Portraits of Bygone Bucharest

  Author: Dan C. Mihailescu                                 Foreword: Ioana Parvulescu


“Dear lucky and happy reader, if you happen to look at these Iines this very instant, you must have already opened the book out of which a lively city will come out to unfold before you. However, please linger on this page for a little while, for it only aims at anticipating and enhancing the joy that awaits you. When photographic art emerged, time was its strongest enemy: taking photos and that was a very suggestive way to put it, considering that a fragment of reality was actually stolen in the process – required longer time for exposure, thus excluding the snapshot. And so, people would pose for the photographer as if they were being painted on canvas. That came with an advantage, as it allowed the photographer to make an image Iook like a painting. About the same time with the photo artists, the 19th century writers also tried to seize the day and insert snapshots in their memoirs; sometimes, they would even make “taking pictures” look like an event – Titu Maiorescu mentioned it in his voyages, for instance. During Belle époque, photo studios increased in number and became profitable, as every family, starting with the Royal House all the way down to the slums, agreed to become the subject of a “shooting” executed by the man hidden behind the huge bellows.

The interwar period, those maddening years in the fast line somewhat still carried the idea of a photo-painting, only time didn’t seem to sabotage the photographer anymore: snapshots could be taken in the street and devices became portable, although their black enlargers still hinted at the old camera obscura, where everything had started. Seizing time on a whim became a common thing. Photo cameras were sold at the Fotoglob Store or at the Alcalay Bookshop, and a lot of people turned it into a hobby. Again, writers would talk about their interest for photography in their memoirs (we still have many pictures taken by Liviu Rebreanu with his Leica, a camera he was very thrilled with). Newspapers also took great advantage from the progress of the photo technique.

The atmosphere of large cities changed as fast as the skies under which they unfolded. They carried a lot of faces – some of them were visible, other mysterious, depending on the eye and talent of the photographer. Bucharest was fortunate enough to have genius photographers. Two of them, Nicolae Ionescu and Iosif Berman, crossed paths in the interwar era; while one explored the slums more, the other focused on the Royal House. Both of them had worked in newspapers editorial offices, so they were familiar with the newspaper snapshot. The first one left us the pictures of the Capitars cheapjacks, the barefooted, the bargaining, the red-Iight pleasures, the Feast of the Dead Fair and Taica Lazar, Tanase’s variety show, the street artists walking on stilts and the midgets, the newspaper boys shouting out the headlines of Ultima Ora, followed by a mysterious, nocturnal, sno-wbound Bucharest, where fleeting snowflakes hang by their contour, against the coats of muscals dozing off on the buckboard seat. Iosif Berman left us with the images of a political Bucharest, the city of grand Iorga (in person as well) and King Carol II (who was as tall as Rebreanu, according to the writer, and had a blonde English moustache), of King Michael as a teenager, of Queen Mary with her beauty softened by age, of Istrate Micescu and all those people that the newspapers always mentioned on their front page. If Nicolae Ionescu’s pictures are always filled with yells, and flavours, and sweat, and dust, and vivid colours that you can only imagine, Berman’s photos are invaded by the black and white of fancy clothes – they leave a trace of fragrance in the air and you can almost hear the French accent and the military commands of the people in them.

Dear happy and lucky reader, once you find out from Emanuel Badescu about the life of the two photographers, let yourself gently slip in an interwar Bucharest, get in its picture, listen to its sounds, breathe in its flavours, and gaze at its colours. Getting there is s easy: the magic words of Dan C. Mihailescu will open the door to interwar for you. All these things were here when your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were here. Their capital is the one that you’re gazing at and that is holding your gaze, still!”

Ioana Parvulescu


Recreating the daily life of the city of Bucharest during the interwar period would not be possible without the treasury of images left behind by photographer Nicolae Ionescu (1903-1974).

In 1927, he was appointed proof-reader and, after completing his military service, he registered with the Royal Army Photographic Corps. He started taking lots of photographs of Bucharest and of other beautiful landscape across the countruy as well. „Starting with 1927, every summer I travelled through the country to take methodical photographs of the most representatives places, and so I started collecting snapshots for a museum of photography that I wanted to create,” he recounted.

Every now and then, he worked for various publishing houses and for Flacara magasine, and from 1956 until 1962 as a photographer at the History of the Art Institute, at the request of Professor George Oprescu. Upon retirement, he made sure a large number of photo resources would be transferred to the Stamp Department in the Library of the Romanian Academy to be used for the National Museum of Photography. His collection is till there.


Iosif Berman was born into a family as Ashkenazi Jews in Burdujeni, on January 17th 1890. For those who are familiar with the illustrated press in the interwar period, Iosif Berman is an extremly popular name, particularly with magasines endorsed by Adevarul and DimineataRealitatea Iiustrata and Romania Ilustrata. And there are more. I also came across his name in National Georgaphic Magazine, and even in the New York Times!

When Carol I was crowned King, Bernard eventually became the royal photographer par excellence. From then on he watched every move the King made. The „royal” pictures were supposed to be photographic documents, yet many of them can be appreciated for their artistic value. They may be simple snapshots, but each of them carries a small part of his soul, proving his good taste, his deep love for all people, regardless of their social status.

Emanuel Badescu

“The interwar Bucharest is a foreign of colors, smells and sounds and rhythms of people and companies … it is the place where everything happened.” (Ioana Parvulescu)

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