FINDING NIKOLAJS HERCBERGS. The hunt for the most enigmatic urban photographer in Riga.

There was a man who quietly fixated Riga and its bare urban features in the 1920s and 1930s, and encapsulated the city in thousands of photographs. For reasons, he never was a reporter or street photographer (in a contemporary sense), and he never was at hot spots of war and civic movements or among crème de la crème, documenting events and people "that mattered". For most, he never existed. Until now.


Nikolajs Hercbergs, a man raising to stardom just recently, was more like an empirical documentarian and avid observer of architecture, placing it as the focal subject of his work - both metaphorically and pragmatically. Hercbergs was the true, yet unknown Eugène Atget of Riga​, capturing empty streets and backyards, and seizing what's left if most of us perished in mysterious circumstances.

We believe this article by Ieva Laube, accompanied by an extensive map with Hercberg's photos in their original location, and contemporary images by Pēteris Vīksna, must finally earn Nikolajs Hercbergs posthumous reputation as one of the most accomplished urban photographers in Riga with the most extensive catalogue of the lost city.

FINDING NIKOLAJS HERCBERGS

Some time ago, before self-isolation closed doors and cancelled face-to-face interactions, I was working on a book at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) and would spend my days looking for historic photographs of Riga. Combing museum collections and state archives, flipping through albums of Riga, and tracking down senior photography collectors was my day-to-day quest. The purpose - to find out if an actual, visual memory of the suburbs of Riga at the dawn of the 20th century existed.

My mission were not the perfect, wondrous-looking vistas of blooming boulevards, Art Nouveau masterpieces, and Old Town sights already reproduced generously here and there. I was rather in search of photographs with wooden dorms at proletariat districts, workshops and boutiques of makers and sellers, courtyards and glimpses of the industry Riga once housed.

Everyone I talked to said it’s rare to find photographs of the suburbs as those were just marginalized places no one had interest in taking pictures of. They were districts that simply lived their mundane everyday lives with people spending them by working at the numerous manufactures, shops or factories. With people maybe stopping at the butcher’s, baker’s or cobbler’s, spending rest of the time weeding out and tending cabbage patches in their backyards, occasionally seeing a motion picture at a nearby cinematograph or taking a family portrait at a local photo-atelier.
Suburbs, although bustling and rich with sights and flavours, were nothing but peripheral. Their everyday life was not worth documenting as everything and everyone important was more busy getting ahead in life in the centre.
After weeks of unsuccessful leads and successful despair slowly creeping in, an archivist at the State Archive of Audiovisual Documents showed me a filing cabinet with boxes containing index cards organized by street names in Riga. Hundreds of them with inscriptions typed during the Soviet time and tiny proof prints on their back held a vast depository of streetscapes of Riga.

There, under “Avotu”, “Matīsa”, “Aizsargu” (now “Bruņinieku”), “Lāčplēša”, and other street names, I finally found storefronts and façades, workshops and factory sites, backyards and streets with some people, cabbies, and cars. With every second or third index card, someone called “Н. Герцберг” emerged as the author. And, with every “Н. Герцберг”, I eagerly delved deeper into his collection of images that turned out to be at least 2135 items on his name.

A new question emerged - who was this guy, Nikolajs Hercbergs? And why are there suddenly loads of unseen photographs of buildings - both wealthy and run-down, wooden and brick, workshops, backyards, and industrial complexes with no one present almost as after an apocalyptic scenario? Why has nobody ever found and brought these to light, and why none of the photos have been printed in periodicals of the time?

Melancholic and captivating, the photographs offered a hindsight to the suburban life of the interwar period. I started asking around. No one had heard of this Nikolajs Hercbergs. The only information the archive could share was that his photographs were handed over for safekeeping by the Riga Construction and Architecture Department on February 5, 1963. The depths of Google and historic periodicals were vague and stingy, offering rather few entries. Even celebrated historians were able to disclose just a handful of information.

Passport copy of N. Hercbergs as issued in 1921, stating "Citizen: Latvian, Ethnicity: German, Religion: Orthodox, Profession: Engineer - Architect".

One thing is official – Hercbergs was a certified architect, working since the beginning of the 20th century. Graduating from the Riga Polytechnic Institute in 1909, he managed to ride the wave of the Art Nouveau building boom a bit, contributing to some architectural work before the WWI broke out. Nothing too striking, rather few, simple, functional Art Nouveau houses in the city centre and a couple of private buildings in Mežaparks.

Perhaps it was his modest aesthetics and technical precision that kept Hercbergs afloat yet destined to live on the sidelines of more louder and successful creators of the extravagant, outstanding examples of Art Nouveau. Perhaps that's why the history kept his life and work in silence. During the 1920s, Hercbergs worked together with his study mate Maksis fon Ozmidofs (Max von Osmidoff), adopting functionalism aesthetics along with carrying out regular reconstruction projects and technical inspection.

However, none of this ever comes close to explaining his vast catalogue of photos taken during the late 1920s and through 1930s. A lot of them are shots of seemingly random buildings, façades, streets, deserted factories, and industrial territories. Were they a daily vocational assignment? Or strictly a commission work ordered by the property owners for reconstruction purposes?



But then again, why are there backyard photos with flower beds and hens among root crops, verandas with blooming trees, and linen hung out to air, fuel service stations and shop windows as well? Why capture the loud mural billboards of “Stomatol” mouth wash, “Periun” soap bars, and “P. Spruksts' concrete manufacture” that shed light on Riga as a striving metropolis, somewhat akin to the sorts of Paris and New York? Why cutting off towers on street corners in favour of suddenly catching passers-by into the camera frame? Why even shooting a burning “Ērenpreis” bicycle factory..?

Fire at the "G. Ērenpreis un Biedris" bicycle factory (1930).

His self portrait at the writing-desk from 1928 shows several photographs framed and hanging on the wall. This also suggests that his camera was not used out of sheer duties alone. It was a passion for photography as well. The images show his skill and eye advancing with time when unclear focus turns into more sharp and even artistic photography with documental street views and architectural details.

Nikolajs Hercbergs at home (1928).

Next, I noticed many of his images of workshops, storage spaces, and industrial edifices, dated with 1936, have handwriting on them, indicating square metres of the space and its value in Latvian Lats. No official documentation, however, confirms that Hercbergs worked in real estate agencies.

It was only recently, more than a half a year later after finding Hercbergs’ archive, when a more solid explanation arose. I discussed this particular detail with one of the most acknowledged city and architecture historians in Latvia, Jānis Krastiņš, He suggested that, during the interwar period, many architects, in addition to their practice, worked as the so-called real estate taxators for insurance companies.

This most likely could have been the case of Hercbergs.

Combining the architect's profession with the duties of a taxator, valuing and documenting properties, Hercbergs still continued to capture his heartfelt interest in the city. He encapsulated spaces of life and labour, as well as people and situations of a city fighting to get back to its pre-war scale and ambition. After all, the number of inhabitants in Riga had already decreased from more than 520 thousand before WWI to around 185 thousand in 1920.
When Hercbergs started shooting in the mid-1920s, the number of inhabitants in Riga was still almost 200 thousand less than before the war and it never surpassed 400 thousand in total when Hercbergs ended in 1940. The suburbs were much emptier than before, and it's shown in his photographs.
It’s also possible that he was a devoted flâneur or one of the first "professional" urban explorers in Riga, roaming the city before it was in style. Perhaps, it came easy to Hercbergs as he had worked hard to strengthen his social networks to get into literally any secluded industrial space and private backyard.

Willing to see how the places Hercbergs documented had changed, I managed to visit 68 locations across Riga. One can only imagine the thrill I felt when, after discreet lurking in gateways, courtyards, and countless window bypassings, I found the angles, façades, and landscapes Nikolajs Hercbergs once did. Most of the brick buildings had survived and acquired slight visual changes, holding their charm and somewhat nostalgic presence.

On the contrary, many wooden buildings had went through a dramatic face-lift with PVC windows, walled-up doors and windows, DIY refurbishments and fixtures. Some used-to-be workshop spaces, manufactures, storefronts, and backyard structures had been so altered and reconstructed, leaving no trace as to how they once looked 100 years ago. Some were completely wiped off the surface of the earth, and some – neglected, forgotten, or taken over by nature.

A map, containing a first batch of locations Nikolajs Hercbergs had documented during the interwar period, was created after my journeys (with new locations added in the future). Every location contains an original photo from the year it was captured. I hope the map helps city wanderers experience the lost and forever altered sides of Riga as seen by the eyes of Nikolajs Hercbergs - just click on the icons and see for yourself.


EPILOGUE

Hercbergs’ last negatives are dated with 1940, just before Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union. One reason he ceased his operations was that private enterprises were nationalized, and private property stopped existing; there was no one to take photos for. Second reason - professional photographers who managed to survive and didn't leave Latvia, were limited in their work or united under a state owned combine.

If Hercbergs never was a member of any photographers union or never owned a saloon, he did not qualify to be a photographer at all. Especially if, until the late 1950s, there was no place for artistic photography, and the state ordered what, who and where to capture usually without credit. Besides, Hercbergs was also way too old to do any street reporting after the war. Correspondents were young, energetic people, usually amateur in their skills and employed somewhere else, whereas Hercbergs was no younger than 60 at the time.

Meanwhile, Hercbergs was an architect that didn’t emigrate after Latvia was occupied by the Nazi Germany, and also stayed in Riga during the Soviet regime. His long-time associate Ozmidofs left for Germany in 1941, photography days were over as well. Instead, being a certified architect (not photographer) with remarkable knowledge of the city and clear past, Hercbergs, at least on paper, was convenient for the regimes to continue his professional work in some form.

After WWII and until the end of his career and life, Hercbergs worked as the supervisor of the office at Riga City Chief Architect’s Board (later Construction and Architecture Department, currently Rīgas būvvalde). It was the same institution that delivered his collection of photographs over to the State Archive of Audiovisual Documents.


Although the true stories and motivations behind Hercbergs’ camera work are still a mystery only surrounded by well-weighted assumptions, we can be sure of one thing. Whether his photos were created out of keen passion, a side-job as a taxator or for reconstruction purposes, he has, unintentionally, become a true documentarian, portraying the interwar Riga as an ever-changing city both living out the heights of a metropolis and sights of a small regional town. With the perspective of today, we could also say – Hercbergs is one of the least known pioneers of urban photography in Latvia.

Ieva Laube
editor and art educator, studies at Aalto Univeristy, Finland.

MORE INFO

Read: Many of the photographs have been included in the book "Soon" ("Drīz"), published by RIBOCA. It showcases contemporary photographs by Pēteris Vīksna, illustrations by Oskars Pavlovskis, essays by Vents Vīnbergs, and was designed by Alexey Murashko, who deserves a special thanks for digitalising and re-touching many archival photographs of Nikolajs Hercbergs. The book is available in English, Latvian, and Russian at Jānis Roze, Globuss, and ISSP Gallery, including online stores.
NB. "Soon" has been nominated for the "100 grami kultūras" national award this spring. The creators of the book will be more than happy if you can cast your vote once a day here and support their work until 22 May, 11:59pm.



* All historic photo material has been gathered at
The National Archives of Latvia (hereinafter — also the NAL), Latvia State Archive of Audiovisual Materials; books "Latvijas Fotomāksla", "Enciklopēdija Rīga", "Latvijas arhitektūras meistari", and others have been used when composing the article.

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