Alexander Roinashvili was born in 1846 into a family of farmers in Dusheti, a highland region about fifty miles from Tiflis, not far from the Georgian Military Road. He studied photography and painting with Theodor Chlamov in Tiflis in the 1860s, and opened his own studio in 1875–thus becoming the first professional photographer in Georgia.
He is credited with popularizing photography as an art among the Georgian intelligentsia, who decorated their houses with his photos of celebrities: literary giants like the poet, lawyer, journalist and politician Ilia Chavachavadze, one of the fathers of the modern Georgia; the poet of the return to nature, Alexander Kazbegi, who lived as a shepherd in the mountains (and wrote a character named Koba on whom young Stalin modeled himself); or the epic poet and ethnographer Vazha-Pshavela, an explorer of the mythological pass of his native mountainous region Pshavi.
Roinashvili also photographed notable artists, actors, and expats, like diplomat Oliver Wardrop, future commissioner of the British Legation from 1919 to 1921 (the short-lived Menshevik Republic of Georgia), and at this time, in the 1890s, translator of the 17th-century collection of fables, “The Book of Wisdom and Lies” by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, while his sister Marjory translated the masterpiece of medieval Georgian poetry, Shota Rustaveli’s “The Knight in Panther Skin.”
The work of Roinashvili reflects the diversity of the peoples of the Caucasus. Portraits of Greeks, Armenians, Tatars, Lazs, Lezghins join the G
eorgian mountaineers or Tiflis urbanites (Roiashvili’s main clientele). In reality, few of these pictures were taken outside, as Roinashvili’s famous contemporaryDmitry Ermakov preferred–most photos were elaborately staged with props and involved long-exposure shots.
Roinashvili was one of the founders of the Society of Amateur Photographers in Tiflis, predecessor to the Museum of the Antiquities of the Caucasus. During his years of travel in the Caucasus, as far as Daghestan, he collected historic artifacts including weapons, vases, silverware, furniture, and textiles, which he presented at exhibitions traveling throughout the Russian Empire. He is also remembered as a philanthropist, who was intensively involved in Georgia’s cultural renaissance until his death: he organized theatrical performances in his studio, published articles on numerous subjec
ts, and donated books to schools and libraries in the countryside.
After his death, his students continued to operate his studio before establishing their own in Tiflis or Telavi. Later, Dimitry Ermakov bought all of what remained in 1905. After Ermakov’s death in 1916, Ermakov and Roinashvili’s extensive collection of negatives were acquired together by the Historical and Ethnographic Society of Tiflis. The National Museum of Georgia recently re-published some of these preserved works.