New East Digital Archive

‘Like our grandparents:’ the modern photographer travelling back to 1950s Moldova

By day, Victor Organ worked at Moldova’s National Archive Agency in Chișinău, where he looked after historical photography collections and curated online exhibitions. In his spare time, he was a photographer — rolling back the clock to the 1950s by photographing locals in retro clothes for vintage-style portraits.

Organ was inspired to create the series after an acquaintance brought him a family photo with an unexpected request: “It was a beautiful photo of her grandmother holding a bike. My friend wanted to replicate the picture. That’s where I got the idea for the project.”

Soon after, the photographer started reaching out to friends who often wore vintage clothes, asking to take their portraits. He would walk with each protagonist through the historical streets of Chișinău, then take their image in the spirit of the 1950s. “I wanted to capture my generation just like our grandparents would have posed back in the day,” he explains.

To make the photos look as authentic as possible, Organ even brought backdrops to pin onto walls which, he reveals, sparked outrage among locals living in the old courtyards in the centre of the city.

The photographer credits his day job for prompting his love of 50s photography: “What draws me to photos from this decade is, partly, how the images were taken: [they look] more authentic,” he says. In contrast, he feels photographs from the 70s look “like they’re made out of plastic, [taken] in studios.”

Organ is particularly fascinated by photography that reflects history as it was experienced by ordinary people in their everyday lives. “If you look at the expressions on people’s faces [in the 1950s,] you can see they have gone through war and famine,” he says. Indeed, the generations coming of age at the time had survived some of the darkest moments in Moldovan history, from the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation of Moldova in the Second World War, to state-engineered famine and deportations.

Yet, despite these atrocities, people still found joy in their communities — something which is also evident in photos from that era. Relationships, gatherings and festivities play a central role in many archive images. Significant caches of old images — such as those taken by amateur photographer Zaharia Cușnir, which were uncovered in an abandoned home in rural Moldova in 2016 — all captured a vivid community life. Yet this way of life has largely disappeared, often due to mass emigration. “Migration hasn’t just killed the human capital in our country, but also our heritage. Icons, traditional, embroidered blouses and handwoven rugs were set on fire or simply thrown away,” says Organ.

Organ’s series reflects the fashion trends of the time: women are bare-faced, with hair woven into braids or covered by a scarf. In a bid to make the images as authentic as possible, the photographer was selective in casting the project, especially with his male friends: he couldn’t feature anyone with long hair or carrying some weight — except for one protagonist, who he imagined could have been a state apparatchik. “I laughed with my friends that these would be the only portraits their parents would approve of,” says Organ, “a wild contrast to the typical photos of them dancing in clubs.”

Now, the photographer is continuing to draw attention to Moldova’s photo history and has just set up an archive of 20th century Moldovan family photography. “Through these photos of everyday people, I want audiences to understand our past and who we are made of,” he says.

Original Archive Photography

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