The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to www.henkinbrothers.com  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers