Discovering 19th Century Georgia in Images, Part 2

Georgia has had long contact with outsiders who entered and began getting to know it, both those hostile and seeking to conquer it and those who were conquered by its beauty and numerous charms. The 19th century really saw the numbers of such visitors increase and, as this century had also seen the birth and popularization of photography in its 3rd decade, many of the country’s first photographs were taken by foreign visitors as well as by Georgians themselves

Vittorio Sella, hailing from the town of Biella in northern Italy, was both a mountaineer and a photographer, visiting the high places of Racha and Svaneti 3 times. He scaled 30 peaks in the general Caucasus, too. Svaneti was his main focus, and here his name is revered amongst much of the population, his works on display everywhere. The main road through the Svaneti he knew was nothing more than a horse track, Ushguli waiting until 1929 or so to see its first automobile-navigable road. Challenging conditions for the box-camera photographer indeed. Sella was also active in other mountainous regions of the world, including the mighty Himalayas and Alaska. His work includes not only magnificent landscapes and multi-plate panoramas but also wonderful outdoor portraits of both famous and unknown people in their village and home settings. And he named his daughter Tinatin in honor of the country where much of his best photography was done. This writer has had the honor of visiting his home town and residence in the early 2000s, meeting his elderly grandson who managed his extensive, fragile archive of glass negatives.

Finally we turn to Roinashvili, born in mountainous Dusheti and educated in the Khlamov studio of what was then called Tiflis. He began his own independent photographic career and studio there in 1865, and even set up a traveling museum of photography which moved around Georgia and elsewhere in Russia proper, showing many people such images for their first time ever. His work concentrated on both landscapes and images of famous intellectuals of his day. He is regarded as the premier pioneer of the art among his people.

Photographs helped introduce many thousands of people to a land of which they had perhaps never even heard, in all its exotic nature. No doubt many of them were also spurred to visit Georgia for themselves. Writers had done a similar job for some centuries already, and continue to do so to this day (as do photographers and more recently filmmakers, the latter beginning in the early 20th century). Now, when images, sound, video and words recorded a second ago can reach practically anywhere on the planet, Georgia is being rediscovered all over again. Rightfully so, the attention much deserved, the visitors usually richly rewarded for their efforts.


Click here for Discovering 19th Century Georgia in Images, Part 1

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer and photographer for Georgia Today since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

By Tony Hanmer

07 May 2020 21:26