Nicholas II through the lens of Karl Bulla

PHOTO: Karl Karlovich Bulla (1855-1929)

Karl Karlovich Bulla (1855-1929) was a German-Russian portrait photographer and master of documentary photography, often referred to as the “father of Russian photo-reporting”.

Born on 26th February 1855 in Leobschütz in Prussia (now Głubczyce, Poland), Bulla arrived in St. Petersburg in 1865, at the age of ten. In July 1876 he became a citizen of the Russian Empire. In 1875 Bulla opened his first photography studio in the building of the Passage on Nevsky at 61 Sadovaya Street and soon became a fashionable photographer in the Imperial capital. In 1908, he another studio at 54 Nevsky Prospekt.

Bulla’s photos made a great impression on Emperor Nicholas II, who granted Bulla permission to take photographs “in the presence of His Imperial Majesty”. He accompanied Nicholas II and his family on their travels, photographing them at ceremonial events, military reviews, etc. He was also appointed “Supplier of the Imperial Court” for photography services, which given the Imperial Family’s love of photography, must have been a profitable venture for his studio.

By the 1910s, Bulla’s career was at its peak, the annual revenue of his firm “Bulla and Sons” reached 250 thousand roubles. In 1916 Bulla passed the management of the firm “Bulla and Sons” to his sons Alexander and Viktor and moved to Ösel Island (currently Saaremaa, Estonia), where he lived a quiet life until his death in 1929.

The lives of Bulla’s sons ended tragically. In 1938, during the Great Purge, Viktor was arrested, accused of being a German spy and shot. In the early 1930s, Alexander was arrested and sent to a labour camp. He returned after five years and soon died.

In 1935, Viktor Bulla donated to the State Archive of Leningrad District 132,683 negatives of Bulla’s photographs. The archive grew and his photographic legacy now consists of more than 230 thousand negatives of photographs of Karl Bulla and his sons. All the photographs in the archive are today in the public domain and are a favourite source of illustrations of life in St Petersburg during the late 19th – early 20th centuries.

In 2003, a large exhibition of Bulla’s prints celebrating 300 years of Saint-Petersburg and the 150th birthday of Karl Bulla was held. A bronze sculpture of Karl Bulla was placed near his former studio on Malaya Sadovaya Street. The sculpture shows a photographer with an ancient camera and an umbrella photographing a bulldog.

The unusually crisp images Bulla created were the result of the backpack-sized cameras he used. Unlike the film and digital sensors of today that are measured in millimeters, Bulla’s images were shot on glass plates measuring several inches across.

Bulla is the holder of a number of medals, awards, honorary titles and a cavalier of six foreign orders. In addition, Bulla was often honoured by members of the Russian Imperial Family. For his achievements in photography, Nicholas II presented Bulla with a number of gifts and honours:

On 8th April 1904, Bulla was presented with a gold watch and chain depicting the national emblem for an album of Pskov manoeuvres – a gift from Nicholas II.

On 28th August 1904, Bulla was presented with a silver cigarette case with the national emblem for his album “Seeing Off the Troops to the Far East” – a gift from Nicholas II.

In January 1912, Nicholas II honoured Bulla for the group photo depicting the Tsar with the officers of the Caspian regiment.

The following collection of photographs by Karl Bulla document some of the events during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 to 1917.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II with Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, crossing Palace Square past the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg. May 1901

PHOTO: Arrival of Emperor Nicholas II at the meeting of the Governing Senate, St. Petersburg. 1911

PHOTO: Nicholas II and his family on Petrovskaya Embankment. The white palace in the background is the residence of Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich. 1912

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and Tsesarevich Alexei inspecting the troops of His Majesty Lifeguard Jaeger Regiment. Peterhof. 17th August 1912

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and his family after the consecration of the Feodorovsky Sovereign Cathedral, Tsarskoye Selo. 21 April 1913

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and his family after the consecration ceremony of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Kronstadt. 10 June 1913

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II arriving for an event during the celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov. St. Petersburg. 1913

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II conducts a review of military manoeuvres of the Izmailovsky Life-Guards Regiment. Tsarskoye Selo, 9th February 1914

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and King Frederick-August III of Saxony pass the guard of honour of the Life-Guards Cuirassier Regiment at the Imperial Railway Station, Tsarskoye Selo. 7th June 1914

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II with Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and their four daughters attending the opening of the dock named in honour of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich in St. Petersburg. 1st July 1914

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II visiting the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg. 1914

© Paul Gilbert. 7 May 2021


Dear Reader

If you enjoy my articles, news stories and translations, then please help support my research by making a donation in US or Canadian dollars to my project The Truth About Nicholas II – please note that donations can be made by GoFundMePayPal, credit cardpersonal check or money order. Thank you for your consideration – PG

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