Karol Beyer was a photographer and founder of the first photographic parlour in Warsaw. He was born on the 10th of February 1818 in Warsaw, where he also died on the 8th of November 1877.
Photographer, founder of the first photographic parlour in Warsaw.
He was son of the well-known painter Henryka Beyer née Minter, who ran a painting and drawing school for women in Warsaw, and Jan Gottlieb Wilhelm Beyer, director of the Warsaw lottery. Together with his brother Henryk Karol he attended the Warsaw High School until it was closed in 1831. After he discontinued his education he worked for a certain time at a famous foundry, owned by his uncle, Karol Minter. Later he left for Paris, where he learned one of the first photographic techniques – daguerreotyping.
In 1845, after returning to Warsaw, Karol Beyer opened his first photographic parlour, which was also the first in Warsaw. It was located on Senatorska street. The establishment moved twice, at first to Warecka street and later to Krakowskie Przedmieście. Beyer ended his photographic activity around 1869. Many of the photographers who worked for him later became well-known professionals: Marcin Olszyński, Konrad Brandel, Teofil Boretti, Ferdynand Kloch, Aleksander Kowaliński and Meletiusz Dutkiewicz, amongst others.
Due to his patriotic activities, Beyer spent the years 1862-1865 in exile in Russia. After he returned to Warsaw he found his photographic parlour in ruins. It was then that he summoned from Vienna the great photographer – the abovementioned Meletiusz Dutkiewicz, and with his help restored the company’s old splendour. In 1869 together with Dutkiewicz he also opened the first mechanical collotype print shop in Warsaw, which published albums with photographs of monuments of Polish culture. For an album printed on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of Copernicus’s birth, the Kaiser Franz Joseph awarded Dutkiewicz with the Golden Cross of Merit.
In 1863 Karol Beyer financed the building of a huge town house with a rotunda on the corner of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Królewska street. The building was designed by Józef Orłowski. The later erected rotunda of the Bristol hotel was its architectural counterpart. The structure which Beyer financed stood until 1944 and Varsovians called it the “Beyer house” until it ceased to exist. After 1945 it wasn’t rebuilt. Today one can see at it amongst others in photographs from Bolesław Prus’s funeral.
The studio, which functioned in the premises of the building, made a profit chiefly on portrait photography. It was visited by the most prominent members of the political, cultural and artistic circles of Warsaw. However, the parlour’s owner had broad interests. This caused him to explore various themes in photography – such activity wasn’t uncommon in other well-known studios around Europe.
Karol Beyer also pursued scientific photography, which had only begun to develop in his times. Since photography's invention, taking scientific pictures had been considered one of its most important potential uses. In 1851 Beyer made daguerreotypes showing a solar eclipse. For scientific reasons he exploited photography’s documentary potential when he took pictures of Polish coins and medals in 1854. Two years later he created a documentation of the most valuable Polish collections which was presented at an exhibition in Warsaw. Later, at the end of 1858, Beyer photographed works of art presented at the “Exhibition of Antiquities and Monuments of Art” in Kraków, which was organized by the local scientific society. The illustrations in an album he published presented archeological excavations, pottery, jewellery, old weapons, elements of clothing, interior accessories and regalia. Karol Beyer also used photographic techniques to reproduce contemporary paintings, drawings and sculptures, which helped popularize those works among the public.
He also photographed buildings and landscapes. Beyer traveled across the country, from Gdańsk, through Płock and Częstochowa, to Kraków and Ojców to capture important historical places and monuments. He was also a keen observer of his hometown. He took pictures of churches, tenement houses in the old town and of the Royal Castle. He portrayed Warsaw, capturing changes in its architecture. The series of photographs showing the various stages of the building of Kierbedź’s Bridge made in the years 1859-1864 is an excellent example of this. He also took pictures showing Varsovians and the capital’s everyday life. The panorama of Warsaw is surely one of the most interesting photographic achievements of those times. Karol Beyer is said to be its author. It consists of twelve photographs measuring 20 by 26 centimetres – views of the city captured from the dome of the Evangelical Church of the Holy Trinity - combined in a whole.
Beyer is considered to be the author of the first Polish political photo reportages. In 1861, from the window of his workshop, he photographed Russian troops stationed in Saski Square. Most importantly, he made a touching series of posthumous portraits of five protesters who died the same year on the 27th of February in a patriotic demonstration: Michał Arcichiewicz, Filip Adamkiewicz, Karol Brendel, Zdzisław Rutkowski and Marceli Karczewski. Beyer was arrested twice by tsarist authorities for disseminating these photographs. As mentioned before, in the years 1862-1865 he was in exile in Novochapiorsk in Siberia.
Karol Beyer’s attitude was filled with social commitment. This influenced his understanding of photography’s role. After the events of 1861 he became a member of the Municipal Delegation, which was to take care of calming the mood of the public. As a friend of painters, journalists, scientists and financiers he remained in the centre of cultural and political events. He participated in the realization of every important initiative in Warsaw. His saying: “these things aren’t going to be done without me”, was well known among his contemporaries. He was, amongst, others a co-founder of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in 1860. He took part in the launching of the periodical “Tygodnik Ilustrowany” in 1859. He was the first Polish photographer to cooperate with the illustrated press on a regular basis. His position among his contemporaries and abroad was so strong that in 1855 he was accepted as a member of the prestigious Société Française de Photographie, a society of active photographers from all around the world, which had been founded a year earlier.
Beyer was also a famed numismatist. He owned a valuable collection of coins and was also an author of many publications in that field. He proved his expertise when he exposed the counterfeiter Józef Majnert. In 1856 at the initiative of Karol Beyer, during a social gathering in a tenement house in Piwna street in Warsaw, the Warsaw Numismatic Society was founded.
Karol Beyer died on the 8th of November 1877. He was buried in the Evangelical-Reformed Cemetery in Warsaw.
- "Photosensitive: Collections of Photographs at the National Museum in Warsaw. An Exhibition on the 170th Anniversary of the Invention of Photography”, exhibition catalogue, National Museum in Warsaw, 2009
- Wanda Mossakowska, "The Beginnings of Photography in Warsaw (1839-1863)”, Warsaw 1994
- Wanda Mossakowska, "Daguerreotypes in Polish Collections”, Wrocław 1989
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, April 2011
Translated by: Marek Kępa