly and rarely holds it for long, since in most cases the viewer only observes, rather than empathizes with, the image. Images in literature are entirely subordinate to the writer and his or her imagination and are placed in a reality he or she invented, created to help them reveal themselves as fully as possible [1]. Photography works much less with the imagination. All its objects are real and quite often even too ordinary – almost imperceptible in everyday life.

While literature tries to free the reader’s mind from everything familiar, material and ‘possible’, photography does exactly the opposite – it constantly ‘lands’ it, binds it to the existing.

Photography is present as an inspiration in many of the literary works of the twentieth century. Significantly less often, however, the photographer is chosen as the main actor. Few authors can convincingly tell stories as if they have seen them through the viewfinder of the camera. For this purpose, they themselves must be photographers as well as writers. Such is the example of Julio Cortázar, who in his short story Blow-up (“Las babas del diablo”) created one of the most memorable images of a photographer, later visualized by Michelangelo Antonioni in the film Blow-up.

Or Michel Tournier, describing how the ‘predatory’ photographer Veronique ‘plucked’ from her poor model Hector ‘twenty-two thousand two hundred and thirty-nine’ images, leaving him ‘empty, exhausted, devastated’ [2]. If we look at Bulgarian literature from the past century, we will not find many works telling about the tribulations and anguish of photographers. Probably the most detailed and vivid description of this kind was made by Bogomil Raynov in his book Do Not Make me Laugh [3]. It is known that the author had an interest in photography, which often appears in other works of his, such as in the novel This Strange Craft [4]. However, Raynov’s characters live in the big city, where photography has already won serious positions. For educated people, its ‘magic’ has been unravelled, and filming and working in the laboratory have become significantly easier and accessible to everyone, even children. However, this is not how the villagers who rarely stand in front of the camera perceive the images painted by the light. Suspicious, curious, critical, frightened – such are the main characters in two of Chudomir’s stories – The Photographer and Surgery.

Chudomir in his home in Kazanlak, 1965 https://chudomir.kazanlak.com

For a long time, photography has been perceived by ordinary people as a craft that does not require much craftsmanship or artistic knowledge. It can be easily mastered and practiced for money, without the need for results to always be at a high technical and aesthetic level. Photo studios are overtaken by commerce, competition for customers, and tastelessness, and photographers travelling the countryside take advantage of the fact that most people wouldn’t be able to go to the big city, so they have no choice but to use their services – good or bad. ‘A man with a shabby look’, ‘filthy and unshaven’, with a chest ‘as big as a soldier’s parcel wrapped in a black rag’, with ‘a tripod with two broken legs tied with string’ [5] – this is how Chudomir described the village photographer. Either he will ‘blacken’ the models, or he will sew their heads to other bodies, or he will cut off their ears, or he will change their identity by selling them shots for which they have never actually posed. Chudomir accurately conveys another characteristic feature related to photography – since it is realistic, easy to read and seemingly closer to ordinary people than any art, viewers somehow naturally get the confidence that they can discuss it competently, express their opinion regarding its qualities and assert their ‘rightness’. They pretend to be familiar with fashion, they have an idea of exactly what their portraits should look like, what their posture should suggest, what the complexion of their face should be: ‘You don’t like the photo’; ‘Something is damaged’; ‘You took me out as an Arab’; ‘What is this disgrace?’; ‘What is this thing?’ … Such are the reactions of villagers who find it difficult to accept fashion and modernization. ‘Clientele […] Big deal! Ignorance and darkness […]. It didn’t dwell in high class and hasn’t read a single newspaper.’ – exclaimed the Chudomir’s photographer. ‘Damn craft! Profession! Everyone thinks of themselves as Miss Europe and wants to come out better than they are. It’s hard to endure.’

Yet, despite the caricatured figure of the photographer, his tricks, the respect towards the photographic process itself remains. The camera is the strange box – what happens inside reminds him of the mystique of the altar: there lies a mystery inaccessible to the human mind; there is the boundary between the eternal and the temporary. Kolya Grandpa Dapchov stands in front of the camera ‘as if there’s something hot under him: he stretched his neck and stiffened like a monument!’, and after the photo he remains in the chair ‘stiff and upright, as if he swallowed a stick.’

‘His heart was beating like a naked chicken under his wing,’ Chudomir writes, ‘and a cold sweat had broken out on his temple. When he regained consciousness, he sighed and said: Damn it, it doesn’t hurt at all! I thought, yoldashim, that when it clicked, it would stab me to the groin, and it was like a child’s play.’

Chudomir. A memory from the fair. Watercolor, 1936

For a long time after the advent of photography, many people were afraid to take pictures because they could not explain the nature of this pictorial method. In it, they found a threat to their soul. According to popular notions, the soul has an existence independent of the body – matter is only ‘a form of dwelling for it’ and it is ‘free to leave this dwelling and move out of it’ [6], which means that under certain circumstances it is possible to be ‘trapped’. Perhaps the fear of photography was also grounded in beliefs related to the ‘capture’ or embedding of the human shadow, which, it was thought, ‘possesses’ part of the essence of its archetype. What is done – ‘magic or other symbolic action to it reflects on the person themselves’ [7].

Chudomir was an avid photographer – most of the portraits united in the series ‘Nashentsi’ (“Local folk”) he painted from photographs taken by himself in the village of Turia and Kazanlak[8]. Photographs of the writer were also published in the Iskra magazine, where he worked as an editor and collaborator[9]. He often photographed his surroundings – his relatives and friends, as evidenced by more than 2,500 of his photographs preserved in the collection of the Literary and Art Museum in Kazanlak. What makes the short stories particularly vivid and curious with Chudomir describing the reactions of the villagers approaching the photographic camera with wonder and amazement, curious to see their face painted by light, is precisely the fact that the author approaches with interest and understanding not only his beloved villagers, but also the painting medium from which he himself was tempted.


[1] Kalcheva, Valeria. About some relationships between photography and literature. – Bulgarian Photo, № 5–6, 1986, 13.

[2] Tournier, Michel. Les suaires de Veronique. – In: Div petel. Sofia, 2009, 99.

[3] Raynov, Bogomil. Don’t make me laugh. Sofia, 1983.

[4] Raynov, Bogomil. This strange craft. Sofia, 1976.

[5] All quotes in the text are from the short stories The Photographer, published on: https://www chitanka.info (https://chitanka.info)/and Surgery, published on: http://www.slovo.bg/ (http://www.slovo.bg/).

[6] Vakarelski, Hristo. Concepts and ideas about death and the soul. [Ponyatia i predstavi za smartta i dushata] Sofia, 1939, 19.

[7] Vakarelski, Hristo. Bulgarian funeral customs. [Balgarski pogrebalni obichai] Sofia, 1990, 31.

[8] In 2022, the Museum of Photography and Contemporary Visual Arts in the town of Kazanlak presented the exhibition “Chudomir in front and behind the lens”, which includes photographs from the collection of the Chudomir Literary and Art Museum.

[9] https://mpcva.org/fotoizlojba-chudomir

About the Villagers and Photography in Two of Chudomir’s Stories

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