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Photographs began to come into the Public Library in the mid-1850s. At that time photographs were not in any way perceived as independent works of art with their own aesthetic characteristics. They were viewed only as a special form of reproduction creating a precise copy and were collected in library stocks as a new type of publication.

But this "most useful invention" which was conquering the whole world had a far greater role to play than simply popularizing works of art. In the second half of the nineteenth century photography began to be used successfully by scientific researchers and by travellers, in archaelogical excavations and in forensic medicine, in architectural restoration work and in teaching. Moreover, it was asserting itself ever more strongly as an art form in its own right, competing with painting and graphic art.

The development of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century and the working life of the country provided photographers with rich material for the documentary record of the construction of bridges and industrial enterprises or the operation of great factories, waterways and railways. This was in a way a demand of the time, a commission from society as a whole, and so it was no mere chance that the Public Library took delivery of such photographic albums as The Alexander Bridge Across the Volga (1875-80), A View of Work on the Permanent Bridge Across the Neva (1878), Views of the Bridge Across the River Kama During Construction (the 1880s), Views of the Verkhny Tagil Works (the 1880s) and an album devoted to an iron-mining area, Mount Blagodat' (1884).

In 1885 the Library published a catalogue of The Photographic and Phototypic Collections of the Imperial Public Library, which gave a detailed description of the rarest and most valuable items.

The Library also devoted considerable attention to collecting photographic portraits, enormous numbers of which were the works of Karl Bulla, the great recorder of the social and cultural life of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, a fine exponent of the photo-journalism genre and the founder of a whole dynasty of remarkable Russian photographers. A professional chronicler, Bulla had no equal for impromptu shots which were marked by a subtle psychological edge and an ability to assess unerringly the real essence of the people and events recorded. In 1904 he was granted the right to style himself "photographer to the Imperial Public Library". It is no coincidence, therefore, that the library has preserved the great photographic legacy of this master and of his son Victor whose album Photographic Pictures of the Russo-Japanese War Taken in Manchuria in 1904-05 is also a unique example of photo-journalism.

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