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Voices & Images from Bulgaria.

Voices & Images from Bulgaria, by Martin Koenig. Vashon Island, WA: Barking Rooster Press, 2011. 96 pages, introduction, guest essay, author's note, 43 black-and-white photographs, acknowledgments, notes. $50, hardcover.

In his introduction to Voices & Images of Bulgaria, Lanny Silverman, chief curator of the Chicago Cultural Center, seemingly begins a folktale. He writes, "Over forty years ago, Martin Koenig embarked on a trip to Bulgaria armed with a letter of introduction from Margaret Mead." The year was 1966, and Koenig, a young dance ethnographer from Columbia University's Barnard College, received a modest stipend from Mead to enable him to travel through Bulgaria to document traditional folk dance. Koenig was passionate about Balkan dance, and he quickly found himself immersed in and enchanted by Bulgarian culture--its dance, music, food, festivals. And as he traveled throughout the country, he realized he was witnessing a culture that was in the process of transformation. Its agrarian lifestyle was quickly losing ground to increasing industrialization, with mass migrations of workers from the countryside to the cities.

Koenig describes becoming aware that, though he had initially traveled to Bulgaria to study traditional dance, he believed it was his responsibility to document all of the village culture he encountered during his fieldwork. In her introductory essay "A Journey to a Different Time and a Different World" (11--15), Dr. Anna Ilieva, senior dance ethnologist, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, describes the young man she accompanied while he researched Bulgarian culture, one who introduced her to her life's work. Koenig was "a foreigner with an objective but also an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic view, of the values of that fading culture."

From 1966 to 1979, Koenig made six trips to Bulgaria, taking two single-lens reflex cameras (Nikon and Olympus), a 16-mm Bolex movie camera, and a Nagra reel-to-reel audio recorder with Sennheiser and Shure microphones. He amassed an extraordinary number of photographs, miles of movie film, and boxes of reel-to-reel tapes.

And some 30 years later, Koenig has put together a portrait of this society that has disappeared. Voices & Images of Bulgaria is a collection of striking images that not only tells stories but also encourages the viewer to step into each photograph and participate in village life. Each image is accompanied, on the facing page, by a description of who was in the photo, where the photo was taken, and often, Koenig's remembered reactions to what was occurring at the time. For example, "Summer Roadside, Sedyanka, 1967" (45) captured a group of women sitting against a fence, spinning wool, sewing, and embroidering. Most are occupied with their work, but one looked directly at the viewer with a slight smile, as if ready to stop and chat for awhile. The viewer can imagine years of afternoons spent against the crooked wooden fence.

The photographs also captured layers of activity. Koenig found a Bulgarian Catholic group at a festival in Yugoslavia, and in "Dance Group, village of Ivanovo, Banat, Yugoslavia, 1969" (53), a group dancing on the left was balanced on the right by a trio looking gleefully into the camera, with onlookers in shadow in the background. The majority of Koenig's images were candid photographs, but he occasionally asked people to pose. "Veliko Tsvetkov Tsonev and Wife, village of Garvan, Dobrudzha, 1979" (79) is a delightful, whimsical portrait of an older couple, the gentleman playing his button accordion, his wife with her hand on her hip, as if ready to begin to dance. They resemble a salt-and-pepper set.

One of the most captivating things about this book is how beautiful it is. The black-and-white photographs are truly vivid. Koenig's images are striking, and he took great care in producing the book. The design is simple and elegant. Koenig had the negatives scanned in Bulgaria, and the duotones and final printing were done in Greece. Koenig's final labor of love, evident from the cover, was to ensure that the book would be enjoyed by Bulgarians everywhere. Each essay, each description, each note has been translated into Bulgarian. Voices and Images of Bulgaria is an important work because it captures a lost society and at the same time documents more than 20 years of committed fieldwork. The book truly reflects the most romantic aspect of folklore: a young researcher, with introductory letter in hand, sets off to follow his passion. And 45 years later, the passion is still alive.

Voices & Images of Bulgaria replicates an exhibit of the 31 photographs in the book that is available for booking. In addition, Koenig produced "Field Recordings: Voices & Images of Bulgaria" to accompany the book. The 21 recordings were made with the Nagra recorder. For more information about booking the exhibit, contact Martin Koenig at

--Deborah Fant

Northwest Folklife
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Author:Fant, Deborah
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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