The interwar years brought with them a new and fresh atmosphere. Modernist architecture as well as traffic and landscape improvements—elegant squares and parks, wider boulevards—finally gave Bucharest the air of a European city. Cafés and terraces would pop up everywhere, theatres and cinemas would be buzzing with people looking not only to enjoy themselves, but also sporting the latest international fashion items. However, it wasn’t all pink and pretty, change didn’t happen overnight and Bucharest being this melting pot where East met West, it wasn’t uncommon to see fashionable cars next to working donkeys or itinerant vendors on the same street that hosted expensive shops.
Nicolae Ionescu, Iosif Berman and Willy Pragher were among the most renowned photographers who captured the era, documenting the antagonistic life in Little Paris—as interwar Bucharest was dearly called—in vivid photographs.
Nicolae Ionescu (1903 – 1975)
Born in Bucharest in a rather poor family, and growing up without a father, Nicolae Ionescu was curious and an avid reader as a child, but forced to give up his studies at the beginning of WWI, when he started working for various print shops. Luckily for him, through his job he started being interested in photography and got to know several writers and prominent academics who encouraged him to pursue his studies, while also learning French and German, which helped him read books and manuals about photography as well as getting trained in Lyon and Paris.
For Ionescu, photography represented a means of getting to know people and their surroundings. Most of his photos capture urban scenes, the architecture of the era and people of various social backgrounds. During his life he traveled extensively and acquired more than 7,000 photographic negatives, since his biggest dream was founding a photography museum—a dream which unfortunately never came true. He was regarded as an undesirable person by both the ultra-nationalistic and anti-semitic ruling party of the ’30s as well as the communists, afterwards, leaving him in the uncomfortable position of selling many of his photos in order to barely survive, and thus unable to fulfil his dream. His work, though, remains a testament to the interwar period, Bucharest in particular, being able to capture not just the glam and glitz of the city, but also life in the slums and the hardships of its inhabitants.
Iosif Berman (1892 – 1941)
Born in Burdujeni, in the North of Romania, Berman is considered the best photographer of interwar Romania. His father, a volunteer in the War of Independence (1877-1878), was decorated and exceptionally granted Romanian citizenship, which was denied to Jews in those years. The young Iosif, passionate about photography, moved to Bucharest at 18 and for the next 15 years he worked relentlessly for the most important national publications of the time, as well as collaborating with prestigious international publications, such as Associated Press, New York Times or National Geographic, and was also the official photographer of the Royal Family.
During the right-wing governments and the adoption of anti-Jewish legislation in 1940—despite changing his name to I.B. Urseanu, to sound more Romanian—Berman’s studio and laboratory were closed, and equipment, materials, and photographs were confiscated. In response, he opened a modest photo studio, from which he sent photographic material to the New York Times and several other international magazines. He was soon denied this last chance to earn a living, his laboratory being dismantled and his equipment destroyed. Since photography was his passion, not being able to practice it hastened his end. Iosif Berman died in 1941, and one last check from The New York Times allowed the family to arrange proper funerals for him.
A moving documentary about the life and work of Iosif Berman, The Man With Thousand Eyes (2001), directed by Alexandru Solomon, can be watched online.
Willy Pragher (1908 – 1992)
Born in Berlin, in 1908, Pragher was the son of a Romanian-born father and a German mother. He grew up mostly in Bucharest and started taking photos at a very early age, having managed to publish his first photo collection by the age of 16. As a young man, he worked as a self-employed photojournalist in Berlin, but starting with 1939 he began working as a photographer and designer for a Romanian oil company. Between 1945-1949 Pragher was deported to Siberia, and once he got out of the camp he lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, until 1992, the year of his death.
Pragher’s photographic work is extremely vast: he left behind around one million photos. The State Archive in Freiburg is in possession of circa 6,000 negatives, more than 100,000 photos, around 27,000 slides, and hundreds of thousands of negatives on film. Around 13,000 of these photos are taken in Romania and this is believed to be the biggest Romanian photo archive outside the country. Many of these photos are taken in interwar Bucharest, where Pragher lived, and they convey both the difficulties of everyday life, but also the glam side of the era.
All photos via Wikimedia Commons and Facebook.com /willypragher. Featured image: Nicolae Ionescu, The National Theatre / Wikimedia Commons