Anton Rohrbach:Rediscovering a mid-19th Century Photographer of Railway Bridges

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Dainius Junevicius

Anton Rohrbach: Rediscovering a mid-19th Century Photographer of Railway Bridges

Abstract The paper is the first to survey photographs by Anton Rohrbach, a little-known photographer of the 1850s and 1860s, made during railway bridge construction in Hungary (1857–1859) and Lithuania (1861) and shows their relationship to the École Nationale des Ponts et Chausées and the Ernest Gouin et Cie construction company.

Introduction Those who believe that discovering unknown 19th century photographs, or finding forgotten photographers, is no longer possible today are not right. As the Internet has eliminated borders between countries, the author is convinced that regional studies of the history of photography may produce larger or smaller sensations. Convincing historians of Lithuanian photography of that is fairly easy. For example, it was only the press of that period that revealed to us that, around 1861, a Vilnius photographer, Abdon Korzon, had made stereoscopic photographs of Vilnius; however, it was commonly believed that all had been lost. Last year, Lithuania received sensational news about the photography collections of the Polish Library in Paris containing the four oldest stereoscopic pictures taken in Lithuania by Korzon showing Vilnius and excavation work on the railway tunnel. 1 In the present paper, the author’s intent is to save the works of the photographer Anton Rohrbach, who operated in the 1850s and 1860s, from oblivion and present them within a fig. 1  Anton Rohrbach, Kaunas view from the left bank of the Nemunas, n.d. Albumen print, 24 x 18 cm,

broader context. One of his photographs depicting the construction of the bridge over the

private collection.

Esztergom was printed in Frizot’s A New History of Photography, 2 (fig. 4) and was displayed

The impressive and excellently composed photograph

several times at industrial photography exhibitions in France. 3 However, his significance for

taken from Linksmakalnis Hill across the Nemunas shows

Hungarian, and primarily for Lithuanian and Latvian photography, was underrated. To tell the

the whole centre of Kaunas, the river full of vessels and the environs stretching in the distance that look

truth, the author was not familiar with Rohrbach’s works in Lithuania before receiving a call

completely different today.

from Bodo von Dewitz in 2002.


Speaking of the origin of photography in Lithuania, which was incorporated into the Russian Empire at that time, the first travelling daguerreotypists appeared in Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius in 1843. Most of them came from Warsaw or Königsberg. The year 1845 saw the opening of the first permanently operating daguerreotype studios. In 1861, Vilnius had several photo I  The Changeable Picture in our Society   112

studios and two photographers – Abdon Korzon and Albert Swieykowski – with equipment for taking pictures in the open air. Various public and private collections in Lithuania, Poland and Russia presently contain between ten and thirty-two of the oldest photographs of Vilnius taken by Korzon and Swieykowski, respectively. 4 For a long time, Lithuania’s second largest city, Kaunas, only witnessed the establishment of portrait studios and the oldest known photo album of Kaunas views was not compiled until 1895 although several individual photographs had appeared earlier. 5 Was it possible to imagine that, at the other end of Europe, in Madrid, there could be dozens of pictures taken in Lithuania and the neighbouring countries? Since Anton Rohrbach’s photographs represent a vital complement to the Lithuanian photographic heritage of 1860, the author has devoted several years’ effort to the search for Rohrbach’s photographic heritage and would like to present the results of that search in this paper. Photographs made by Rohrbach are of significance for the history of Europe’s railways, the history of bridge design and the history of one large bridge-construction company.

Rohrbach’s Photographs from Hungary. 1857–1859 In the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian railway network was one of the oldest and densest in Europe. In the beginning, quite a few lines were built with government funds but, in the 1850s, they were privatised due to financial difficulties. Most of them became the property of the French banker Rothschild. In the current territory of Hungary, the Rothschild-related company, Gouin et Cie, constructed metal railway bridges on the Szeged–Timisoara line across the Tisza at Szeged, on the Vienna–Pest line across the Danube’s tributary the Ipel at Szob (fig. 2) and across the Danube at Esztergom in 1857–1859. Construction was headed by Vincent Maniel, director of the company, the engineer Cezanne and the designer Ernest Gouin. Ernest Gouin et Cie, one of the most significant 19th century design firms, was set up in 1846 by the engineer Ernest Gouin (1815–1885). In 1836, Ernest Gouin graduated from the Paris École polytechnique and entered into the career of a military officer. Upon retirement, he finished external studies at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (enpc). Ernest Gouin et Cie was the first company to implement the technology of metal bridge construction in Europe. In 1872, Ernest Gouin et Cie changed its name to that of the plc Société de Construction des Batignolles. Set up by Ernest Gouin, the company has operated, without interruption, until today, despite

changes in its shareholder structure, business trend and name. Its successor, Spie Batignolles, has successfully continued operations in the tough industrial construction market. 6 The author has succeeded in identifying at least five collections containing photographs by Anton Rohrbach depicting these construction projects. 9  Dainius Junevicius:  Anton Rohrbach   113

The historical collections of the enpc library in Paris feature two almost identical albums. 7 Both albums found their way into the collections back in the 19th century (ph 27 a was donated by Ernest Gouin et Cie’s Director Vincent Maniel in 1860 and ph 170 a arrived as a gift from Louis Lechatelier in 1882). Established in 1747, enpc, the world’s oldest school of engineers, was the first institute to introduce photography into its training of civil engineers. Photography was launched as a discipline for its students in 1857, the year the school’s collection of photographs was born. By 1907, the venture had grown into an impressive collection of more than 10,000 pictures of works and installations made by French and foreign engineers. The photographs show reconstruction in Paris, construction works in the province, building of railway lines and developments of hydraulic and port installations. The library’s collection has also preserved views of old factories and mechanical gadgets for future generations. The collection contains materials that are important for the history of engineering structures in Poland, Russia, Spain, Italy and other countries. 8 The album of Hungarian railway bridges has twenty-five pasteboard sheets – twelve single, 65 x 51.5 cm size, sheets and thirteen double, 130 x 51.5 cm size, folded sheets with salt paper photographs pasted on them. The double sheets feature panoramas of bridges that are composed of two, three, four and even five individual views. The longest panorama measures as much as 124 cm in length! One double sheet has six stereoscopic photographs pasted onto it. The earliest shot in the album dates back to 9 July 1857, while the latest picture is dated 15 March 1859. Some photographs of completed bridges have no dates. The photographs show various stages of construction of the three bridges, ranging from the first pier to bridges that span the whole river but are still enveloped in scaffolding. In some of those pictures the authors photographed separate elements of the bridges’ trusses, which make up excellent designs of steel

fig. 2  Anton Rohrbach, Eypel brigde near Szobb – side view – completed bridge after removal of the temporary bridge, Szobb, Hungary, n.d. Albumen print, 17.9 x 112.1 cm, Austrian National Library, Vienna.

patterns. It is evident that the album was commissioned by the bridge builder Ernest Gouin

fig. 3  Anton Rohrbach, Theiss bridge near Szegedin.

et Cie and it is no accident that the first album made its way into the enpc collections in 1862

General view of the bridge with load, Szegedin, Hungary,

from the hands of the company director himself. Regrettably, the unmistakable identification of the authors of these photographs is not possible. Three single-size prints bear the stamp of Eduard Hoffmann (the author of the paper has failed to find any information about this photographer), and the six panoramic views composed of

27 November 1858. Albumen print, 18.5 x 67.2 cm, Austrian National Library, Vienna. fig. 4  Anton Rohrbach, Brigde across the Gran river. Main view towards west, Gran, Hungary, 4 April 1869. Albumen print, 18 x 92 cm, Austrian National Library, Vienna.




several pieces are stamped by the photographer Anton Rohrbach from Szeged. The remaining prints are anonymous: the stamps of their authors may have been removed when bleeding. Although all of Rohrbach’s photographs are panoramic, the assumption that he also authored the remaining anonymous pictures would be overly bold. Judging by a record in the catalogue of the Austrian National Library, two very similar albums I  The Changeable Picture in our Society   120

are stored in this Vienna-based library. 9 In 1999, the Tajan auction in Paris saw an interesting album of photographs, e.c.k.k. Priv. Österr. Staats. Eisenbahn Gesellschaft, with more than forty plans of construction elements and tracings tinted in watercolour. The album and the tracings were the property of the heirs of the chief bridge construction engineer E. Cezanne. 10 We are not aware of the current location of this album. A similar collection, or part of one, appears to have been exhibited at the Ton Peek Gallery in the Netherlands in November 2004. 11

Rohrbach in Russia in 1861 Following a successful beginning, Anton Rohrbach’s cooperation with Gouin et Cie continued in Russia a few years later. In the summer of 1861, Anton Rohrbach, an already acclaimed photographer of railway bridges in Hungary, arrived in Russia to take pictures of bridge construction on the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway line. The line, which connected Russia’s capital with Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which was then a part of the Russian Empire, went across the territories of present-day Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. A section of the railway connected Vilnius with Königsberg. In January 1857, bankers from St. Petersburg, Warsaw, London, Amsterdam and Paris set up a private company, Grande Société des Chemins de Fer Russes, for this project. The engineers working on this project were faced with the difficult task of building the tracks in a rugged and hilly terrain traversed by rivers and streams, and erecting numerous bridges, tunnels and other engineering structures. Commissioned by the Grande Société des Chemins de Fer Russes, the firm Ernest Gouin et Cie built a bridge across the Vistula in Warsaw and all the metal bridges on the section between Warsaw and Ostrov in present-day Belarus. In half a year, Rohrbach made several dozen photographs in the open air in which he preserved the metal railway bridges Ernest Gouin et Cie had erected across the country’s largest rivers as well as the cities he visited, including Vilnius, Kaunas, Grodno, Rēzekne and Daugavpils.

fig. 5  Anton Rohrbach, The bridge over the Voke, November 1861. Albumen print, 24 x 18 cm, private collection.

Currently, three collections of Anton Rohrbach’s photographs from the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway are known to have survived. The album Grand Russian Railway. Views of the Largest Iron Bridges on the St. Petersburg–Warsaw Line, stored at the Spanish National Library, is in the

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best condition. 12 The album features a total of sixteen individual stories comprising twenty-six albumin prints with an approximate size of 18 x 24 cm. Similar to the Hungarian album, some of the pictures are combined to form panoramic views. There are three panoramas made of two views (with the long side of about 45 cm) and two panoramas containing four pictures each (the long side measuring some 90 cm). The height of all the photographs is 18 cm. Most of the prints bear the handwritten signature “Rohrbach 1861” on the negative plates. A private collection in Madrid also features the second album of the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway bridges. The album includes twenty-two photographs, of which two are quadruple and five are double. Different from the first album, this one contains views of Kaunas and Vilnius in addition to pictures of bridges. It is no wonder that as many as two albums of prints of the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway metal bridges ended up in Spain. In 1862, Ernest Gouin et Cie, along with the Spanish Northern Railway, received an order to build a railway line across the Pyrenees. The albums of bridges might have been necessary for applying for this commission in Spain, or they might have been brought there by the engineer Cezanne who had also headed the works in Russia.

Robert Koch, a dealer in photographs from San Francisco, had one more very similar album of prints by Rohrbach, showing the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway line. Unfortunately, the album, which the owner had moved from San Francisco to Oakland for safety reasons, was destroyed in the great Oakland fire of 1991. 13 I  The Changeable Picture in our Society   122

The author of this paper has succeeded in finding the third batch of Anton Rohrbach’s photographs from the Russian cycle in a private collection in Gdansk, Poland. These are loose albumin prints without a base, gone slightly yellow and, compared to the previous albums, not as well conserved. These pictures have been preserved by descendants of the engineer Stanisław Janicki who participated in the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway development. The Polish engineer Stanislaw Janicki was born into an engineer’s family in Warsaw in 1836. In 1854, he entered the Engineering Faculty of the Hanover Polytechnic and, in 1856, went to work for Ernest Gouin et Cie. When the firm launched the supply of metal bridges for the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway line, he became an assistant to the engineer Cotard who headed the installation of trusses and metal cylinders of piers. From 1861 to 1864, he was also an assistant to the engineer Kierbiedz who had designed a bridge across the Vistula in Warsaw and headed its construction. 14

fig. 6  Anton Rohrbach, Construction of the bridge over the Nemunas river near Kaunas. Albumen print, 24 x 18, private collection. The view spans all construction site including the railway station building and the tunnel in the background on the lefthand side of photograph.


Janicki later worked in different countries around the world, including Egypt, Russia and Croatia, carrying the collection of photographs with him everywhere he went. In addition to Rohrbach’s works discussed here, Janicki’s descendants, despite the various misfortunes that befell East European countries, have preserved pictures of construction of the Suez Canal 1870–1871 Prussian War and the Paris Commune, views of engineering works in the mountains of Poland, etc. Janicki’s collection is special in that most of its photographs are urban views. We would assume that Janicki acquired them as mementos of the places he visited, from the photographer himself with whom he might have been familiar. This may be the reason why his collection includes photographs not found in the albums. Different from the above albums, which were made on a commission from the company and were supposed to document and present its accomplished work, the photographs in the private collection were intended to remind the young engineer of the construction of the first bridges and places visited at the beginning of his professional career. Let us take a closer look at these photographs by Anton Rohrbach. They show several sites in Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus on the railway section between Rēzekne in Latvia and Grodno in Belarus, railway bridges under construction or completed structures and views of their erection. In Russia, Anton Rohrbach, once again, revealed himself as a master of broad panoramas with an excellent perception of the bridge construction technique and ability for documenting it. In his panoramas, composed of several individual pictures, he captured bridges across the Nemunas near Grodno and Kaunas and across the Daugava by Daugavpils several times. A distinct group of Rohrbach’s photographs includes views of bridges across small rivers in Latvia and these are particularly important for both the history of Latvian photography and the history of technical monuments. Apart from the bridge in Kaunas, whose construction Rohrbach shot several times, he photographed the bridges across the Vilnia and the Neris that were nearing completion in September 1861 and, in November, took pictures of a bridge across the Merkys and another bridge across the Baltoji Vokė that was still under construction; all of these in Lithuania. Besides that, Rohrbach also went to take pictures of a bridge across the Jiesia on the Kaunas– Virbalis railway section in October.

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taken by the photographer Justyn Kozłowski, Alphonse Liébert’s views of cities destroyed in the

Although the documentary photographs must have been made on a commission from the company that implemented this construction, Rohrbach nevertheless created attractive

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compositions from concrete pillars in deep river valleys, trestle-work designs, metal bridge spans and temporary small wooden bridges with human figures, reminding everyone of those at whose will and desire pristine landscapes undergo change. Interestingly, the photographs of bridges capture a great deal of the surrounding scenery. The photographer seems to have felt the duty to picture a new landscape not so familiar to him with the utmost depth and width. He did not need that when shooting the familiar bridges of Hungary. Upon his arrival in Russia, Rohrbach also photographed urban views. These are of particular importance for the history of our countries’ cities. Rohrbach was the author of the oldest photographic views of Kaunas, Daugavpils and Grodno. For example, Kaunas historians are particularly overjoyed by the fact that, in 1861, Rohrbach made as many as five pictures of Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. These, undoubtedly oldest, views of Kaunas are an essential complement to the relatively sparse mid-19th century iconography of Kaunas. A new album of Kaunas photographs was compiled in 1895!

Translated by Laima Junevičienė. The author of this article is very grateful to Dr. Ulla Fischer-Westhauser for her encouragement to commence, her patience and the precious support he received throughout the whole proccess of preparation of the article. 1 2 3

4 5 6 7

Małgorzata Grąbczewska, personal communication, March 2007; Presentation by Małgorzata Grąbczewska delivered at the Vilnius School of Photography conference, 27 September 2007, Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius. Anton Rohrbach. Construction of the bridge over the Gran, Hungary, 1859, Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris, in: Michel Frizot (ed.), A New History of Photography, Cologne: Kinneman 1998, 206–207. Exposition Photo Génie, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 14 September – 23 October 1983; Les grands chantiers du xix éme siècle, Lausanne, Musée de l’Elysée, 2 April–31 May 1987; Panorama des Panoramas. Centre National de la Photographie, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 16 January – 27 May 1991. Margarita Matulytė, Photography of Vilnius 1858–1915, Vilnius: National Museum of Lithuania 2001. Dainius Junevičius, ‘Seniausios Kauno nuotraukos’ (in Lithuanian, ‘The Earliest Photographs of Kaunas’) Archiforma, vol. 2, 2007, 90. Rang-Ri Park-Barjot, La Société de construction des Batignolles: des origines à la première guerre mondiale, 1846–1914, Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne 2005. Photographies des ponts en fer de la Theiss à Szégédin, de l’Eipel à Szobb, de la Gran près de Gran, call number ph 27 a and ph 170 a.

Conclusion. Rohrbach’s Secret In the mid-19th century, the motif of a railway, road or bridge had an important place in photography and a special kind of mutual attraction manifested itself in France. EdouardHippolyte Collard took pride in calling himself “a photographer of bridges and major roads” and, starting in 1857, was engaged in taking pictures of the developments of France’s main bridges for nearly three decades. 15 Judging by the surviving works, Anton Rohrbach can certainly be placed alongside the other outstanding photographers of his epoch. His works discussed here are proof of their authors’ superior training, excellent knowledge of the trade and distinctive quality of representation, characteristic of the most outstanding photographers of that time. We do not know where he mastered the art of photography. With the exception of a brief inscription included in the directory of photographers of German speaking countries and major European capitals, 16 which presents Rohrbach as one of the three photographers in Szeged in 1866, the author of the current paper has failed to find any information on Anton Rohrbach’s life in the sources available to him. Hungarian archives and studies by historians of photography may contain such information. At the time of preparing this paper for publication, however, such sources were not accessible to the author. Although Anton Rohrbach was commissioned by Gouin et Cie to take pictures in both Hungary and Russia, the existing company archives also have no information on the photographer Anton Rohrbach. 17

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Elvire Perego, ‘The Conquest of knowledge and techniques. Photography at the École des Ponts et Chaussées’ in: Frizot, 1998 (note 2). Eiserne Brücken über den Theissfluss bei Szegedin, Eypelfluss bei Szobb, Granfluss bei Gran auf der südöstlichen Linie der k.k. priv. österreichischen Staats-Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft, call numbers Pk 4300 and Pk 4584. Tajan, Photographies des xix e et xx e siècl,. Sale in Paris, Wednesday 14 April 1999, auction catalogue, Paris 1999, 8. (05.01.2004) Gerardo F. Kurtz, Isabel Ortega, 150 años de fotografía en la Biblioteca Nacional : guía-inventario de los fondos fotográficos de la Biblioteca Nacional / coordinada y dirigida por Gerardo F. Kurtz, Isabel Ortega, Madrid: Dirección General del Libro y Bibliotecas, d.l. 1989. Rosalind Williams, personal communication, August 2003. Józef Ziemba, ‘Stanislaw Janicki’ in: Słownik biograficzny techników polskich, Warsaw: not fsnt, 1989, vol. 7, 18. Elvire Perego, ‘The Urban Machine/Architecture and Industry’ in: Frizot, 1998 (note 2). Allgemeines Adress-Handbuch ausübender Photographen von Deutschland, den österr. Kaiserstaaten, der Schweiz und den Hauptstädten der angrenzenden Länder, Leipzig: Robert Schaefer’s Verlag [um 1865]. Rang-Ri Park-Barjot, personal communication to Małgorzata Grąbczewska, April 2007.

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Denis Baldus authored a cycle of innovative photographs of the Paris-Lyons line. August-