Tibet and Surrounds
Within just a few decades of photography’s birth, virtually every area of the world had been documented by adventurous traveling photographers. Although the earliest British photographers were fascinated by the mystery of the Hidden Kingdom of Tibet, almost all were forbidden to travel past the Tibetan borderlands. (Only in the 20th century were Western travelers such as Charles Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Sven Hedin and others able to penetrate into the interior of Tibet.) However, as early as the 1860s and especially in the 1880s, early British photographers such as Bourne, Shepherd, Parr, and others established contact with Himalayan peoples in the regions close to India. Remarkable portraits of high-mountain peoples of various ethnicities and backgrounds were made by these photographers, some in their studios and others at places of pilgrimage in northern India and Nepal.
These Himalayan portraits have a remarkable intimacy. Clearly the sitters felt at ease with the photographers; there is none of the submissiveness, trepidation, or manipulated emotional quality of “Orientalist” photographs from other regions. The West’s interest in the exotic - luxurious costuming and jewelry - was amply met in the extraordinarily rich silver, turquoise and coral ornaments and classically patterned aprons worn by the young Tibetan and Bhutia women in these photographs. Extremely rare early images of ritual and prayer, and casual, charming photographs of family groups, Lepchas, and soldiers contrast with the more formal portraits of well-dressed women and a psychologically penetrating portrait of a very young Tibetan dignitary.
A very different style of portraiture is found in a group of late 19th century cabinet cards from Russia. Russian trading activities in the Far East brought photographers to regions adjoining northern and eastern Tibet as well. The German-Russian photographer O. Stein made a number of full frontal, full-body portraits of lamas, dignitaries, and even Tibetan ladies in his studio in Tschita (today Chita), the administrative center of the Russian Far East region bordering China and Mongolia. Tschita’s mixed population of Russian, Chinese, Mongols, and Tibetans provided a rich ethnic mix for the photographer’s collection of portraits of eastern peoples. The Russian images are reminders of the imperialist ethos of the nineteenth century, in which distant lands were cataloged as a means of furthering the ideals of conquest.