Historical Armenian Photography


From the 1950s until we emigrated to Canada in 1975, My father (Samuel Vartanian) was a studio photographer in Aleppo, Syria. Armenians dominated studio photography in Aleppo and throughout West Asia and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the ease of photography expanded the pool of photographers outside Armenian circles and the middle class culture of photo studios gave way to a culture of point-and-shoot cameras. When my family moved to Toronto, I was two and my dad left his photo archive (Studio SAMO) behind in Aleppo. The location of the archive is currently unknown.

Studio Garo (Garo Varjabedian), Grand Patriach of Egypt Zaven Yebisgobos Chinchinyan (1979)

The first historical Armenian photograph to enter my collection was in the year 2000 when I was writing about the Armenian community of Massachusetts and encountered a cabinet photograph on eBay during the course of my research. It is a strangely beautiful image from the 1920s or 30s and depicts a married Armenian Apostolic deacon and his family. It was taken by K.S. Melikian of Worcester, Massachusetts. The image is elegantly framed by a shaped paper matte with art nouveau details.

My collection has since grown to over 400 original photographs dating from the 19th until today, including photographs by Abdullah Frères (Istanbul, Cairo), Gabriel Lékégian (Cairo), Pascal Sébah (Istanbul, Cairo), G. Krikorian (Jerusalem), Z. G. Donatosian (Anatolia), Bogos Tarkulyan (Istanbul), Sarkis M. (Kenah, Egypt), Aram Alban (Cairo), Onnes Kurkdjian (Surabaya, Indonesia), S. Vartanian (Ruse, Bulgaria), Hadjolian Frères, Karakashian Brothers (Khartoum, Sudan), Van Leo (Cairo), Armand (Cairo), Garo Varjabedian (Cairo), Ida Kar (London), Studio Samo (Aleppo), Studio Haig (Aleppo), Gariné Torossian (Toronto), and Aram Jibilian (New York).

North American Armenian Literature

A unique body of literature that began with the publication of Khachadur Osganian’s The Sultan and His People (1857), Armenian American literature continues an independent path while constantly being in dialogue with other American and global literatures. I feel deeply connected to the field as a writer invigorated by Armenian and Americans, as well as Canadian and West Asian literature in generally.

In the 1930s and 40s, playwright and novelist William Saroyan was a media sensation, often reported by the press to be hanging out in the cool jazz clubs of Harlem. On the more high-brow side, the influential criticism of the Balakian sisters, Nona and Anna, was a must-read from the 1950s until the 1980s in Manhattan when one of the sisters edited the New York Times Book Review while the other was a world-renowned scholar of Surrealism at New York University. Nona Balakian even published a small book on Armenian American literature, which she saw as sharing many traits, even after accepting that it was too diverse to be a school, in her opinion.

Decades later there was the powerful downtown performance art of Eric Bogosian of the 1980s, the multicultural “coming out” as Armenian novels of the 1990s, and finally the multi-novel story arcs of writers Arthur Nersesian and Nancy Kricorian in the 21st century. The finest literature produced by Armenians in North America is a thorn in the side of convention, challenging what it means to be American, Armenian, and human with the weight of history pressing down on you as you live in a place built upon genocide and slavery.

Some of the great novels and memoirs of this robust body of literature are writings by Michael Arlen, Aram Haigaz, Leon Surmelian, Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, David Kherdian, Carol Edgarian, Peter Balakian, Mark Arax, Chris Bohjalian, and many others.

The influential Ararat magazine was published in New York by Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) starting in 1959 and it helped to forge an intellectual community for English-language Armenian writers.

The collection includes first editions but also includes related works, like US Ambassador Robert Morgenthau’s Armenian Genocide-era memoir, and numerous rare genocide memoirs, including self-published autobiographies. The relative affluence of the Armenian American community by the 1950s and 60s meant that more of these histories were being written than most other places, even if most of them weren’t written by professional writers.

Some favorites of Armenian Canadian literature includes works by the master of the aphorism Ara Baliozian, the ruminations of Lorne Shirinian, and so many others.

I was also fortunate enough to acquire group of personal papers by William Saroyan addressed to a prominent Armenian bookseller in Los Angeles. It includes unpublished passages about Armenian names and other observations about life, as well as many photographs.