The self-portrait with which Leah Bendavid-Val opens her introduction to Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy presents the photographer as two women. On one hand, she is mistress of her domain, a commanding and elegant matron; yet she stands at a distance, beneath a towering canopy of trees, which makes her appear diminutive and slightly indistinct, a subject secondary to her surroundings. Much of Bendavid-Val’s book, in fact, reads like a primer on Lev Tolstoy’s activities, his moods, and ambitions. One wonders, then, to what degree Sophia’s life can be separated from her husband’s. In a sense, it cannot. Such is the undercurrent that runs throughout this examination of Sophia’s words and images: though she proved herself an able manager of estate and family matters and an industrious assistant in Tolstoy’s literary endeavours, her life was, at almost every turn, subject to his. Photography, however, offered Sophia the chance to pursue an interest that was solely hers.
Though she wasn’t formally trained in photography, Sophia took up the practice with an amateur’s zeal, producing about one thousand pictures, most between 1895 and 1910. The 180 black-and-white images beautifully reproduced in this volume mainly range within this period (the latest is a self-portrait at Tolstoy’s grave from 1912).