Kutaisi Photo Chronicles



Author: Lia Kharaidze

Dziga Vertov, a documentary filmmaker of the early 20th century, once described photography as “taking life by the scruff of the neck.” It’s challenging to find a more precise analogy. European cultural achievements of that time reached Georgia immediately, mainly due to the country’s geographical position. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia quickly became involved in all the latest developments. In the 19th century, despite a challenging political landscape, scientific, technical, and cultural innovations reached us through Russia. 

This is how the daguerreotype arrived in Georgia.

We have the first photographic images from 1858. Photo studios started opening in Tbilisi. In 1863, the photographer Edward Westley arrived in Tbilisi from St. Petersburg and opened the city center’s first stationary photographic studio, named “Caucasian Photography.” Westley was considered the personal photographer of the crown prince. Westley took the first panoramic photo of Kutaisi. (This photo was kept in the archives of Baron Joseph de Baye)

Kutaisi would not be Kutaisi if it lagged behind the overall pace and failed to keep up with the nation’s heartbeat.

I want to draw your attention to the people who have left us an invaluable legacy. Alexander Mikhailov was one of the first photographers to open a photo studio in Kutaisi. In ninth grade, Alexander ran away from home with his brother and arrived in Tbilisi from Odessa with a traveling circus. He first opened a workshop in Tbilisi. In 1874, he settled in Kutaisi, married Nino Chiradze, learned the Georgian language, immersed himself in local traditions, and became a great enthusiast of Georgian life. In 1878, together with Melko Kachukhashvili, who had moved from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi by that time, he opened a photo studio on Tbilisi Street. Thanks to this photo studio, numerous interesting portraits, family and group photographs have been preserved. Family albums contain many fascinating photographs that have yet to be widely known to the public.

In Zestafoni, on Solomona Lionidze Street, the descendants of the great statesman, vice-chancellor under Irakli II, faithful companion of Solomon II – Solomon Lionidze, have lived for generations. Along with other relics, this traditional family preserves old photo albums containing many interesting faces and stories. Among them are photographs taken at the Mikhailov and Kachukhashvili photo studios. Special attention is drawn to a photograph of David Lionidze in the role of Korogli (Kutaisi Theater). Korogli is a character from the folk heroic-romantic genre. He was the offspring of a noble family, born from the womb of his deceased mother. Korogli is understood as a “child of the grave.”

The source of the Georgian version of Korogli comes from the Azerbaijani and Turkish versions. The hero of the Georgian version is a “noble robber” fighting against injustice. “Korogli” was staged in 1853 at the Kutaisi Theater. The play’s author, Z. Antonov, whose literary world is full of bright, lively plots and rich humor, thus Antonov’s plays enjoyed great popularity among the people. The selection of the work was not random. On the stage of the Kutaisi Theater, the noble robber was not only a defender of the poor but also a bearer of the national idea. As already mentioned, David Lionidze performed the role of Korogli. David Lionidze, in addition to being a descendant of a great ancestor, was also an outstanding journalist and actor of his time and a member of the literacy society. David Lionidze first performed at the Chiatura Theater, then moved to Kutaisi and actively collaborated with the Kutaisi Theater. His letters were printed in “Iveria.”

We must recognize one very interesting tradition that was widespread at that time. These were the so-called “living pictures.” In May 1882, Mihai Zich arrived in Kutaisi from Petersburg. He worked on illustrations for “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin,” and by his commission, the outstanding society of Kutaisi brought to life scenes from “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.” The scenes were photographed by Kutaisi photographers Aleksandr Mikhailov and Melkhon Kachukhashvili. On this day, the most beautiful Agrafina Japaridze was dressed in the costume of Nestan-Darejan, and Georgy, the son of the last prince of Abkhazia, Mikhail Sharvashidze, played the role of Tariel. (Newspaper “24 Hours,” March 22, 2008) Aleksandr Mikhailov and M. Kachukhashvili took photos of these performances. They were preserved, unlike the photos taken in Tbilisi.

After Mikhailov’s death, his legacy was continued by his pupil and relative, Nikoloz Sagaradze, who left a significant mark on the history of both Kutaisi and photography at large. N. Sagaradze was born in 1877 in Daba Khoni. His parents brought him to Kutaisi to continue his education at the gymnasium, but one incident forever changed Nikoloz’s life. His stepfather took him to the photo studio of his son-in-law, Alexander Mikhailov. The boy immediately realized that this was the work he would have to pursue for the rest of his life. He told his parents that he would continue his studies later, but for now, he would work as an apprentice with Mikhailov. This is how he found the profession that would earn him the status of an “Honored Master.” After Mikhailov’s death (1912), the atelier continued to bear his name for a long time, though it was his former student, Nikoloz Sagaradze, who was already working there and creating new history. N. Sagaradze, like his mentor, primarily took studio photographs, but he also created panoramic photo albums and photographs of prominent public figures. Nikoloz Sagaradze, along with Mikhailov and Kachukhashvili, left us with group or individual portraits of actors from the Kutaisi Theatre, productions, and “portraits of actors posing in costumes.”

In 1947, Nikoloz Sagaradze donated negatives and albums of Alexander Mikhailov and his period in Kutaisi to the National Archives of Georgia. The working albums from Mikhailov’s photo studio are an invaluable chronicle of Kutaisi at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2014, the Central Archive did extensive work. The negatives were digitized. An exhibition was organized where visitors could see both restored and original photographs. It’s worth noting that, despite the vast work already done, much of the photographic material, including photographs preserved in family albums, remains to be studied.

Alexander Mikhailov, Melko Kachukhashvili, and Nikoloz Sagaradze left an indelible mark on Kutaisi’s history. Their legacy provides a living memory and reminds us of the people who once lived in Kutaisi and of Kutaisi itself, which no longer exists.