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April 11, 2024

Studio Portraits of Russians Posing in Fake Boats From the Turn of the Century

Back in the Tsarist era, a fad for posing in fake boats, planes, and automobiles resulted in some of Russia’s quaintest portraits. The delightfully odd pictures have long fascinated Christopher B. Steiner, a professor of art history and anthropology at Connecticut College.

Steiner told RFE/RL the style became popular in the late 19th century, when expensive daguerreotype photography technology was replaced with cheaper techniques that invited more playful portraits. He believes the success of the unusual portrait style was its allowance for a kind of visual “upward mobility” that allowed ordinary people to “transcend one’s position of wealth, class, or access to cutting-edge technology” by posing in genteel canvas surroundings.

Rowing in turn of the century Russia was a pastime of the wealthy. The last tsar and his family were often photographed dipping an oar into the canals of their residence outside St. Petersburg. Steiner says it’s impossible to know whether the pictures were viewed with humor in Russia, but the art-history professor notes that the urge for people to fake a scenario has never quite gone away.


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