Arts and Entertainment

Scenes from a vanished world

Martin Koenig’s photographs document scenes from 1960s-era village life in Bulgaria. - Martin Koenig photo
Martin Koenig’s photographs document scenes from 1960s-era village life in Bulgaria.
— image credit: Martin Koenig photo

An upcoming exhibit on Vashon will showcase the photography of Islander Martin Koenig, who spent much of the 1960s and ’70s documenting village life and music in Soviet-era Bulgaria.

The show, “Martin Koenig: Voices and Images from Bulgaria, 1966-1979,” is coming to Vashon after being exhibited at the Bulgarian National Gallery in 2006, New York’s Bulgarian Consulate in 2007 and the Chicago Cultural Center in 2008.

The photographs in the exhibit were taken during a pivotal time in Koenig’s life that helped shape his lifelong work as a nationally recognized dance ethnographer and cultural specialist.

Koenig began his work in Bulgaria in 1966, when he traveled to the country armed with a letter of introduction and a modest grant from anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Koenig said he found a “society that had stood still there for many years.”

“I thought I had fresh eyes being a foreigner,” he explained, “and I took photographs that other photographers didn’t take, because they thought it would be there forever.”

Koenig knew better. He said he soon realized that he was in the midst of a society in rapid transition, and he began to document the disappearing agrarian lifestyle and village culture.

On his initial trip and on a half dozen additional trips made between 1966 and 1979, Koenig worked with several Bulgarian ethnographers throughout the country filming, recording and photographing music, dance and ceremonies.

The more than 30 photographs in this exhibition show a slow-paced, self-contained agricultural society that held onto an immense reservoir of folklore. They also memorialize a way of life that is largely gone due to modernization and globalization.

Koenig is a leading supporter of community-based traditional arts and an authority on European ethnic dance traditions. In 1966, he founded the Balkan Arts Center, now named the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Over its 43-year history in New York City, the center has produced folk festivals, concerts, classes and documentary films. During the course of his career, Koenig has conducted field research under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, Barnard College/Columbia University and other institutions, and has taught Balkan folk dance at colleges.

According to Koenig, who recently turned 70, his life’s work is as that of an advocate.

“It’s important for people to hold on to where they come from,” he said.

Exhibit details

“Martin Koenig: Voices and Images from Bulgaria, 1966-1979” will be on view at Shady Lady Interiors and Two Wall Gallery, 17600 Vashon Hwy. A reception will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5. The exhibition, which is partially funded by grants from Leonard Plodzien and the Boeing Corporation, will run through March 28. Gallery hours are 12 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.

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