Tihomir Stoyanov, I Give You My Face Portrait

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Softcover in leather case with metal snap (6 x 5 inches), unpaginated, with 46 monochrome and color reproductions. Includes texts and an essay in English by Ivana Murdzheva. Design by Mariya Valkova and bookbinding by Elitsa Korneva. In a handmade edition of 100 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: My earliest memories of photographs don’t dwell within frames and family albums, but wallets. My maternal grandmother’s in particular. Made of black patent leather, it opened with the soft click of its golden clasp to reveal the treasures in its unfolding compartments. One of them stored photographs of loved ones, known and unknown to me, that my grandmother had gathered over the years. What I remember most about these small, at times oddly clipped, portraits, are the emotional stories they conveyed, carried in an everyday object, like a pocket against oblivion.

This nostalgia with things past isn’t new or unique to my childhood or my grandmother’s wallet, of course. But upon reflection, it makes one wonder about our rituals of memory and remembrance, and about the objects we use in an attempt maintain them; how cases made of leather, wood, or metal have been replaced by screens and clouds, and how images themselves have become increasingly immaterial, changing not only the shape but also the character of our relationship with them.

I Give You My Face Portrait, by Bulgarian photographer and collector Tihomir Stoyanov, makes for a compelling testimony that the fascination with photographic rituals and material objects isn’t merely a longing, but an essential tool to unearth the emotional and cultural histories we are part of. Uniting twenty-three portraits dating from 1930 to 1991, which are sequenced in chronological order, the book is an homage to a now obsolete Bulgarian tradition: the gifting of personally inscribed photographs. Once kept in wallets and leather envelopes, these images are now part of the Imaginary Archive (founded by Stoyanov in 2015), the largest collection of Bulgarian vernacular photography, which Stoyanov has been building for almost a decade. While still a student at Sofia’s Technical University, he began roaming the country’s flea markets searching for remnants of Bulgaria’s visual history that university didn’t teach. Among those remnants were the portraits included in I Give You My Face Portrait.

“The pictures grabbed me from the very beginning. They testify to relationships, time, photography as a medium, memory, and more,” Stoyanov wrote me. “Finding most of them in small purses, as personal collections, a book seemed to be the natural form for the project.” Editing wasn’t easy, however. “When I started working on the selection, there were about 400 photographs,” he recalls. “Initially, I divided them by several criteria: decade, men, women, military, students, photography studios, and, of course, by the various wishes inscribed on the back.” Then he noticed that one group didn’t seem to appear at all. “It was very difficult to find older people who exchanged photographs – which leads to the conclusion that the tradition was most common among younger people. But I still managed to find a few.” Working hard to avoid repetition, Stoyanov eventually settled with this final edit of twenty-three photographs.

One to a double-page, all of these pocket-sized images are studio portraits of young men and women, boys and girls, and include one elderly gentleman at the very end of the book. Set against neutral (except for one), tightly framed backgrounds, their faces and expressions, ranging from serious, to dreamy, to smiling, are a pleasure to observe and spend time with. Some are exceptional, such as the photograph of Emiliya, whose dark, heavy gaze recalls the chagrin of the French existentialists – an impression that her hat, a sort of sailor’s cap or beret, and her removable white color only emphasize. There’s the portrait of Rock’n’Roll Pepi, the only hand-colored photograph in the book; or of nerdy Philip, who could have easily worked as an early coder in the 1980s. And then there’s my favorite photograph, of Ivan “the skydiver” – dressed in full aviator attire, including goggles, but with a half-smile strangely at odds with his pensive eyes.

As the book’s accompanying essay by Ivana Murdzheva rightfully states, these photographs did not intend to represent an “everyday life situation” but “the image that the person wish[ed] for others to see,” following the aesthetics and visual tropes of the time. What makes these images singularly personal nevertheless, are the hand-written inscriptions on their versos – reproductions and translations of which follow each portrait (except for one, which remained blank). Each note includes the name of the sitter or the recipient (at times both) as well as the place, where, and the date, when, their photograph was made. And while we learn little to nothing about the characters and lives of these people, or the times they were part of – spanning Bulgaria’s interwar years, including a short-lived military regime and the Third Bulgarian Tsardom; the country’s alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II; the Soviet occupation in 1944; followed by The People’s Republic of Bulgaria under communist rule; and, finally, the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulting in the present Republic of Bulgaria – we understand something of equal importance: the desire to be remembered by a loved one, and the significance of this act in itself.

Written with pens, fountain pens, and pencils, at times clean and neat, at others less so, we read sentences such as “For then when now will be past!”, “And still something shall remain even if it be only ashes because all strong and big things leave a trace,” or simply “To Stefka so that she will never forget me.” Contained within a few inches of paper, these quiet messages address time and forgetting, hope and wishful thinking. They illuminate the faces of those who wrote them and make us wonder about those they were addressed to, creating a sort of in-between place to reflect, feel, contemplate.

From a photo-historic point of view, I Give You My Face Portrait, positions itself among a perpetually growing number of books using or dedicated to vernacular photography, ranging from expansive catalogues, such as Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography by The Walther Collection to Thomas Sauvin’s evocative 17 18 19, uniting series of object-photographs drawn from a bag of negative film that the French artist-collector salvaged from a recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing. I Give You My Face Portrait stands out because it feels both acutely more intimate and respectfully tender. This is partly thanks to the book’s (which is handmade) subdued design: beginning with its leather-bound, metal snapped cover, recalling the photographs’ original homes, the textured pages, the typewriter fonts, and the beautiful binding visible on the book’s spine. As meaningful is the book’s treatment of its subjects, who narrate themselves, and in doing so regain a sense of agency (that I often miss in books of vernacular images). Even the book’s title comes from the photographs – an inscription (or rather the Bulgarian word for “face portrait”) that while found on many of these portraits, according to Stoyanov, has disappeared from the Bulgarian vernacular.

Every photograph has its own story, but they tend to get lost along the way. Somehow, despite the odds of time and circumstance, the photographs of I Give You My Face Portrait have managed to preserve their stories, not just as visual records of a camera, but as objects entangled with ritual. Laced into the everyday, they hover at the core of what it means to remember.

Collector’s POV: Tihomir Stoyanov does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his email: [email protected]

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