Somewhere in the early 2000s, the Ialomita County Museum, a small regional museum in a small Romanian regional town was handed an authentic Pandora’s Box by a curious member of the Acsinte family – several wooden crates that had lain, in a farm cowshed for decades, slowly deteriorating. The crates held boxes and boxes of ancient cardboard photographic packaging. Within the cardboard, museum staff found a horde of upwards of 5,000 glass-plate negatives, celluloid plates, some film and several hundred prints. This cache held more than half a century of life in the small Romanian village of Slobozia, about 80 miles east of Bucharest.
Beneath their mildewed patina and beyond the wonderful whirling, warping, cracking and contracting their emulsions endured, season after season in their cowshed, next to zilch is known about the people in Costică Acsinte’s photographs. Nada. We know little more about the man who made them either. This is good for you, the virgin viewer, very good. Because their appeal lies in their very elusiveness. Held within the thousands of small rectangular glass slides are myriad, unknowable human mysteries. In eternal anonymity. Each and every piece of glass contains a world; long dead yet almost alarmingly alive now; people in their moment before the lens of Costică Acsinte (1897-1984).
A mediocre student who, at 18 tried and failed for a pilot’s licence, Acsinte became a photographer for Air Squadron 1 of the Romanian army during World War 1. He flew on reconnaissance missions, shooting and developing aerial photographs for Romanian, French and Russian pilots. Typically his war imagery depicted not battlefield action but land; the before and aftermath imagery of aerial bombing campaigns. After his discharge from the army on June 15, 1920, it’s known he begged and borrowed photographic gear and materials from an unknown photographer and, it’s evident from his output, he really got to work.
A decade later, in 1930 Acsinte opened his modest commercial studio in Slobozia. He gave it a grand name: Foto Splendide Acsinte. Probably the only professional photographer in the county for decades, Acsinte shot 1000s upon 1000s of people. Ordinary people. If you lived in Slobozia, he likely shot you or someone you knew. By the time of his death in 1984, he’d built an anthropological archive of truly epic proportions.
Costică Acsinte was a great people photographer. Period. His studio portraiture especially, reveals a master manipulator, a director of ordinary people before the camera. No easy task. He was more than technically adept, he was a people person. He clearly loved these people, his people. That much, we do know.
A local lawyer, Cezar Popescu, spotted the fast deteriorating images and, in 2014, began the monumental, race-against-time task of preserving, restoring and digitizing them.
Few of the glass plates are dated or captioned. Exactly when or where they were made or who their subjects are is totally unknown and perhaps now, unknowable. With this almost total lack of any reference point, the viewer’s imagination is invited to fill the chasm. This “your guess is as good as anyone’s” element works wonders; the images-and-wha- they-have-to say-experience is uniquely yours.
Therein lies the wonder, the atmosphere.
A human message to us, from a cowshed in Romania.