Watch the birdie: how a papier-mâché horse in Tbilisi Zoo grew into a popular photo studio

6 August 2020

Showing my husband, then-boyfriend, a collection of my childhood photographs, I came across one of a four-year-old me on a papier-mâché horse in Tbilisi Zoo.

I was born in Tbilisi in the 1980s, back when the country was still a part of the Soviet Union. Visiting the zoo was a special event for me: it meant that I would get a Plombir ice cream, a cup of sparkling gazirovka (a non-alcoholic sparkling beverage), and a ride on an amusement ride adjacent to the premises. But the highlight of the day would always be getting the chance to sit on the papier-mâché horse that looked like it had galloped from a merry-go-round ride. I remember being helped onto the horse, filled with anticipation and excitement at having my photo taken, but also overcome with shyness in front of the photographer.

The author on the iconic papier-mâché horse

“It’s such an iconic photo,” I told Robert. “The majority of my friends have a photo just like it taken on the same horse.”

Tbilisi Zoo was founded in 1927. In 2015, it made international headlines when wild animals from the zoo roamed the Georgian capital following a river flood. In Soviet times, back when I was a child, the zoo attracted many visitors from abroad, some of whom had travelled from Armenia and Azerbaijan for a family excursion and wanted to savour their memories with a souvenir photo. But the horse was significant for another reason. At one time, this improvised, open-air attraction was the most popular photo studio in all of Georgia.

Click, flash…and it would almost be impossible to see anything. Click, flash…one more time in case you closed your eyes.

Elene, a friend of mine who grew up in Pasanauri, a beautiful mountainous town 90km away from the capital, wrote to me about the long journeys she endured to Tbilisi to have her photo taken at a time when owning a camera was still a privilege for a majority of Georgians. “We never had a car so we would use public transport. The bus we travelled in was dreadfully noisy and the smell of petrol was so intoxicating that I would vomit. But my mother was determined to take me to different studios to get the pictures taken.”

Photography was very much controlled in Soviet times. The photography you’d see in the press was strictly ideological in its content. “Unofficial photography” (shot by amateur photographers rather than photojournalists) emerged in Khrushchev’s Thaw era. This amateur movement included two types of photographers: the ones who worked in other industries, but who took part in the underground art movement; and the ones who were working in photo ateliers or public spaces. There were about 30-40 photo studios in Tbilisi. Out of these, only two survived that can be visited today. The improvised studio in Tbilisi Zoo was the most unusual of all.

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Though it was not obligatory, it was customary that each child was dressed in their best clothing. The children were then asked to choose a toy from a collection available at the studio and instructed to stand or sit still. The photographer would gesture to the camera and say “watch the birdie”, a clever ruse to make the child look into the lens. At least, that’s what I assume from the photos I’ve seen where none of the children are smiling but rather looking bemused while awaiting the promised bird. Click, flash…and it would almost be impossible to see anything. Click, flash…one more time in case you closed your eyes.

Revisiting the childhood memory made me curious to learn more about this papier-mâché horse and the person behind the camera. I embarked on my search for the photographer only to find the Tbilisi Zoo holds no archive. After much digging around, and enquiring on social media, I found out that Victor Sukiasov (1930-2017) was the unsung photographer in question.

He would take his papier-mâché horse on his vacations with his family

I travelled to Tbilisi to meet his son, Ruben, and grandson, Aleksander, who were pleasantly surprised that someone showed an interest in Sukiasov’s work. They shared memories about Victor, describing him as “an honest and devoted man who was very much loved by people for his kind nature.”

Sukiasov trained his camera skills at the age of 16 and his career as the “unofficial photographer” at Tbilisi Zoo spanned a whopping half a century. His son tells me: “He had a little booth where he would print photos using a contact printing method. In that same booth, he would sometimes take short naps in the hot summer weather.” Victor’s home life and his work were much intertwined. Rather incredibly, he would take his papier-mâché horse on his vacations with his family, where he would set it up in the park in Manglisi or Tsagveri. “This way he could continue working and taking pictures of children while being close to his family,” his son relayed to me.

It was a turbulent time after the fall of the Iron Curtain, as civil war had erupted within newly independent Georgia. At the same time, cameras were becoming even more accessible. People were taking their own photos, and the necessity of going to a studio to have your picture taken was vanishing.

Even the attempt to install a small pavilion in the zoo didn’t help Sukiasov. With a backdrop of a sunny beach scene on one side and an autumn forest on the other, the newly styled horse didn’t help sustain his income. “Having had to retire in 2013, Victor lost his drive and purpose and sadly left his home very rarely,” says his grandson.

They showed me one of his last papier-mâché horses, presumably created in the 90s (according to his son “there were three or four horse editions over his career”). I was curious to see the archive, but I was sad to learn that negatives had been either destroyed or stolen. As soon as he was done printing the photo, he would consider his job done: he made sure to destroy any original paper or film negative. As such, these portraits turned out to be an ephemeral symbol of childhood in Tbilisi.

This is why myself and his grandson, Aleksander, came up with an idea of creating a digital archive (still under construction) so that we can collect and preserve the legacy of Victor’s work. We wanted people to be able to share their own horse photo and their personal memories. For the future we are planning an art project on shared and collective memory to be exhibited in Tbilisi Zoo.

Victor’s story may not be unique in the field known as vernacular photography. Every place has their own Victor. What strikes me most is the extent to which he contributed to the formation of several generations worth of collective memories — all by taking photos of the same horse, in the same spot for several decades. What was seen as a mundane job, has over a lifetime become a valuable historical record. Anyone who looks at these portraits will see themselves, their parents, their friends, and a bygone era infused in a sweet cotton candy smell. Without knowing it, Victor created “a time-machine” for us to enjoy. A digital archive feels like a small but significant gesture of appreciation for the man who played a pivotal role in our childhoods, and a curious capsule for future generations to come.

Do you have a photo with the papier-mâché horse at Tbilisi Zoo? Submit to the Digital Archive here.

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