My name is Antoaneta Todorova Kemileva and I live in Toronto, Canada since 1973. Like many children of professional photographers, I grew up in my father’s laboratory and studio. I witnessed how he created, how he saw and understood people, and I learned from one of the most famous photographer-artists of that time, Todor Kemilev (1910-1969). I graduated from the Polygraphic Technical College and, working with my father, took over the studio after his death. In 1969, I was awarded the title “photographer-artist”. Together with my teachers Yanka Kyurkchieva and Lili Akhtarjieva, we were among the first five women in Bulgaria who deserved this title. I have always kept my love for photography, the art of portraiture, the art of witnessing and documenting history in images, regardless of the circumstances that life surprises us with.
I recently visited and read with interest the websites of several higher education institutions in Bulgaria, where Photography is taught. Perhaps you will ask me why: will I follow as an adult student, as it is in some other countries? I decided to read the recommended “History of Bulgarian Photography” by Petar Boev, to familiarize myself with what I missed during my distance from photography and life in Bulgaria. I was surprised to see that the author mentions my father’s name only twice (p. 236, volume one and on page 14 in volume two.) and there is no other information or published portrait or photograph of him. It’s as if he didn’t exist, didn’t create, didn’t visually capture history through his camera for more than 40 years…. It’s as if the famous “Photo Kemilev” did not exist at all… What is the reason that this author did not note the presence and contribution of Todor Kemilev in the history of Bulgarian photography?
Maybe the reason is me, because at the time when I left Bulgaria, people like me were declared as non-returnees and enemies of the people. After my escape from Bulgaria in 1973, the entire negative and photographic archive, equipment, apartment and property of “Photo Kemilev”, etc. were confiscated and irretrievably lost, and I was sentenced in absentia to prison and a fine. In this way, in those years, people who left Bulgaria were punished. Their loved ones were subjected to persecutions, interrogations, restrictions and more. Such were imposed on my sister and her family. And in our case, an additional, complete erasure of our father’s name and work from the memory of the history of photography in Bulgaria.
My sister Yoanna Kemileva and I are in the process of preparing a commemorative publication and exhibition about our father’s life and activities. I use the opportunity through this publication to remind those who are still alive to remember “Photo Kemilev”, and also to introduce the young generation to the life, creativity and contribution of Todor Kemilev in the history of Bulgarian photography.
Life in Dobrudzha
Our father, Todor Angelov Kemilev, is from Dobrudzha. He was born in 1910 in the city of Dobrich and was one of the early Bulgarian professional photographers. Only at the age of 17, he started his photography career after an apprenticeship with the good portrait photographer Sisagian. His brother Ivan followed and became a pharmacist, and his sister Raina studied medicine. Together with his father Angel Kemilev, young Todor went to Vienna and bought a studio camera “Globica”, with which he worked until the end of his life – June 1, 1969.
Resourceful, ambitious and artistic, Kemilev quickly became a popular figure among his fellow citizens. He takes many family and individual photos, as well as various moments of cultural and social life in his hometown.
From 1927 to 1942, Todor Kemilev worked in Dobrich, establishing himself not only as a portrait photographer, but also as a representative of the Agfa company. Developed reception and photo laboratory in Balchik. Filmed the celebration during the return of Southern Dobrudzha (1940) to the borders of Bulgaria through photographs and film. Many of these photos are kept in the Historical Museum of the city of Dobrich. He adapted his Opel Olympia car as a small laboratory and photographed people on the spot for the new Bulgarian passports.
The photo studio in Sofia
In 1935, Todor Kemilev married our mother, Tsvetana Stambolova from Sofia. The family lived and worked in Dobrich, but in 1942 they moved to the city of Sofia, and “Photo Kemilev” opened its doors at 12 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard (opposite the Italian Embassy). He established himself as a portrait photographer and his name established itself among the Sofia public. In 1943, Kemilev shot a film about the funeral of Tsar Boris with his film camera.
High professionalism and reputation help Todor Kemilev to continue working independently even after 09.09.1944, when all private activity was nationalized. He is one of the first eight photographers awarded with the title “photographer-artist”. Among them are Petar Papakochev, Emil Rashev, Stancho Jishev and Minko and Pencho Balkanski. They were allowed to keep their private practice. They were all mainly engaged in artistic portrait photography in Sofia and maintained good collegial relations.
After 1950, “Photo Kemilev” moved to 8 “Benkovski” street, opposite the official entrance of “Bulgaria hall”.
His passion for cinema is great and for a short period he opened a movie theater in the town of Kalofer. During the bombings in Sofia, the family was evacuated to the town of Elena, where he opened his own studio.
Our father Todor Kemilev possessed the great skill of a talented portraitist to capture the most typical expression of the person standing in front of the camera. His character also contributed to this – sociable and alert, speaking many languages, he liked to talk to people before they stood in front of the lens, and to see and notice the best and appropriate expression of the subject. I want to remind the modern reader that portrait photography at that time was not done with a digital camera or 35mm film with dozens of frames, to click quickly one after another and to capture and choose an appropriate expression of the person. The client was photographed only once on a 6x9cm or 9x12cm negative/plate and the photographer’s ability to capture and seal his essence forever depended on whether the portrait would be artistic or just for documents. People from all backgrounds, fields and professions sought the photographer-artist Todor Kemilev in order to preserve their image and essence for generations. Through the play of light, capturing the mood of the person, Kemilev “sculpted” maximally artistic and soulful portraits.
Innovations in photographic technology, their quick application in practice, the artistic approach to objects are the principles that accompanied Kemilev’s life. From glass negatives to modern cameras and film cameras, from ordinary photos for documents (even in them the expression was distinguished) to artistic photos of artists, poets, musicians, singers, politicians – this is the creative path of Todor Kemilev. Equipment from the cinema hall in Kalofer such as a projection apparatus and cartoons and other films bought by our father in the 1930s and early 1940s were part of our home interior and family entertainment. We also watched family movies made by our father and brother.
Kemilev was also interested in the innovations in radio technology and closely followed the development of television broadcasting in Bulgaria. Our father had bought a television (the second in Bulgaria) in the mid-fifties of the last century. The size of the screen was 9×12 centimeters, the size of a postcard. But there was no broadcast yet. The first trial television broadcasts in Bulgaria were made by the Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Institute, whose building was next to the Vasil Levski monument, part of the current “Kvadrat 500” gallery. We, still children, hid under a blanket and saw only white and black lines moving, but we heard a voice asking – “Kemilev, are you watching?”. This TV is now part of the permanent exhibition of the Polytechnic Museum in Sofia.
Drawing, as a creative process, accompanies Todor Kemilev throughout his professional career. From the icon of St. Marina, which he painted as a teenager and which is still in the Church in Dobrich, through the participation in international competitions to the portrait photos that he creates daily, Kemilev’s desire to look for aesthetic and artistic in his “works” can be seen everywhere impact.
At the beginning of the 1950s, Todor Kemilev began experimenting in the field of color photography, which was almost unknown in Bulgaria at that time. “Photo Kemilev” offers portrait color photos to its customers. In 1964 and 1966, he carried out two reportage exhibitions with color photographs of architectural landscapes and moments of people’s lives in Warsaw and Moscow. I want to remind readers that during those years people could not travel to the Soviet Union on their own. Todor Kemilev went alone at his own expense to Moscow to see and photograph life there. When he arrived at the airport, the border services were surprised how he came alone and “glued” a companion with whom he walked around and took pictures.
Photo archive “Kemilev”
Over the years, Kemilev’s photo archive has accumulated portraits of a number of Bulgarian cultural figures, musical performers, composers, opera singers, artists, writers, artists and political figures from several governments. Among his clients are the performers of the Bulgarian Philharmonic, the Radio Orchestra, the Philip Kutev Band and other musical groups; Nikolay Gyaurov, Dimitar Uzunov, Nikola Gyuzelev, Asen Selimski, Konstantin Kisimov, Tinka Kraeva, Katya Popova, Liliana Bareva, Nadia Afeyan, Stoyan Chilingirov, Philip Kutev, Krikor Aslanyan-Goodman, Boris Kontokhov; spiritual persons including: Patriarch Cyril, Saint Seraphim of Sofia (Archbishop Seraphim Sobolev), Bishop Parthenius, Metropolitan Pancratius, Bishop Nicholas (Rector of the Theological Academy); as well as ministers: Anton Yugov, Valko Chervenkov, Todor Zhivkov, Pencho Kubadinski, Tsola Dragoicheva, Mako Dakov, Mitko Grigorov, Georgi Pirinski and their families, as well as countless citizens celebrating happy moments such as wedding, individual and family portraits, etc. Todor Kemilev was the preferred photographer of the foreign embassies in Sofia. It is no coincidence that, after being invited by the British ambassador to film his family at their home (in the early 1950s), he was followed, as evidenced by his archive file.
According to the words of our contemporaries – clients of “Photo Kemilev” in the 50s and 60s of the last century, the studio is like a gallery:
“Our whole family invariably visited the Photo Kemilev atelier, a wonderful artist and photographer! Many portraits of musicians, artists, artists, writers were displayed in the window and in the studio…a whole gallery”.Dimi Dimcheva
This is shared by Mrs. Dimi Dimcheva, daughter of cellist Nikola Dimchev, who played in the Sofia Philharmonic.
The studio’s photo archive was organized by our mother by client name and year. Customers had the opportunity to order photos from previous years and we could find the relevant negatives in minutes. The photo archive covered the period from 1942 to 1973.
At the time when our father lived and created, the only educational institution that taught photography was the Polytechnic Technical College “Julijus Fuchik” (currently the National Vocational High School of Printing and Photography) in Sofia. In 1967-68, the photographer artist Todor Kemilev assisted through the Committee of Arts and Culture with chairman Pavel Matev (a client of “Photo Kemilev”) to grant two places for photography students in Leipzig through the National Academy of Arts. The first candidate exams for the discipline “Photographic Art” were in June/July 1969. This was in order to train teaching staff in photography and to give the opportunity to more people to follow and work in the field of the art of photography, to obtain a higher photographic education, which was not available in Bulgaria at that time. More than 50 years have passed since then, and the art of photography is part of the teaching in bachelor’s and master’s programs of several higher education institutes in Bulgaria, including NATFA, the Academy of Arts and the New Bulgarian University. Our father’s dreams and wishes came true, but his contribution is not known, not recognized in the history of Bulgarian photography.
Todor Kemilev died on June 1, 1969, working in his photo laboratory. The studio continued to exist for another four years.
A life dedicated to photography
In 2007 my sister Yoanna Kemileva, an artist, organized an exhibition of color photos from Moscow-1966 at the Russian Cultural Center in Sofia, thanks to the stored negatives from our older brother Teomil Kemilev, a poster artist living in Warsaw. He also mastered photography and copied the color photographs for our father’s exhibitions. This exhibition aroused interest and we were invited by the Municipality of Dobrich, the Regional History Museum and the Art Gallery in the city, where on September 24, 2009 a large exhibition about our father’s photographic activity was opened with the title: “A Life Dedicated to Photography”. he exhibition was also connected with the celebration of the anniversary of the return of Southern Dobrudja to the borders of Bulgaria, as many of the shots in the museum were taken by Todor Kemilev from Dobrdzha. At the same time, photos of the cultural life in Dobrich and individual and family portraits, our father’s work from the period 1927-1942, were shown.
Our father Todor Kemilev was proactive, enterprising and hardworking. He possessed a commercial acumen, a love of innovative technology and the modern outlook of a person ahead of his time.
As a photographer-artist and portrait master, his name and photo studio were known not only among artistic and intellectual circles in Sofia and Dobrich, but also among politicians and people from all walks of life from the period 1927 to 1969. Today “Photo Kemilev” is an integral part of the family history and memories of thousands of families. From his youth, Todor Kemilev visually documented the history of his time and these unique photographs are present in many regional museums.
With this material, albeit briefly, I want to remind the living and introduce the young to Todor Kemilev and his work. I want to rehabilitate our father’s name, which has sunk into oblivion. According to the “humane” laws of the communist regime, you can confiscate your property, professional belongings, archives, but you cannot destroy the memory of the photos owned by so many people.
When I “escaped” from Bulgaria, I was young and did not understand or realize that the photo archive of our father and of “Photo Kemilev” represents a wealth of visual memory of history during the period of his life. The search for the confiscated photo archive is fruitless, it disappeared without a trace into the ground… I am surprised that many of the cultural institutions of the period during which our father lived either did not have an archive or was thrown out during the changes. Despite the lack of a huge archive, we have enough portraits and photographs for an exhibition of our father’s work. We wrote to institutions and used social media to search for portraits of our father. Thanks to those who have responded so far.
I appeal to the readers of this site to look at their family albums and check if they have portrait photos taken in “Photo Kemilev”. If you have memories of our father, of his studio, please contact us.
I wish today’s generation of photographers to remember that every photo tells the story of the period of your life.
Copyright of the photos and text is reserved.
Author: Antoaneta Kemileva
For questions and contact:
Yoanna Kemileva phone. 0888 76 28 54 firstname.lastname@example.org
Antoaneta Kemileva – email@example.com