To my great regret, this first-person conversation with Alexander Sertev did not happen as expected. In the previous article dedicated to his father Stoyan, I told what the reasons were. However, I will keep the form of the interview because it is difficult for me to retell the words that still sound in my ears. This form is possible thanks to all the materials provided to me by Alexander’s daughter – Kalina. Among them are a series of interviews made for the exhibition “60 photographs from Bulgaria from the past 60 years”, the film “Cathedral 22” and many promotional materials, links to her father’s participation in BNT, BNR, Radio Tangra, the show “My Playlist”. and more and more. This is probably the longest text I have prepared for this column. It took me about a month to write it and almost a year to experience it. That is why I will not burden you unnecessarily with my thoughts, but I will let you immerse yourself into the life and work of Alexander Sertev.
I was born in Sofia in 1937. At the age of 14 I began to master the art of photography in the laboratory of my father Stoyan Sertev. I graduated from the Academy of Arts in Sofia in the studios of Prof. Iliya Beshkov and Prof. Veselin Staykov. After graduation I worked in the field of posters, applied and fine graphics, book design and applied art photography. I have mastered numerous photographic techniques that I often apply in my works.
I have participated in over 20 international exhibitions, biennials and over 30 collective exhibitions of Bulgarian artists in the country and abroad. In the last decade alone, I have held over a dozen solo exhibitions at home and abroad. I have won a number of awards in Bulgaria, USA, Russia and France. One of them is the “Key Art Award – Hollywood 1980”, which was awarded to me for a special photographic achievement for the poster for the Bulgarian film “Blood Remains”. In 2013, I received the Golden Age Award, which was presented to me by the Ministry of Culture.
Since my father was a violinist, I learned to play the violin as a child. I was a private student at the Music School. Unfortunately, we were not for each other with this instrument and this led me to another type of art – the visual.
60 years in 60 photos
In 2017 in Sozopol during Apollonia Ι presented the photographic exhibition “60 photographs from Bulgaria from the past 60 years”. I chose the resort because it was one of the first places I took pictures. Of course, I also have older shots that I want to tell you about.
Such is the photo from 1956, when I was already a student at the Academy of Arts. It is a black and white panorama assembled from three vertical frames. It captures the old houses in the Rhodopean village of Bachkovo, where we were in practice. Then I took a series of color photos of life in the village. On one of them you can see the stagecoach serving the line Bachkovo Monastery – Asenovgrad. I had to send these first color films to Germany for development.
It was difficult for me to choose only 60 photos, because in those 60 years I have taken thousands. For me, photography was not only a hobby, but also a profession. The camera has almost always been my companion. In very rare cases, I regretted forgetting it, because I almost always come across something to shoot. Initially, I decided that the exhibition should be in black and white, because I find it to have a special charm. I liken it to chamber music, which is the most difficult to play and perceive. However, I inserted color photography, not only because I took parallel photos in Bachkovo, but because I have pretty good shots with a Yashika 6×6 camera, as well as another model with a rotating lens that made a two-and-a-half-frame panorama. Eventually, the palette of images and plots itself becomes richer when color is added. One such shot is from my last trip to Bozhentsi. I liked the result I achieved with computer processing.
People usually remember 3-4 selected things in their lives and often they have caused some shock. In my case we are talking about a fair in Koprivshtitsa in the early 70’s. Bagpipers were playing in the meadows above the city then. At that moment an old man appeared, whom I managed to photograph against the background of the green rounded hills. He was wearing a robe, a belt, a pistol and gunpowder container. He held a bagpipe with three handles, and the instrument itself had the head of a goatling. When he played, I remember only the grave silence, which came and the melody. I get goosebumps every time I remember. This photograph accompanies each of my exhibitions related to Bulgaria. For me, this shot shows something both unforgettable and completely lost for Bulgaria.
In recent years, I have been very excited about 3D photography, also known as 3D. It requires the most common cardboard glasses with red and blue filters. I like to shoot like this because I get an interesting spatial image. There is magic in the way of shooting and processing to achieve this final result.
In 1957, I became part of the military training system called “Department 22”, conceived by the Minister of Defense, Gen. Panchevski. All of us who had entered higher education listened to military lectures twice a week during our training. In the second and fourth years we went to a summer camp for two months – military practice. That’s how we ended up in Razgrad.
Thanks to my father’s collaboration with the Bulgarian Warrior magazine, I received permission to shoot in the unit. During that time I took about 600 photos. I selected some of them in an exhibition that I gave to Razgrad and named “Department 22”. It was originally held in the gallery of the Union of Artists.
At the end of my military training, I developed the films. I had copied only a few copies then and I had forgotten the rest. 58 years later I remembered these events. Department 22 introduced me to some of the famous artists in our country and we became friends. Among them are Bozhidar Atanasov, Milcho Leviev, Yitzhak Finci, Bozhidar Avramov, Lyudmil Staykov, Boris Lukanov, Krum Damyanov, Dimitar Vlaev, Valentin Starchev, Ivan Pramatarov, Filip Sedefchev and others. Many of them are unfortunately now deceased. I do not find this time wasted, precisely because of the new friendships that have been made for a lifetime. We made a film for the exhibition with the National Film Center and I dream of seeing it broadcast on television before I leave. It should be available to more people…
For the exhibition itself, I wrote a text to the leaflet that accompanied it. I would like to quote what he says:
„In the race against time, our memories fade, leaving only a faint image that we, who survived those years, can color like an old photograph. The images of the people from my youth, with whom we spent as students the hot summer in the Razgrad Infantry Regiment and many of whom moved to a perhaps better world, remained printed on a dozen old films.
The three academies of arts sent us in a forgotten time to prove that even closed behind the nets of the Razgrad barracks, we were free people who longed to become related through the arts to which we had devoted ourselves. Musicians, actors and artists, in a completely random mixture of characters and beliefs, we found a common language and mastered in two months what others were doing for a year.
My old photographs will remind those we lived with of a piece of that difficult time. Let those who have no way of knowing him and who want to achieve success and wealth quickly, try to recognize in young people notable men who have given everything for Bulgarian culture.“
In this series, I have a few shots that I want to tell you about. In one of the central photographs in the exhibition, our platoon was photographed after a heavy night exercise, in which our company was the first. However, since our departure I have another very favorite photo. There are two happy gypsies on it – a girl holding her brother, who is wearing different socks. They sent us to the station in Razgrad. (Photo published above)
Journeys outside the Iron Curtain
In 1963, the Avramov Quartet, in which my father played, was invited to tour Paris. He took me to Maria Luisa Blvd., where passports are issued. The clerk recognized him and told him his passport was ready, but asked what I was looking for there. Then my father explained that he was asking permission to travel together. When asked why this was necessary, the answer was: “Because he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts and it is right to see the Louvre instead of bringing souvenirs from Paris.” The official said that someone should vouch for me. I never learned who did this, but it was a big risk for him.
That’s how I got to the French capital. My round trip ticket was for about fifteen days. There I managed to postpone the return and so I stayed for three months – long after my father had already returned to Bulgaria. In the French capital, I met a Bulgarian woman who was taking pop singing lessons. She took me to their final competition, where I met Charles Aznavour. I have returned to Paris many times over the years.
The year is already 1966, and I have the opportunity to leave the country again. He traveled only in a group through Balkantourist. Half of the passengers on the ship “Nessebar” were full-time employees of the State Security. My return from Paris was the reason I got permission to be a member of this tour group. We left Varna early, moored in Istanbul and toured the city with its sights. In the evening the ship was our hotel and so on until the end of the voyage. After the second day, early in the morning we set off across the Bosphorus past Rumeli Hisar, where I took a difficult picture of the magical view.
We arrived at the port of Alexandria. From there by bus to Giza and the pyramids. On the second day we visited the museums in Cairo and other places in the city. I only had four Agfa films. I saved every shot, but the Academy of Arts had taught me composition. We left Egypt and after a long voyage we were in Beirut. We took a bus to this “Paris of the Orient” – a fabulously rich city, a combination of oriental elegance and European culture. The date was November 22 – Independence Day. Fireworks, toasts. On such a similar day, bananas and oranges were “released” in Bulgaria. And here – the horn of plenty. We visited Byblos – the ruins of ancient Phenicia. I was late in retrieving the ship, and the cops had immediately searched my cabin. We returned to Bulgaria – a country of bans, false equality and deficit. How can I believe in the victory of communism after seeing so many things from the big world!
Thoughts about photography
I heard the following phrase from my father Stoyan Sertev: “When you turn 14, I will allow you to enter the photo lab, show your first film and copy your first photos.” and then a boxing match in an open ring in Boris’s Garden. Before that I was just an apprentice and helped without taking pictures.
Boncho Karastoyanov used to say: “Photography is God’s work!” It is like that, because until you show the shot, you don’t know what happened. There are a number of things you need to do to see the result. It’s easier now – click, look at the display and delete what you don’t like. There was an enigma in the past, something hidden that you reveal after a long struggle.
Due to a flood in my photo lab, I stopped doing this type of photography, but I would be happy to return at least to show what it’s like to put white paper on red light and show an image on it. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find anyone to show this magic. Ah, the world is returning to this photography in the same way as it is returning to graphic techniques related to hamalogy, not computer ones. I know people who have their own photo labs.
In the past, things became difficult. We were ambitious to grow and prove ourselves, instead of looking for the easy way. It is important not to be passive when you are behind the camera, but to participate actively, because this is your work, which you will process later. When you show it to people, they have to believe that you have done your best. This is not a dispassionate pressing of the trigger. You are an accomplice in this photo and you have to make sure that it acquires additional merits. She should not just witness the trigger being pulled. To be processed to become stronger and more expressive.
It impresses people that my photos look like paintings. I never show the shots as they were taken. I process for hours, remove what is superfluous and emphasize what is hidden in the image. This way you can emphasize the important and mute the unnecessary, and the photo will become what you want it to be, instead of what it is. Each photograph is a story of an experienced event that remained in your mind thanks to the fact that you took it. You can now build on it or create an additional story. I often paint the things I see and photograph.
In the past I had several issues of a German photography magazine. It featured shots by photographers from around the world. Examining provoked me to want to take pictures like the ones I saw. This turned out to be achievable. Bulgaria at that time was another type of exotic for the western world.
Today it strikes me that young artists do not adjust their watches. It is enough to look into the past to see that something has already been done. Although in another form, it is made and can not arouse interest, except perhaps in a small circle of fans of this author, who do not know what it is about.
Memories from the early years of communism
During the bombing of Sofia, artists from the National Opera, where my father played, were evacuated to the city of Ferdinand (modern-day Montana). My mother and I moved to Pavlikeni with my father’s photo lab. There I was in first grade, but I interrupted it. With the arrival of September 9 and the new government, I had to repeat it. I was enrolled in the Georgi Sava Rakovski School on Rakovski Street. It struck me that the new school lacked religious classes.
In Sofia we lived on Krivolak Street, next to Journalist Square. After our return from Pavlikeni, only our house and another survived. Everything else was destroyed by the bombing. The seminary was full of bomb pits in the woods to keep the city from ruining. Very often in my walks at that time I heard a cricket playing the violin, but in fact it was a musician who entered one of the pits. These were people from the White Brotherhood, among whom were many musicians.
Another memory of mine is from my later adolescence. It is connected with the construction of the Monument to the Soviet Army. My father had special permission to photograph it, and I carried his camera. In our archive there are photos of the monument, made entirely of chipboard and life-size plaster at the place where it is currently located. Then came a commission that said the foundation was not high enough to raise the threesome. They had to make it four meters higher. The good thing is that in our archive there are stages in the construction of the monument, which will eventually help in its demolition.
In the early and mid-60’s in Sofia you could have your pants cut off if they were tight, they cut us by force. Our colleague from the Academy of Arts was in Belene for three years just because he wore a duffel coat. The first rock’n’roll balls at the academy were held at that time. I have preserved amateur shots of them, but they were not the only evidence of their occurrence. My digitized copy shows another person with a professional 16mm camera. Of course, these were not random people, but State Security employees. Their task was to film everyone inside and what exactly they were doing at these gatherings in order to identify future candidates for Belene. But to be honest, only my shots today are preserved evidence of those events.
Instead of a finale
We end this creative portrait with the words that Teodor Ushev wrote on his Facebook wall the day after the death of Alexander Sertev in 2021. They summarize what has been said so far, but also supplement what has been omitted:
“Sasho Sertev was a man with a subtle and exquisite sense of humor. Despite the hundreds of nights we drank wine together, he always had “And another” funny and absurd story to tell.
Besides being an impeccable photographer, Sasho was the eternal experimenter. He could patent hundreds of ways to copy, process and scan a variety of photo media. He had tried everything from stereoscopic photography in the ’60s to the last tricks of “Photo Shopa”, as he named it.
From him I learned more about printing, graphics, photography and image technology than in all my years at the academy.
The graphic design he made between 1965 and 1985 remains one of the brightest moments in Bulgarian art.
Every poster, every record on a gramophone record is a real masterpiece. He performed such spells in the “dark room” as few in the world were able to create. What Ralph Schreivogel had achieved with the help of computers in the 1990s, Sasho had already gone through as an excavator 20 years earlier.
How did he manage to create such modern things in the 70’s?
He was the supreme esthete, the total Artist, “painting” with photo paper, tape and emulsion.
All over the world, Sasho would be the absolute star of design and art … It was decades and miles ahead.
He was accused of “formalism”. “Formalism” during the socialist era was the scariest stigma for an artist …
But is there a formalism in aesthetics and good taste? In refusing to follow the easy and the familiar?
Until recently, Sasho had as many projects for 3 lives. Where did he find this inhuman energy ?! Copying, restoring, arranging exhibitions, directing films.
He was as modest and quiet as only great people like him could be. Who went through storms with his boat and just created magic.
We will be grateful to everyone who is ready to join the initiative of the Photoworld Club to preserve the Bulgarian photographic memory and I will look forward to your memories and photos by email: email@example.com
Author: Anton Daskalov