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Hidden Treasures: The Photography of the Henkin Brothers

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association
Hamid Amirani - 9.27.19

What is most remarkable about the Henkin brothers? Well, imagine creating a stunning visual document of life in Germany and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s that no one knew about for 70 years. Imagine taking photos that are by turns vivid, beautiful, soulful and epic but you never see them because they’re never developed, but you keep taking photos anyway – thousands of them. And then finally imagine being cut down in your prime, never getting to live a full life and making the most of your creative gift. 

If that sounds too incredible a scenario, it’s precisely why the story of the Henkin brothers is so compelling. It’s a story that was hidden for decades, and now the brothers’ creative voices are being heard, speaking to us through their art from the early 20th century. 

Evgeny and Yakov Henkin were born in 1900 and 1903 respectively in the Russian Empire. They came from an artistic family, including two uncles who were Soviet-era actors. In the years following the October Revolution of 1917, the brothers relocated. Evgeny moved to Berlin, Germany, and Yakov left for Leningrad (now St Petersburg) with his wife and daughter. 

It was in their new cities that the brothers took photos of everyday life: people of all ages, animals, cityscapes, interiors. Their images, especially those capturing people in little moments like eating, smiling or frolicking, display a natural gift for photography. It's therefore all the more stunning that the brothers weren't even professional photographers by trade. Evgeny was a musician who played the theremin, a pioneering new electronic instrument that produces strange and surreal sounds and is played without physical contact by the performer, and Yakov was an economist.

The vast body of work they left behind demonstrates that they were highly skilled and talented artists who instinctively knew what made for a captivating photo, as in this exquisitely moody and evocative shot taken by Evgeny in a train station. 

On the platform of the Hallesches Tor Berlin U-Bahn station, Berlin, c. pre-1936.

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

Forever frozen mid-bite, this lady stands out among her fellow diners at a pleasant outdoor cafe, while the woman in the background to the left eyes Evgeny. 

In a street café, Berlin, c. pre-1936.

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

At a shooting competition, Yakov’s shot sees this woman stand confident and relaxed in the company of all men. 

A shooting competition, Leningrad, c. 1930s. 

Credit: Yakov Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

Something surprising happened while looking at the brothers' photos on the official Henkin Archive Instagram page. I momentarily felt quite emotional. It was brief but it left me curious as to what had caused my reaction. 

Perhaps it was seeing the youthful faces, full of life and vitality, like the couple frolicking in the bushes, the young woman draping herself across a balcony, and the feisty young woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. 

A couple (In the bushes), Leningrad, c. 1930s.

Credit: Yakov Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

On the balcony, Berlin, c. first half of 1930s. 

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

Portrait of a woman with a cigarette, Leningrad, c. 1930s.

Credit: Yakov Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

It might have been the quiet serenity of a Berlin street and elegant interior of a Berlin residence, knowing that the horrors of Nazism were only a few years away. 

A sunny day in Berlin, c. pre-1936.

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

An interior in Berlin, c. pre-1936.

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

Being an animal lover, it might also have been this majestic shot of a lion in Berlin Zoo. As the Archive's Instagram says: "This beautiful lion says hello from the 1930s!" 

Lion in Berlin Zoo, c. pre-1936.

Credit: Evgeny Henkin, Henkin Brothers Archive Association

I think my reaction is best encapsulated by the official publicity for the first ever exhibition of the brothers' work in 2017 at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg: "The hypnotizing magic of photography moves to the fore to affirm the value of human life and the authenticity of a historical moment." 

It remains a mystery as to why the brothers chose not to develop most of their photos while consuming roll after roll. Perhaps it was due to the cost, as it would have been incredibly expensive to print back then. Even today, when film is relatively available and affordable, the cost would run to well over $1000 just for the film alone. Or perhaps the very act of finding and capturing an image in the moment was where the pleasure of photography lay for them. 

Just as they were born within three years of each other, so did the Henkin brothers tragically die. Evgeny returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, most likely escaping the rise in anti-Semitism in Germany.  He was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1937 and accused of being a German spy. He became a victim of the Stalinist purges when he was executed in 1938. In 1941, Yakov enlisted as a volunteer shortly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union and was killed during fighting on the Leningrad Front. 

For the next 70 years, rolls of film containing over 7,000 frames lay undisturbed in boxes in the Yakov family home. They were discovered earlier this decade by his descendants. Using the latest technology, the digitization of thousands of negatives commenced in 2012. It was perhaps fate that the rolls of film were discovered at a point in time in which digital technology could enable the Henkins’ analog-produced legacy to be brought to life cost and time efficiently. 

The Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA) was formed to protect and promote the brothers' contribution to photographic history. Just this past May, the first exhibition in Western Europe took place in Milan, Italy at the Street Photo Milano Festival, and a new book will be published next month, The Henkin Brothers: Photographers in Leningrad and in Berlin.

Ultimately, the story of the Henkin brothers is more than that of two talented photographers who captured the reality and normalcy of their day, and more than that of a goldmine of photos only recently discovered. It is a story of what might have been had the world not plunged into a nightmare that wiped out entire generations. Evgeny and Yakov were still at the start of their lives, as were the young men and women we see in their pictures.  They not only didn’t live to see their work, they were prevented from creating much more and seeing their photography appreciated by friends, peers and the public. Their tragedy is emblematic of all those who lived tragically short lives and perished as a result of Nazi and Stalinist violence before they could make the most of their talents. 

At least now the Henkin brothers are hidden no more. Their visual treasures are finally being seen by the public, and it's only just begun. 

Visit the official Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers/ 

To learn more about the HBAA, visit the official website: http://henkinbrothers.com/ 

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