Monthly Archives: December 2013

Broom sellers,

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in a second-hand twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The depth of field provided by the Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and keeps background details recognizable.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus so as not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street, following the course of a one-time riverbed, just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and a reliable source of seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh fruit and vegetables in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet formed.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains for now are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish, plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others vigorously or halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities in many places throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions during the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enabled the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constricted their choices.

The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can also make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even far less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms are run by ethnic Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and Christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a neo-Stalist regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up hundreds of businesses (most of them marginal), thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock, and tens of thousands of places in the workforce.

From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that can be more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” was clear enough: emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.  Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  This especially holds true for populist agitators and amongst Bulgarians with higher incomes and social standing, whether real or self-ascribed.  In such circles, Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books involving Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or self-styledly cultured Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them, usually with story lines about rich but stupid Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and peddlers. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians, as we used to say in the Yiddish-English patois of my native Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n’d’r’ert!” (“Sink into the ground”).  After years of listening to their racist hatefulness  and class-condescension of , I’m always available to lend a helpful push.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell's Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi "Johnny" Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, "in camera" JPEG.)  Click on photo to enlarge.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell’s Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, “in camera” JPEG.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Wednesday evening I attended the premiere of two films in Sofia, Bulgaria, timed to honor the 80th birthday of Georgi “Johnny” Penkov — acoustical scientist, film sound man, humorist and raconteur, and, more recently, documentary film maker in his own right.

“My ‘Mahalla'” and a “Filibeli” guitarist

The first film was one Johnny shot, edited, and produced solo: “My Mahalla,” a characteristically humorous and touching, commentary-free sketch of details, rhythms, and sounds in the street in which he has lived his entire life (Mahalla being Turkish and colloquial Bulgarian for neighborhood).  The second film was one in which Johnny had served as sound man: “One Rainy Day,” an emotional and delicately shot  portrait of the brilliant, energetic, but, in recent years, reclusive, Bulgarian guitarist Ognian Videv, an autodidact and eternal “Filibeli” (after the Turkish word for a denizen of the city of Filibe — Plovidiv as it is now called — in Bulgarian Thrace).

Legendary guitar Virtuoso and life-long "Filibeli" (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of bear, December, 2013.  (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Legendary guitar virtuoso and life-long “Filibeli” (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of beer, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

“Tvortsi” and polymaths

The premiere drew an older audience of past-generation Bulgarian “tvortsi” (“creatives,” as they were called during the communist period).  Some had been self-indulgent hacks and pretend former- dissidents in days gone by, contemptuous of ordinary people who work but incapable of working themselves. Others, however — like Johnny, Ognian, and the great Bulgarian-Jewish comic and dramatic actor Itzko Finzi (whose photo I unfortunately neglected to take) — were and remain hardworking, productive, world-class talents. They are also people from whom I learned much.  It was  Johnny, for example, who taught me that being a polymath is a specialization as worthy as any other (!) and who gave me the courage to continue on the path towards becoming one.  Not least, Johnny also honed my search for humor and insight in the small details.


In the days when many attending the premiere were far younger, hats were de rigeur for Soviet bloc “creatives” and were worn by some as a signature sign of their talents and by others as surrogates for real personae of their own.  Thus, five hats, each representative of people in the first category, are featured in the accompanying photos.

One-time cineast and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his eternal right to a "Greek fisherman's" hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world.  The faux-fur "kalpak" atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added a "Ninotchka"-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click in photo to enlarge.

One-time cineaste and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his right to a “Greek fisherman’s” hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world. The faux-fur “kalpak” atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added to the evening a “Ninotchka”-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: A confession of photographic laziness …

It was either laziness — or preoccupation with conversation with dancing, conversation, and decent wine at the reception following the screening — but the photos posted herein represent some uncharacteristic cutting of corners on my part.

First, my photo of Johnny is blurred and with no recognizable plane of focus.  Johnny would quite likely excuse this by saying that this actually makes  the photo more accurate, life itself being blurred and with no recognizable focus!  Second, instead of falling prey to my usual foible of thinking that the most complicated solution is the most worthy, I took an embarrassing post-processing short cut. Rather than converting my RAW files to b/w in Lightroom and carefully manipulating color sliders to achieve the look I desired, I converted them from RAW to monochrome JPEGS in-camera, using the raw conversion feature of the X100’s firmware.  The results, by the way, were far better than I had expected, especially considering that the files were shot at ISO1600.  All that was needed was some slight shifting of brightness, contrast, etc. in Lightroom,  plus a tad of added clarity and a drop of vignetting, the latter to draw the eye to the main subjects.  Luminance noise was — to borrow an adjective from internet photography pontificators — not unpleasantly “film-like.”

Music at the premiere was provided by a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, with the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma name of "Jimmy."  Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hate.  Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby.  It was Jimmy's fault that I danced rather than photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

Music at the premiere was provided by Jesus Kotsev, a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, who goes by the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma stage name of “Jimmy Accordeon.” Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hat. Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby. Blame it on Jimmy that I danced more than I photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

View from my desk at sunrise, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter 2011-2012. (Fuji X100).  Click to enlarge.

Sofia, Bulgaria, view from my desk at sunrise on a December morning, 2011.  (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The image above shows the view from the desk I have been using during my stays in Sofia, Bulgaria over the last seventeen years.  For nearly two decades, the view has barely changed. The building on the far left received a coat of yellow paint some years ago, a window was cut into the roof of the building at the foreground and a birch tree that stood to the building’s left was felled during a storm.  However, the sensation I experience each time I glance out the window has remained constant — a feeling of floating above the city encased in a my own private bubble.

Even banal views belie tales of change. The above panorama of sky, roof tiles, distant trees, and the upper floors of Bauhaus-influenced facades may have remained fixed but life on the streets three stories below has gone through upheavals.  Competing political regimes and severe economic crisis have come and gone, Sofia’s population has increased 2.5x, a new generation of Sofia residents has been born and grown to near-adulthood, and the bulk of the economic and social lives of the city have moved out of the center to new areas at the urban periphery.

Seventy years ago, some of the rooftops in this very view were aflame during wartime aerial bombardments of Sofia. (Bulgaria, not to forget, was an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany and was fire-bombed by the British and Americans in reprisal, a matter cynically relegated to amnesia during both the Soviet- and post-Soviet eras).

During the years that the view above has been mine to enjoy, the building in the foreground has gone through several incarnations, all reflective of changes in the city at large. Soon after the denouement of the Communist period, during a time of unregulated gangster-capitalism, the building housed the offices of Bulgaria’s first GSM mobile telecommunications provider, initially owned by a succession of Russian and Israeli investors backed by dubious sources of capital.  Not long after, during a period of foreign largesse and a cargo-cult of NGO boondoggles, the building housed the Bulgarian representation of the United Nations Development Program.  Thereafter, the building remained vacant for some years until, this past month, it was refurbished to house private law offices.

Just as the view from my desk in Sofia points to stories of external changes, it also reveals changes in the viewer.  Over the years that I have used the desk, I’ve been in and out of Sofia as a mid-life Fulbright research scholar and photographer,  a convalescent and physical therapy patient following a severe accident,  a field worker for a US government project documenting aspects of the cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minorities, and  a consultant to various companies and institutions in Western and Central Europe. These last few months, I’ve been in Sofia for  time-consuming dental work, itself a revealing tale of sugar-laden, post-war American diet, prohibitively priced US dentistry, inadequate Western and Eastern European dentistry in the 1970s and 80s, past accidents, and poor luck at the roulette table of genetics.  I hope to be able to leave Sofia by mid-month — when I do, the memory of the view from my desk will travel with me.