The earliest data, regarding the stay of an itinerant photographer in Estonia, dates from June 1843. In the following years itinerant photographers from different German states moved around in a number of towns and cities on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Almost exclusively, they all dedicated themselves to atelier photographing, with a few additional views of the town and landscape shots. According to expectation, the photographed persons, until the 1860s, were, without exception the ones belonging to the higher stratification of society. In Estonia, where the social status in the 19th century was strongly associated with the ethnic origin, this meant that practically all the shots taken before the 1860s depicted the German nobility, literati and craftsmen. Also Estonians occurred in front of the camera prior to the 1860s, yet these pictures also exceptionally reveal wealthier townspeople, having obtained the German-like lifestyle and attire. There are no signs whatsoever evidencing the photographing of the peasantry, comprising, in the middle of the 19th century, nearly 90% of the Estonian population and of whom more than 95% were Estonians. During the 1860s, significant changes take place in the whole of society and, simultaneously, in the picture-taking habits of photographers. The era of itinerant photographers faded away, the time of national awakening for Estonians started and the first Estonian-origin picture-takers occur among the photographers. Proceeding from this, photographic perpetuation of the Estonian country people commences in the 1860s. Knowingly, the earliest preserved snapshot of Estonian peasant is made in Tartu (Dorpat) in 1865. In 1867, the press announces that frequent photographing of peasants also take place at another photographer in the same city. In 1869, the first Estonian-origin photographer, Reinhold Sachker, opened his studio in Tartu, who, has been reported to have repeatedly visited the people in the country where he was given a lot of work and picture-taking. When observing the photographers working in the 1860s in the largest Estonian city Tallinn (Reval) it can be denoted that the local photographers paid even less attention to taking pictures of peasant people. The first photographs of the peasant people were added in the collections of the local Provincial Museum only in 1866, when one of the most successful photographers in Tallinn, Charles Borchardt, donated to the museum ten photos depicting Estonians in folk costumes. Concerning the 1870s, there is little data with regard to taking pictures of farm people and very few of such photos preserved. There are some single photos from these years, particularly group photographs of peasant schoolteachers, brass band members, etc., however, not the ones depicting the daily life of farm people. At the time when elsewhere in the world, the different exotic cultures of Asia, Africa and America were being extensively photographed, the Estonian farm people, being too ordinary and too close, did not deserve even a slightly comparable attention. In the 1880s a significant change is the occurrence of photos of peasant weddings, funerals and other important events. Circumstantial evidence allows us to suppose that it is namely in the 1880s when the first photos of the close ones are put up on the walls of the farm rooms. The most characteristic ones remain to be the photos where the farm people have put on their best town clothes and have themselves photographed in the nearby studio and thus there are no preserved photos depicting the everyday life of peasants. It was only as late as during the last decade of the 19th century when the custom of photographing the rural life, evanescent folk costumes and customs, in their natural environment, started to strive. Since 1894, advertisements can be noticed where some local Estonian peasants commence with a new type of craft - making pictures. Thus, the brighter Estonians, born in a peasant family, were the ones who started to photographically perpetuate traditional folk culture on a more wide-scale basis. One of the best known photographers at the end of the 19th century, who, upon his own initiative and finances, commenced with systematic photographing of rural people, was Heinrich Tiidermann, born in a peasant family. He took hundreds of pictures of the Estonian farm people and culture. The preserved photos show the labour and activities of people, villages, Estonian folk costumes, sights of nature, school life, choirs and bands, i.e., in general, the 'Estonian people in the more important matters'. Tiidermann also sold his pictures as individual photos and bestowed them to a number of museums in Europe, thus relevantly contributing to the wider promotion of the traditional Estonian lifestyle. In Estonia, however, Tiidermann's self-initiated undertaking remained to be the only endeavour to record the peasant people of the 19th century and their daily life. Other similar photographic documents, taken in a more systematised manner, originate from the 20th century.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.