The vertiginous photograph below is a dramatic record of the topping-off ceremony for One Atlantic Center in 1987. Then known as the IBM Tower, designed by late architect Philip Johnson, it was, at 820 feet, the tallest building in the southeast and the anchor of Atlanta’s spire-studded Midtown business district. It was also the object of Atlanta pride and a symbol of its ambition to climb among the first rank of American cities.
The image would not have existed but for the persistence and vision of Bulgarian-born Ilia Varcev. Then 45, he persuaded the construction foremen to take him and his panoramic camera up to the 950-foot-tall construction crane atop the building — a precarious perch. The image is a reflection of the immigrant artist’s fascination with American can-do, and especially Atlanta’s not-always-warranted self-regard.
I had met the photographer about a year earlier at the exact same location, the first day of my first job after college. I was schlepping downhill six cheap shovels for the photo-op of the groundbreaking. Varcev was schlepping uphill a 10-foot A-frame ladder and a box-frame panoramic camera. He smiled, described himself as the “unofficial” photographer of Midtown and began snapping shots. My boss told me to shoo Varcev away, but by then he’d befriended the site foreman. Varcev knew how to get into restricted places — he had a way of befriending everyday people — and document things few would otherwise ever see. Thank God.
I learned later that he had been documenting the district’s prostitutes, artists, businessmen and the comings and goings at Midtown’s famed Cha Gio, Atlanta’s first pho merchant, for years.
Varcev isn’t sure when photography became his principle means of support, but he remembers his surprise when someone first offered to buy one of his prints. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I’m not so bad after all,’” he says.
His photographs are now in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, among others. The High Museum of Art, which has a long-standing interest in Varcev’s work, is raising funds to add more to its collection.
Experts such as Brett Abbott, Keough Family Curator of Photography and head of collections, and Edwin Robinson, manager of the Atlanta Photography Group Legacy Project, credit Varcev’s skill as a darkroom and digital printer and his crisp, straightforward imagery for making his prints favorites among collectors.
I believe his greatness also comes from his humanity. Viewing the city from an émigré’s perspective, he reveals but does not judge, documenting drag queens and pompous politicians with equal empathy and capturing the city in its follies and its triumphs.
“My process is simple: I always carry a camera,” he says. “I did not study photography, but I learned my skills and technique by studying the work of masters such as Josef Sudek, André Kertész and Edward Weston. I bought books and read them. I took the streets and took photographs. I improved through practice. I don’t care if an image is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ only that it captures a moment.”
Varcev never stops shooting. He will likely photograph his own funeral. “My lens is an extension of my eyes,” he says. While hospitalized last year, he photographed the nurses and visitors. “I got some great stuff!”
Varcev was born in 1941 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, a textile town in the center of the country. His father, Christo, was a tailor who read newspapers avidly and listened to Radio Free Europe. In 1946, the family (Christo, mother Dona, elder brother Nikola, sister Lili and Ilia) relocated to Czechoslovakia, where jobs and housing were more plentiful.
Varcev attended a Bulgarian boarding school in Prague, observed life in Wenceslas Square and watched penny movies. His brother gave him his first camera, a twin-lens, when he was 10, and he began taking snapshots.
“I had no notion of becoming a photographer, but I realized I could express my ideas through images, revealing my views on love, nature, beauty and ugliness,” he says.
In 1956, the skies darkened: the Soviets crushed a nationwide revolt against the Hungarian government as Varcev entered trade school in Liberec (Reichenberg), in the shadow of the Jizera Mountains on the East German border.
But for Varcev, the next four years were happy ones. “I roamed this beautiful town and enjoyed being young and alive, with ample cheap beer, plentiful books and study of Russian, English, literature and history,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until 1960, when he entered graduate school in Czechoslovakia to study mechanical engineering, that he began to understand that the Soviet-dominated regime was fencing him in.
In March 1966, Varcev secured an exit permit to travel to Budapest to stamp his Czech green card. But he had other plans. From Budapest, he continued to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, on the Italian border where the frontier was largely unguarded. With only the clothes on his back, Varcev took a running jump over a barbed wire fence into the West.
“My first steps into the West were into a fruit orchard. I ran like a rabbit.”
He soon was picked up by an Italian truck driver who drove him to police headquarters to request political asylum. In August 1966, he was given a visa to the United States and flew to Washington, D.C. There, he put his “engineering” education to work changing motor oil in Volkswagens.
In early 1967, he moved to New York but grew tired of being poor. “I figured, hell, if I have to be at the bottom of the pole, I might as well go where there are girls and sun and coconuts. So I moved to Miami in 1972.”
He did not intend to stay in the United States, so he began photographing to record his experiences. He continued photographing after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1973.
After a run of bad luck, Varcev decided in 1976 to return to Washington. Passing through Atlanta, his old Volvo broke down near a gas station on Bennett Street. There, a kid pumping gas told him about cheap apartments at the Darlington. “I thought, ‘God, what a beautiful city,’” he recalls. “So I rented the apartment for $100 a month.”
Getting rich has never been his priority. “Whenever I needed some money,” he said, “I’d sell a print or two. Enough to get by.”
He’s never had a gallery or an artist rep. He only recently published a website. If the prospective buyer offended him, he’d simply walk out.
Sometimes, however, that was a clever ploy. Kelly Mills, chairman of the Department of Art at Shorter University in Rome, attended a meeting with Varcev and officials of the new Federal Reserve building in Midtown. Varcev had photographed the building’s construction, and when Fed officials saw some of the prints, they wanted to buy them outright.
“I loved his tactics,” remember Mills. “They wanted exclusive control of his film. At some point, he rose up and shouted, ‘The Communists treated me better than you!,’ then walked out for full effect. They bought the images on his terms.”
Mostly, he sold to friends at a fraction of prices galleries would have charged. Over the years, I have bought numerous prints from Ilia. I’d see an image on the floor of his apartment and say, “Ilia, how much would you want for that print?” He’d say, “How much you willing to pay?” I’d insist that he name the price — and it was always a price I could afford, so I’d buy one. Often, he’d show up for dinner and give me one.
If he has one fault, it is this: he doesn’t trust those in power or those who define who is and who is not a good artist. In fact, he holds such people in contempt. His distrust may have cost him financial success, but it gave him something better: freedom to define his own terms of artistic merit.
Will Varcev one day be remembered as a great artist? He doesn’t set much store by legacy. “Put a $15,000 price tag on a piece of [expletive] and someone will call it great art. Give it to a friend, and they’ll call it a gift. Who cares what others think?”
Varcev, now 73, suffers from COPD and asthma, exacerbated, his friends believe, by living for 25 years amid mold in a cold-water basement apartment at the corner of 14th and State streets. His health is precarious, but he continues to make photographs. His subsidized housing is only steps from Marietta Square. Patriotic painters of Reagan, vegetable merchants, Civil War apologists, black deacons and white supremacists are his daily subject matter. It is, from his perspective, a universe in a square.
“Ilia’s work is passion in the purest sense, the only kind that counts in art,” says Michael Turner, Varcev’s lifelong friend and founder of Atlanta Photography Group. “He didn’t just take a few days here and there to set aside for photography. He lives it.”
Artist Frank Stella once famously said, “What you see is what you see.” And like Stella, Varcev has the unique talent to make you look.
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