On 25th February, 1861, Tsarist troops killed five participants of a peaceful patriotic demonstration in Warsaw. On the next day Karol Beyer photographed victims. His pictures immediately spread out all over Poland in uncountable quantities.
Four of the bodies were transported directly from Krakowskie Przedmieście Street to the European Hotel; the fifth, the body of the youngest, was taken by his family. On the next day Karol Beyer photographed victims and Russian journalist Mikołaj Wisilijewicz Berg described the occurrence:
The General [Pauluzzi] went to room No. 64 where the forensic-medical examination took place, executed by the second unit of the Warsaw Police’s Court all present and correct according to the laws; with a notary and twelve witnesses. The room quickly filled up with a crowd of nosy onlookers. National photographer Beyer was also there and he took pictures of the killed, in all their terror and grandeur, with horrifying wounds. These pictures immediately spread out all over Poland in uncountable quantities.
The ‘national photographer’ had a very significant role to play. His duty was to document the crime (after the massacre, organizers of the demonstration were afraid that the tsarist police would try to steal the corpses in order to avoid further anti-Russian turmoil). Yet, Beyer did something more. In four of five portraits constituting this patriotic tableau he went far beyond the scheme of presenting the deceased in the photographs. The youngest victim – Michał Arcichiewicz – was prepared for the post-mortem according to custom, as if masking the brutal circumstances of his death. The young boy in his school uniform lies in the coffin. In the background a fragment of the decorative tree is visible. The other four men – journeyman tailor Filip Adamkiewicz, factory worker Karol Brender and two landowners Zdzisław Rutkowski and Marceli Paweł Karczewski are presented in a very unconventional way, reminding not of mortuary photography but more the iconography of the Passion; there is anxiety on their faces, the bodies and their nude torsos are pictured so that the deadly wounds are perfectly visible.
In other words, ‘terror and grandeur’ emanating from the wounds of the murdered became a metaphor of the nation’s suffering under the yoke of tsardom. The uniqueness and revolutionary approach of Beyer’s photography is best seen in a comparison with the famous portrait of the murdered communards taken by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. His photo, taken a decade later, presents the revolutionists’ bodies in a naturalist manner – as a row of numbered, cruelly mutilated corpses without life, but without dignity as well.
Karol Beyer, an outstanding figure of his era, collector, inventor, entrepreneur and numismatist became a ‘national photographer’ not only because of his patriotic convictions but also because he lived next to the area of tragic occurrences. His photographic workshop was located in the European Hotel. He manifested his anti-tsarist ideas not only by taking and spreading photographs of Five Killed. For his political activity he was banished to Siberia and was forced to stay there between 1862 and 1865.
The five photographs and the single tableau assembled by Beyer became a tool of political agitation and anti-Russian national propaganda. Berg’s words: ‘These pictures immediately spread out all over Poland in uncountable quantities’ are to be understood literally. Indeed, they circulated all over the country in the form of postcards and newsletters. All of that was aimed at abolishing tsarist power.
Author: Adam Mazur, March 2011, Translated by W.O. March 2014.