Colonial Period Photography in Central Asia

Copyright 2006 by Kate Fitz Gibbon


Emirate and Empire: Photography in Central Asia 1858 – 1917


The camera was one of the most rapidly distributed tools ever constructed. Within just a few months of the announcement of its invention in England and France, the camera could be found in the capitals of Europe, in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the Near and Far East. The camera accompanied virtually all subsequent journeys of exploration and became - almost instantly - the public record of the progress of empire around the world.1

The introduction of photography into Central Asia came about as a result of the Russian conquest of the region. (For the purpose of this paper, the term “Central Asia” refers to the territory of Russian Turkestan, encompassing the present countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, it does not include Tibet or Eastern Turkestan, the present day Xinjiang Province of China.) Nineteenth century Central Asia had fallen far from its earlier position as a major military power, trade hub, and center of artistic and intellectual activity in the Islamic world. For more than two centuries, dynastic feuds had rocked the country, leaving it impoverished and the roads unprotected. The caravan trade, already pressured by the increasing use of sea routes for the transportation of goods, had faltered.  In the early nineteenth century, three independent kingdoms were established by Uzbek rulers in southern Central Asia: the Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Khojand. Slave-based agriculture expanded, trade increased, and new demands for luxury goods brought about an artistic revival of traditional crafts.

At about the same time, anxiety over increasing British activity in Afghanistan propelled Tsarist Russian commercial and military interests to look towards Central Asia, hoping to find a bulwark against British influence along their southern borders, a colonial marketplace in which Russian goods could compete and a rich source of raw materials, particularly cotton.

Tsar Nicolas I had died in 1855, as Russian society was reeling from the defeats suffered in the Crimea against the French, British, and Ottoman Turks. The new Tsar Alexander II reopened Russia’s borders and permitted European travel and a fresh influx of progressive European social ideas and entrepreneurial energy. Although the Great Game in Central Asia was justified publicly as a geopolitical conflict between Russia and Great Britain for strategic lands, the realities were more prosaic. Influential businessmen determined to expand Russian markets and a military aristocracy with imperial ambitions found common interest in the subjugation of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Together, they convinced the Tsar to move forward with direct military action. Soon after 1850, a series of hard-fought battles brought Russian troops across the Kazakh plains, and between 1865 and 1884, Russian forces took complete political control of the oases towns, with the Emir of Bukhara alone retaining a nominal local sovereignty.

The arrival of photographers in Central Asia roughly paralleled the arrival of Russian troops and Russian administrators. The centers of photographic activity were the Russian held towns of Khojand and Samarkand, and the administrative city of Tashkent. Prior to the Russian conquest, only a few travelers had come to the oasis towns. Even if they had the ability and the desire to do so, taking photographs would have excited the suspicions and the animus of the local rulers. The earliest photography in Central Asia begins in 1858. Only after 1870, when Russia’s hold on Central Asia was certain, does it become widespread.

 Like other colonial powers, Russia’s rulers wished to document their new possessions and to join in the movement to photograph the entire world. The imperial imagination was fired by the prospect of documenting the ancient cultures of the Silk Road, from the ancient monuments of Samarkand to the ordinary rituals of daily life of the inhabitants of the steppe.

Russian photography in Central Asia was similar in many respects to the colonial documentary projects of the British in India and the French in North Africa. The first photographers in Central Asia were foreigners, and the cataloging of the peoples, sights, and architecture of the region utilized the ethnological approach popular at the time. Technical innovations made international photography possible at approximately the same time that anthropology emerged as a science. This was also the period during which rapid industrialization in Europe and North America gave new emphasis to the “other-ness” and cultural differences between technologically developed and non-developed peoples.

In its simplest form, the ethnological perspective focused on categorizing and identifying ethnic types. People were grouped by race, tribe, religion, occupation, physical characteristics, and gender. Objects of material culture were categorized by name, function, period, and construction material or decorative ornament. Virtually all photographers of empire adopted a more or less rigid anthropological framework through which to order their work. Because print photography enabled the rapid copying and distribution of images, the anthropological and ethnological perspective of photography strongly influenced not only the way that each nation viewed the rest of the world, but also the way that they saw themselves.2

Some writers interpret colonial period photo-documentation as expressing possession: the photographers, in a sense, owned their subjects through the process of describing them. 3 Others see photography as the desire to capture a record of primitive cultures, doomed to disappear as a result of contact with the civilizing influence of the conqueror. 4 Early photographs may also have carried a message that stands in counterpoint to the dominant/submissive political paradigm; they established parallels between the daily lives of colonizers and colonized in photographs of weddings, funerals, and other religious, social, and domestic activities common to both societies. Photographs depicting poverty and ignorance could carry a dual message - both a perceived need for social progress and a justification for colonial interference. The most popular and widely disseminated types of photographs from Russia’s colonial empire, however, were entertaining and decorative. They provided a pleasurable experience for the viewer. These photographs celebrated an Orientalist romanticism and heroic barbarism that many Russians saw as a titillating, dramatic, and exciting part of the Russian past, as Russia’s history had been deeply intertwined with that of Mongol and Turkic peoples to the East.

French and British Imperial documentary projects attempted a scientific and detached perspective of foreign subjects, but each viewed conquered peoples through a different cultural lens. 5 Russia had a far more equivocal relationship with Central Asia than other colonizers whose homes were historically unconnected with colonized peoples. Russians saw themselves as holding a more highly developed, paternal position in the Greater Russian region. The geographic proximity of Central Asia lent their relationship a familial character, at least in Russian eyes. Many Russians also suffered at the same time from a sense of inferiority to Europeans, who looked on the Russians themselves as barbarous and who rather indiscreetly patronized them. Russians felt a need to prove themselves equal to other nations with aspirations to empire.

A further complication arose from Russia’s early history of subjugation to Mongol and Central Asian peoples. This history gave rise to an almost subconscious belief that if Central Asians were not dominated, they might seriously threaten Russia. A fear of violent, precipitate upheaval remained an unspoken subtext beneath the economic and political rationale for conquest of the Central Asian region, and throughout the early colonial period, the determined resistance of some Central Asian groups to Russian suzerainty made this threat seem more real.

Russia’s imperial program was more pragmatically justified by Russian industry’s need for Central Asian raw materials such as cotton, and for a captive market for Russian manufactures. However, since Central Asia could not compare in resources or market size to India, North Africa, or the Far East, the economic rewards derived from colonization were disappointingly small. Overall, there were a great many contradictory elements within the colonialist paradigm between Russia and Central Asia that are reflected in various ways in the photography of the period.

Photography in Central Asia began at a time of great ferment in the world of Russian art as well as the worlds of politics and commerce. Since the late eighteenth century, artistic training had been centered on the Russian Academy. For the most part, Russians were provincial, suspicious of novelty in art, and adhered to a rigid social hierarchy. Russian artists held a relatively low social status and because their training was based upon the copying of European models their work often represented craftsmanship as much as artistic creativity.

In the 1860s, all this changed. Many artists strove to express socially responsible or politically progressive ideas in painting and rejected the traditional neo-Classical style of the Russian Academy. Although the aristocracy and the Tsarist administration continued to see their world as immutable and unchanging, Russian society was in reality in turmoil. The 1861 emancipation of the serfs had created tremendous hardship, displacement of landless rural peoples, and famine. The beginnings of industrialization created a new class of worker who had low social status and often lived in abysmal conditions. Russian artists sought to portray contemporary society as it really was, rather than through romanticized, Classic forms.  The Russian Realist painters depicted humble subjects in non-idealized surroundings. They traveled through the countryside to find their subjects and exhibited paintings in rural villages. The Peredvizhniki or Itinerant group of artists called for nothing less than the transformation of society by bringing art to the masses. 6 

Photography contributed to the dialog on the goals of art. Many artists saw photography as a natural extension of the existing visual arts. The first photographs were based on the same artistic conventions, subjects, and genres as academic painting. Many early photographers had previously been painters or alternated working in both professions. The Russian term “svetopis,” or light-painting, was used commonly as a synonym for the word “fotografia,” photography. The use of photography to express new artistic ideas encouraged an even greater interchange between the worlds of photography and art. Realism not only meant precise reproduction of what was before the artist, it required that he step back from the subject, refrain from altering and aestheticizing it, and instead, seek to bring out its meaning through context. In theory at least, photographs could provide a neutral visual perspective, flattening the scene and treating everything within view of the lens equally.

A number of important artists in the Peredvizhniki group worked in photography as well as in traditional artistic media. Ivan Kramskoi, a founding member, had begun his career as a retoucher in a photographer’s studio. S. M. Dudin, a young painter and follower of Ilya Repin and the Itinerants, would become the most important Central Asian photographer of the turn of the century. William Carrick, a Scotsman living in St. Petersburg who was an early and influential photographer of Russian genre scenes, had trained as a painter. Carrick’s studio photographed the work of painters for reproduction, working with Vladimir Stasov of the Imperial Public Library (who was also a critic who supported the Realist movement).  7 There was not only intense interest in the art world in the technological contributions that photography could make to art as a visual aid, but an immediate inclusion of photography and photographic artists within the artistic milieu.

The question remains whether as painting and photography became more “realistic” and “truthful,” they also became more susceptible to being used as propaganda to carry a deliberate political or social message unrelated to the formal concerns of art. Just as there was ambiguity between “self” and “other” in Russia’s vision of Central Asia, the line between real and unreal in the world of art also became difficult to draw. The debates that existed in Europe over the relationship between fidelity to nature and artifice in photography were also crucial in the Russian discussion. Artists and critics, especially those of the Realist school, were excited by photography’s ability to contextualize the subject, establish an exact relationship between subject and surroundings and to precisely capture the moment. Photography offered Realism in a form that met exactly Russian society’s need to define itself. However, the first excitement over photography’s ostensible ability to show absolute truth was quickly tempered by the realization that the photographer not only chose the content but also controlled the message through manipulation of the lens, lighting or other factors. Artists and critics understood that the same image could also convey a very different impression to different viewers.

There remained, of course, many questions about whether or not photography was art. In Europe and the United States, the dramatic successes of new technologies and striking and innovative visual approaches by self-proclaimed photo artists tended to bolster hyperbolic claims of the invention of a new art form. In Russia, the general public perception of photography as art lagged a little behind, but Russian artists embraced photography immediately as a tool that was part of the artistic process.

Although photography came relatively late to Central Asia, the crucial arguments over the nature and value of photography as an art form were important there as well. Over time, and in the hands of different photographers, photography in Central Asia demonstrates the changing role of photography as documentary form, as art, as a transmitter of specific message, and a means of linking and initiating a dialog between photograph and viewer. The history of photography in Central Asia was determined by many factors: the politics behind major photographic commissions, photography’s sudden commercial popularity, and the public’s changing ideas about the importance of having photographic documentation of the major (and soon even the trivial) events of their lives.

Especially in Imperial era photography, there is a constant tension between different, sometimes overlapping “messages” in Central Asian photography. These include

1) An Orientalizing program that stereotypes and barbarizes Central Asian peoples by presenting them as noble but childlike or else ruled by debased passions,

2) An ethnological or archaeological perspective that fixes Central Asia in time, usually showing a moribund region of crumbling architecture and people in stasis,

3) A results-oriented perspective that depicts the modernization achieved through Russian conquest and domination, and

4) Last and least often, a socially progressive desire to elucidate a “human” condition and to encourage a feeling of identity between the subject of the photograph and the viewer.

A photograph could present any one of these messages singly, or meld them together. The malleability of the ‘true picture’ of colonial period Central Asia as it is depicted in photography is particularly poignant in Russian society, in which there was an overt conjunction between ‘truth’ and official ideology. As the history of photography is explored in greater detail, each of these perspectives comes into play in the hands of different photographers and at different times.

Photography Begins in Russia, 1839

The form and content of photography in Central Asia reflected the dramatic economic, social, and cultural changes that took place in Russia during the final half-century of tsarist rule. A brief introduction to the early history of photography in Russia is therefore essential to understanding the forms that photography took when it first arrived in Central Asia.

Serious interest in photography came first from the scientific academies, in an atmosphere of disinterested study. The announcement of Daguerre’s discoveries in Paris and Fox Talbot’s in London in early 1839 was followed immediately by articles in the Russian press. I. Hammel of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was sent to England and France to gather information and equipment about the new processes. Hammel met with Fox Talbot, Daguerre, and Isidore Niepce. He secured a camera and other equipment before they were available on the market and worked directly with Niepce to produce prints   9 Initially, the scientific establishment saw photography’s primary role as form of documentation enabling an exact reproduction. Russian scientists engaged in experiments in order to determine the photographic process best suited to this sort of documentation, and the Academy of Sciences commissioned a chemist, Julius Fritzsche to try and improve on Talbot’s process. 10 There were extensive debates in the Russian press over the relative merits of the daguerreotype and paper printing processes from 1839 onwards. The arrival of photographic equipment in Russia was followed rapidly by this and other experimentation with both daguerreotype and paper printing, and resulted in some notable discoveries by Russian chemists, including new fixatives and later, a resin based, flexible film.  11 

Artistic and commercial photographic interests rapidly eclipsed the documentary aims of Russian scientists. Aleksei Grekov established the first commercial photographic studio in Moscow in 1840. Many others followed Grekov’s lead. The commercial photography scene was at first dominated by foreign photographers, but by 1860 the vast majority of studio photographers were Russians. By mid-century, travelers to Russia (many carrying cameras with them to record their journeys) remarked on the number of photographic studios in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the proliferation of photographers, European researches remained dominant, and even as late as 1896, almost all photographic and developing supplies found in Russia were imported.  12 

For the traditional portraitist, studio photography allowed the creation of a formal, controlled environment in which subtle adjustments of pose and lighting could achieve the effects desired by the sitter, commissioner, or artist. Portraiture was the most common form taken by photography in its early years. By 1857, when Sergei Levitsky made indoor portraiture possible with the first successful use of electric lighting, a major barrier was eliminated for photography.  13 

The second most popular subject of photography became the “view,” an architectural or landscape photograph capturing a quintessential moment of beauty, drama, or natural grandeur. The quest for dramatic landscapes required that photographers take their equipment out of the major towns, and enabled the collection of portraits of country peoples as well as places. For the documentary artist, intent on capturing a true picture, the photographic image brought a new weight and validity to the rendering of a specific moment as well as providing an accurate rendering of placement, light, and shadow.

In photographing the exotic – characterized by timelessness rather than specificity - photography captured the extreme detail that made the exotic seem more real. The first ethnographic photography in Russia was made of ethnic “types” of peasants, Cossacks, and street vendors, much of it initially done in studios with country-style props of household goods and tools. Such Russian “types” proved extremely popular photographs for sale and photographers began to travel widely, primarily along river routes, to collect images of country life. Beginning in the regions near to central Russia, photographers fanned out into the Novgorod region, Finland, the Ukraine and then into the Caucasus and Siberia. Gradually, more empathetic portraits began to be made, as photography began, along with literature and painting, to expose glaring social inequities in the face of administrative indifference towards the close of the century.

The public took little interest in theorizing or in arguments over Truth in Art or photography’s relationship to painting. They were simply wildly enthusiastic about everything to do with photography. The public flocked to exhibitions and displays, which began with a showing of the work of both Daguerre and Fox Talbot at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art in 1939.  14 The middle and upper classes demanded to have their portraits done, exchanged cartes de visite, and purchased photographs of famous, beautiful, or faraway people, monuments, or views to decorate their walls and fill their personal photo albums.

Large-scale exhibitions were extremely popular in Russia and Europe, and Russian photographers first received prizes in the 1865 International Photographic Exhibition in Berlin. 15  During the last decades of the nineteenth century, International Expositions in England and France became monumental, extravagant celebrations of Empire. The fairs were an opportunity to market products, show off new technologies, and display new colonial “acquisitions.” While large numbers of Russian ethnographic photographs prepared for exhibitions remained in Europe, 16 even more were preserved in official collections that included dozens of large albums of ethnographic images stored in the Russian Ethnological Museum, Kunstkammer, the Institute of Material Culture in St. Petersburg, and the Oriental Museum in Moscow. In 1899, the First Turkestanian Photographic Exhibition was held in Tashkent. 17 Major exhibitions that featured collections of materials from Central Asia and may also have included photographs include the Turkestan Departments of the All-Russian Manufactures Exhibition of 1870, the Moscow All-Russian Polytechnical Exhibition of 1872, the Universal Exhibition of 1872 in Vienna, the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, and the 1904 International Exposition in St. Louis in the United States. 18

There was also extensive private collecting of photographs as souvenirs by families who served the empire. These private albums held family photographs and official portraits - particularly of military officers, and often included numerous photographs with “ethnographic” subjects that were produced in series by commercial photographers who had studios in Central Asia. These albums and loose photographs were collected for display in Russian homes along with weapons, carpets, embroideries, and other popular decorative arts. (This style not only evoked the atmosphere of empire, it also added a bit of much needed romance to household decoration. It is noteworthy that during much of the nineteenth century, it was fashionable among Russians of rank to claim that ones ancestors included a Cossack, Tatar, or even a Mongol or two.) The demand for photographs was met by even greater numbers of photographers and photographic studios. The corps of photographers in Moscow and St. Petersburg expanded and photographic studios appeared across the Russian Empire, even in relatively small towns.

Photographic Processes

Several different photographic processes were in use during the period covered by this paper, from 1858 to 1917. As early as 1839, both daguerreotype and early paper printing processes were in use in Russia, and as in many other countries, daguerreotypes were more popular initially than paper printing because of their greater detail and durability. Wet collodion glass plate negatives came into common use in Russia by the 1850s. The wet plate collodion process was the type most used in the early years of ethnographic photography. It was more flexible and adaptable to long journeys than the daguerreotype although it still required frequent stops for preparation and development. Identical prints could be made in quantity.

Wet collodion glass plates were used by Murenko, by the photographers who worked to produce the Turkestanskii Al’bom and other early Central Asian photographers. The preparation and execution of photography in this technique was difficult, especially when working in the field. The photographer dissolved cellulose nitrate in ether, alcohol, and potassium iodide to make a clear, flammable liquid called collodion. This was flowed onto a sheet of glass that was the size of the finished print. The glass negatives used for many early Central Asian photographs were generally only about four by five inches in size or smaller, although much larger plates could be used. Often different size cameras were used while traveling to obtain the different negatives. The photographer applied the collodion to a glass plate, tilted the glass until the entire surface was coated, plunged the plate into a bath of silver nitrate which combined with the collodion to form light-sensitive silver iodide, inserted it into a plate holder, exposed it in the camera and then developed it before the collodion dried. Development required a silver bath, developer, fixative, and varnish.[xix]

The gelatin dry plate glass negative was introduced in the 1870s and was in general use by 1885. Thin glass plates were coated with a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion that eliminated the need to prepare wet collodion plates in the field. Dry plates were generally factory-made and could be stored for months either before or after exposure, although Russian expeditionary photographers in Central Asia could also have prepared their own dry plates. (Although traveling photo artists like Paul Nadar, who represented the Eastman Company in France, used film negatives in Central Asia as early as the 1890s,[xx] the use of glass negatives continued for an astonishingly long period in both Central Asia and during the period of the Soviet Union. Glass negatives were still in use in Tashkent even in the 1970s.)

The earliest Central Asian printed photographs are albumen prints. Very thin printing paper was floated on beaten egg whites to make an albumen coating. The paper was sensitized by being floated albumen side down in a tray of 10% silver nitrate solution. The glossy albumen surface created a whole new layer to form the silver image and could achieve a variety of image hues. Processing an albumen print required exposure, washing, toning, fixing, and washing again. Most silver printing papers, including albumen paper, were toned in a solution containing gold chloride during the print processing, which changed the image from reddish brown to purple or blue-black and gave it greater stability. Very occasionally, cyanotype prints from the 1890s or early twentieth century are found in Central Asia.

Gelatin silver prints, in which paper is coated with gelatin that contains light sensitive silver salts, were introduced in the 1870s and quickly became the most widespread printing process used throughout the world. Central Asia often lagged far behind in technical advances, however, and it is common to find albumen as well as gelatin silver prints from the 1880s and 1890s. The last photo-process, the color negative process introduced by Prokudin-Gorskii will be described in a section below.

In Russia, photo-retouching artists, who were often professional painters, covered flaws in prints and a style of very heavily over-painted printing that resembled painting became briefly popular. Figures in the foreground of prints were sometimes varnished in order to create the effect of depth present in a daguerreotype. Examples of these techniques are not found in Central Asian photography, nor are cartes de visite, which soon became as popular with the Russian elite as they were in other parts of Europe. A few stereographic cards with albumen printed double-images of Central Asian subjects have been found. These often appear to have been hand-constructed and lack the precision and finish of European and American works.

Photo-lithography of works of art, monuments, and portraits of the famous dramatically expanded the reach of photographs, but the most widely distributed photographic images of Central Asia are found on printed postcards.

Russian Conquest of Central Asia and the Beginning of Photographic Documentation 1858-1875

The earliest known photographs from Central Asia were made by photographers who either served in the Russian military forces or who were hired to accompany the general staff during the actual campaigns.  The very first recorded photographer was cannoneer sub-lieutenant Stepanovich Murenko (1837-1875). Murenko was a member of Colonel Ignatieff’s 1858 mission to the Khivan Khanate to establish a commercial treaty.[xxi] The young officer made photographs in Khiva and Bukhara, and on his return to St. Petersburg gave an album to the Imperial Russian Geographic Society, which presented him with a silver medal in 1860.[xxii] Though few of Murenko’s photographs remain, their subjects and their message are a distillation of the essential elements of Russian conquest. [Fig. 1-3] The photographs include a group portrait of Russian “captives” freed in 1858. Slavery was common in Central Asia, but almost all slaves were of Shia Iranian background, taken by Turkomans on raids into Persia. At times, Russians were captured from caravans and ransomed or enslaved in Central Asia. They were free to live and marry in the Khanates if they adopted the Muslim faith. In Russia, such enslaved Christians were one of the most public and emotional cause celébres that justified Russian conquest.[xxiii] The men in the photograph are old – one has a stick. They are well dressed in Central Asian robes and sit in traditional eastern posture; they look tired, a little confused, but at ease with a local boy who leans over their shoulders. Another photograph, this one of Kyrgyz chief Esat Kutebarov shows him seated in his yurt. He is dignified, yet sad, as if he were contemplating the end of his rule – which indeed, would soon take place. A group portrait of three Khivan gentlemen at a sociable gathering prefigures the staged “ethnographic” portraits that would become essential to the Orientalist oeuvre.

If Murenko’s portraits draw attention to the reasons for conquest – both real and purported, the 1872 Turkestanskii Al’bom commissioned by governor-general K. P. von Kaufman presents that conquest realized in full. The Turkestanskii Al’bom is one of the most extraordinary photographic projects of the 19th century.[xxiv] The British and the French in Egypt, India, and other countries of the East had undertaken imperial photographic collections. Like the Turkestanskii Al’bom, the British colonial series People of India, which was published in eight volumes between 1868 and 1875, is focused on a purported anthropological point of view.[xxv] The intent of these institutional collections was to provide the new rulers with an encyclopedic catalog of the regional architecture, industry, and customs of the local population. The cataloging of a previously undocumented (and almost never photographed) culture on such a grand scale had never been undertaken.

When Tsar Alexander II declared the establishment of the Governor-Generalship of Turkestan under Russian suzerainty in 1867, he appointed Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman its first governor-general. Kaufman, a veteran of the wars in the Caucasus and an effective administrator as well as military commander, believed that the proper governance of a conquered region required a thorough understanding of the habits and customs of the native population. Kaufman had tremendous dedication, resourcefulness, and a strong commitment to ethnological scholarship. No other Russian military figure would again attempt so far-reaching a project, and in fact, a later military governor sabotaged and even tried to eradicate documentary and educational programs that began under Kaufman’s tenure.[xxvi] Kaufman commissioned a group of scientific experts to accompany him on the military expeditions that captured Central Asia, including visual artists and photographers. The names of photographers commissioned for his campaigns have not been recorded, although it is known that he brought the artist Vasily Vereshchagin to Turkestan in order to make a series of paintings commemorating the campaign and documenting the native peoples and culture. Vereshchagin, a former military cadet, had been given ensign rank and was sent off to paint both “types” and countryside.

The Governor General immediately began construction of a new and impressive Russian town in an undeveloped section of Tashkent. He constructed streets, parks, homes, and churches, and founded the Turkestan Public Library to house all materials written about the region. Kaufman built a museum, astronomical observatory, and a meteorological station, and encouraged the establishment of a Russian and a native newspaper.[xxvii]

Kaufman strongly encouraged the display of colonial materials in public exhibitions such as the Russian Ethnographic Exposition, which featured a photographic collection entitled Russkaya Fotografiya, Russian photography. According to Heather Sonntag, Kaufman adopted the exposition’s motto as his own for the administration of Turkestan, “The study of our native land [is] a necessity for every native Russian.”[xxviii] Kaufman and his ‘scientist’ corps contributed enormously to the Central Asian materials shown in the Moscow All-Russian Polytechnical Exhibition of 1872. The Turkestan section of the exhibition included several thousand displays with detailed catalog entries describing flora, fauna, metallurgical resources, medicines, crafts of all kinds. It even contained model shops and house interiors peopled by costumed mannequins.[xxix]

Almost as soon as he had secured Tashkent and the surrounding region, Kaufman commissioned the Orientalist and scholar Alexander Kuhn to compile a collection of photographs covering virtually every aspect of life in the Khanates. [Fig. 4-7] Kaufman was remarkably successful in achieving his goal of documenting Central Asian culture in photographs. The Turkestanskii Al’bom was made up of six folio-size albums, 45 x 60 cm. each. Two are entitled Archaeology and hold detailed photographs, watercolors, and plans of architecture and ancient monuments. Two volumes cover Ethnology and include photographs of ethnographic types, costumes, and ceremonies, entertainments and music of all kinds. One volume covers Industry, primarily craft production and commerce and the last, entitled History covers the establishment of the Russian military community within Central Asia. The Al’bom was made just prior to the introduction of dry-plate photography; the wet-plate collodion process needed substantial preparation and exposure time, so there are no photographs of the actual campaign, only of its aftermath, with the construction of military barracks, encampments, portraits of officers and decorated enlisted men, and monuments commemorating Russian victories. Depictions of Russian military failure of any kind are never seen in extant photographs. Such materials would not have been considered for inclusion in any project that was commissioned by the Turkestan administration.[xxx]

Little is known about the process of completing the Turkestanskii Al’bom. The Oriental scholar Alexander Kuhn (1840-1888) was the primary organizer. Kuhn was widely knowledgeable about Central Asian history and culture; he was also engaged as a collector of a variety of Central Asian materials for institutions in Tashkent, St. Petersburg, and Moscow.[xxxi] Three other compilers are listed in the identical introductory pages of each of the Al’bom’s four sections: M. T. Brodovsky, N. V. Bogaevsky, and General M. A. Terentyev.[xxxii] Kun is credited with selection of the photographs and Bogaevsky is identified as the photographer of most of the images in the archaeological volumes, but otherwise, individual photographers are not credited. M. T. Brodovsky was one of the contributors to the text of the catalog of the craft section of the 1872 Moscow Polytechnic Exhibition, a finely detailed and uniquely descriptive text for the period. It is extremely likely that photographers accompanying Kaufman as staff made the majority of the photographs specifically for the project.[xxxiii] Photographs included in the album occasionally are found in the form of single prints in other formats, so it is possible that the collators collected negatives from photographers in Turkestan to fill gaps in the collection.

The parts of Turkestan best covered by the photographs are the Zerafshan region, including the city of Samarkand, and the Syr Darya region, especially in the vicinity of the city of Kokand. Both Zerafshan and the Syr Darya region had only recently come under Kaufman’s control and had undergone fewer changes from the pre-colonial period than the new city of Tashkent. Samarkand was a veritable living museum, with active crafts and trade, a diverse population of both Persian and Uzbek speaking people and Central Asian Jews. The population included long settled peoples and relatively recent immigrants from the steppe, resident foreigners such as Indians, Afghans, and Armenians, as well as ‘Irani’ slaves and their descendants. Kaufman’s photographers made portraits of individuals from all of these groups. The organization of this section of the album carries enormous ideological authority. The arrangement of portraits into ethnic types with typical headdresses, costume etc, imply a “scientific” attitude with a physical approach to categorization, but almost every portrait in the Turkestanskii Al’bom includes the person’s name, along with their ethnic identifying type. (This is a remarkably more humanistic approach than the later, Soviet period anthropological photography in Central Asia in which mug shots display phrenological characteristics, and subjects, including women, were sometimes required to strip completely naked.)

Although a few ethnic groups, notably the Turkoman, are seriously underrepresented,[xxxiv] the Al’bom is by far the most complete single visual record of Central Asian culture ever made, even up to the present day. It includes serial photographs of circumcision rites, betrothal ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. An extraordinary series of photographs records every event that forms part of the Central Asian Jew’s wedding ritual. These rituals were never subsequently photographed, and images from the Turkestanskii Al’bom formed a unique resource for researches undertaken even in the 1930s.[xxxv] Musicians and their instruments as well as other sorts of entertainments are photographed and identified. Every conceivable craft activity was photographed and detailed descriptions were collected as well, since these are provided in the 1872 Moscow Polytechnic Institute exhibition catalog.[xxxvi]

The organization of the Turkestanskii Al'bom was based strictly upon Kaufman’s documentary, ethnological approach. The study of ‘folk life’ in Russia really began in the 1870s and 1880s, when photography made its mass market debut.[xxxvii] Information on Russian national traditions in music, folk tales, and costume was collected and transcribed.  Kaufman was certainly among the group of officials who endorsed and encouraged this study.

The elaborate framing of each picture within a sociological context severely limited the ways in which it could be viewed. The Turkestanskii Al’bom was Realist in the sense that the photographers went out into untouched neighborhoods, rural regions and the steppe for data. However coercively the photographs were achieved (and it should be said that most subjects appear quite relaxed) the challenges and results are both stupendous. Merely establishing contact with many of the peoples pictured would have been difficult. Obtaining permission to photograph intimate family and religious ceremonies must have required substantial negotiation. The difficulty of the project becomes clear when one looks in vain for photographs of similar scenes made at a later date, and finds not a single one. In these ways the project has immense documentary value.

In other ways, the project was one sided and imposed upon its subjects. It was completely closed to their input; the only lens was that of the photographer and the project planners. Yet it was honest in that it showed nothing that was not there. Objects and background may have been moved in order to obtain the lighting necessary for the photograph, but nothing was added or invented. The rigid, flat quality of the photos prevent us from injecting too much of our own emotion into the scenes. Compare this to paintings such as Vereshchagin’s, in which Central Asian realities became completely subordinated to a political and social message. [Fig. 20-23] In Vereshchagin’s paintings, Central Asians are mere props in an argument that expresses support for Slavic society’s prejudices against Muslims, and which however critical of militarism never step beyond the political aims of empire.

Sequential scenes of social events also display a moral message. There are interesting questions regarding another motivation for the building of a photographic record – whether conscious or unconscious, official or unofficial. “Ethnographic’ and “documentary” photographs emphasize the difference between cultures, but they also establish points of similarity within that difference and demonstrate many social parallels between imperialist Russians and their colonial subjects. This is especially true of photographs detailing the small matters of daily life, from commercial exchanges in the bazaars to scenes of the family gathered around the yurt or engaged with domestic tasks, caring for children, and so on. The shared Russian and Central Asian experiences of living in a rigorous social hierarchy is manifested often in photographs of Central Asians displaying the insignia of office and in formal group and individual portraits of officials and their staff.

At most, only seven copies of the Turkestanskii Al’bom were made.[xxxviii] The photographs are gold-toned albumen prints mounted in the pages; the captions and designs surrounding them were lithographed by the Military Topographic Section in Tashkent.[xxxix] The sets were distributed among the royal family and Imperial museums and libraries; one was held for the Tashkent Public Library that Kaufman had founded.[xl]

Kaufman did not fully embrace the possibility of wide distribution implicit in photography’s ease of reproduction. The album’s four volumes of two thousand photographs were of a size to effectively preclude the making of multiple, complete copies. Smaller, less exhaustive photographic surveys still held immense educational, scholarly, and political value, but research into the more limited versions of the Turkestanskii Al’bom has yet to be published.[xli] However, in printing only seven copies of the complete, four volume albums as a State enterprise and presenting them only to members of the royal family, von Kaufman severely limited their utility and reinforced the most conservative Russian viewpoint in which the Tsar was in absolute control of his empire and knowledge of public affairs was limited by policy to a select few. The Turkestanskii Al’bom was made for an elite composed of scientists, scholars, and the supra-worldly, absolute rulers of all the Russias.


The Romantic Era - Commercial and Artistic Photography 1873-1900

The early period of colonial rule, when Turkestan was still largely unknown, was a tremendous period for travel and “adventure” photography. New processes made photography easier to undertake and more accessible. The security offered by the Russian conquest permitted travelers to visit Central Asia in relative safety for the first time. The rapid increase in a settled Russian population in Central Asia did not bring about an integration of Russian and Central Asian society, but at least among Russians, some long-settled inhabitants adopted a sort of Central Asian-Russian identity. Soon after conquest, an enormous administrative bureaucracy grew up - along with all of its support staff and provisioners. Immigrants from all over Russia came seeking advancement, economic opportunity, or simply political anonymity. Between 1870 and 1914, the European inhabitants grew from 1.3% to 31% of the urban population.[xlii]

As Tashkent grew rapidly into a regional capital, the amenities of any provincial metropolis could be found in the broad, tree-lined streets of its New City. The first commercial photographic studio in Central Asia was opened in 1873 by Stanislav Fedorovich Nikolai on St. Petersburg Street in the new Russian-built city of Tashkent. Others soon followed: the studios of I. K. Lozinsky, Sh. A. Nemtsevich, E. E. Korkin and B. Kh. Kapustiansky. By 1910 there were twenty photographic studios in Tashkent city.[xliii] These photographers did not limit themselves to studio portraits of fellow Russians, but ventured into the Old City, into Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Urgench, and Kokand to record a more traditional Central Asian urban life. Instead of working directly for the government or the military, they photographers worked for themselves, with firm commercial and artistic interests in mind. Rather than focusing on the collection of ethnographic and archaeological data, photographs were made for pleasure, for artistic satisfaction, and for sale - as entertainment in series for the masses.

The subjects of photography of the later nineteenth century are not very different from those of the Turkestanskii Al’bom. In fact, the same photographic tropes are present until the 1917 Revolution. There is still a focus on the craftsmen and colorful types of the bazaar, on architectural monuments, tombs, and ruins. [Fig 13-14] As the life of Central Asia’s rulers became more public, a sort of Central Asian “celebrity” photography developed that included not only portraits but also photographs of palace interiors, carriages, royal parks, and royal collections of knick-knacks. (In the days of early tourism, an audience with the Emir became a regular part of Central Asian grand tour.) Despite the difference in locale, there are many thematic ties between Central Asian and Near Eastern or Southeast Asian photography of the same period.

There are certain notable differences between Central Asian and other colonial photographic paradigms during the Romantic period. In their portrayal of native peoples around the world, many early photographers employed clichéd Orientalist formulae, representing native peoples as uncivilized, naïve, given over to sensate pleasure or liable to violence. In Central Asian photography, such exploitative images are less extreme in character than those found in other colonial empires. Important elements of the Orientalist tropes are not found. Both Russian and Central Asian societies were conservative, and while Central Asian exoticism was a popular subject, it did not include the nudity or overt sexual pandering of British and French colonial photography. Many nineteenth century photographers of Central Asian women undoubtedly used women from the ‘houses of pleasure’ near the bazaar as models, but the women are almost always shown working or engaged in ordinary female pastimes rather than taking languid poses. [Fig 24-29] It appears as though the intent of the photographers was to portray ordinary household life and pleasures, and the women pictured were simply the only models available. There no obvious difference between the character of these urban entertainers and that of urban women in family portraits or of nomadic women who normally lived unveiled. There is also far less use of props and manipulated environments in Central Asian photography than in that of Egypt or North Africa. The ordinary Central Asian environment seems to have been strange and exotic enough not to require it. (The prop-filled photographs of Russians dressed as Central Asians are the only exception to this.) Less obvious conventions of other colonial photography are also absent; the Russian photographers of Central Asia often used people to provide scale in architectural photographs, but Russians are used as well as native Central Asians. The lives of Russians and natives are not visually segregated: even in the Turkestanskii Al’bom there are photographs in which natives and European Russians are shown in the markets together. Later photographs of the cities often include varied ethnic populations, and portraits of officials very often include mixed groups – some even Russians in Central Asian dress.

Because of the political history shared by Russians and Central Asians, the life of their Muslim neighbors was not as bizarre and different to Russians as that of Fiji Islanders was to the British, for example. Photographers often did attempt to instill a sense of drama into their photographic endeavors, and sometimes presented themselves as taking great risks to ‘capture’ an image. This element of taking on the unknown appealed to the public’s romantic interest, and enabled the viewers to vicariously share the experience of the photographer from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

The style and characteristic view of each individual artist becomes more distinct during the Romantic period. As photography became physically easier through the use of dry plate exposures and photographic technology permitted more range of movement, the artist’s “eye” became a more important element in each photograph. Many fine photographers of Russian and other nationalities worked in Central Asia during the Romantic period; only the most prolific and important can be singled out here. A more complete list is attached as an appendix, but it should be noted that only a small proportion of photographs are actually signed or identified by mounting cards or albums.[xliv] Most photographs are loose, unmounted, and unsigned. In some cases, the names of working photographers are known through text references, but their works cannot be specifically identified.

I. Vvedensky, N. P. Petrovsky, and V. Kozlovsky were all Russian amateur photographers who worked in portraiture, landscape, and non-documentary and personal photography. [Fig. 11-12] Vvedensky was an extremely fine photographer who worked primarily in Samarkand between 1894 and 1897.[xlv] Vvedensky excelled in a graceful composition and his photographs often express an affectionate humor and feeling of intimacy that reveals his understanding of the life of the city of Samarkand. Kozlovsky worked in Samarkand and Kokand in the 1890s.  His approach is somewhat different from other photographers of the period, as he often took fairly wide angle, close-in photographs even in his larger compositions, shooting from ground level looking up. Exceptionally beautiful photographs from the same period are also signed by N. P. Petrovsky, an engineer and amateur photographer whose works are found in sufficient quantities to show that he, like a few others among these amateur photographers, made arrangements for their works to be distributed for public sale through bookstores or photographic studios in Tashkent.[xlvi]

Nikolai Veselovsky (1848-1918) was an amateur photographer and scholar of Oriental languages who first accompanied an archaeological expedition to Russian Turkestan in 1885. Beginning in 1895, he headed the first major expedition to study archaeological and monumental remains in Samarkand, a project in which fellow photographer-scholars S.M. Dudin and I. Chistiakov were also participants.

Chistikov (1865-1935) was a former watchman of the St Petersburg office of the Royal Archaeological Commission, where one of its Fellows taught him photography. He was employed at the Commission as photographer throughout the pre-Revolutionary period, when it was reorganized into the Russian Archaeological Commission.[xlvii] Lev Semenovich Barshchevsky (d.1910) was an army officer and amateur photographer. Barshchevsky served from the capture of Samarkand until 1898 in Turkestan. According to Vitaly Naumkin, Barshchevsky knew the local languages and took part in most of the scientific expeditions round Turkestan, enjoying great popularity among the people of the Bukhara khanate.[xlviii] He collected photographs as well as making his own with a box camera presented to him by Paul Nadar.

            The listing of Russian photographers makes clear that a high percentage of colonial period photographers in Central Asia were Orientalists and scholars, persons with substantial knowledge of Central Asian rich history and culture. Whether by chance or design, their works often illustrate historical comparisons or constructs, juxtaposing the Central Asian peoples of their time with landscapes or monuments of a distant era. The result is less of a “ruins aesthetic,” as described by James C. Faris, than an historical aesthetic that places people in a context surrounded by past glories.[xlix] In photography from Egypt or India, native peoples are often passive and depersonalized in such photographs; they appear to be standing in as convenient measuring devices to establish the proportions of monuments for the viewer. In Central Asian photography, however, natives are more often shown in activities related to the monuments. They pray in the crumbling mosques or sell foodstuffs in the shadow of medresses, and when they are photographed, they generally look back at the camera with interest. Central Asia’s  past is not given greater weight than its present, nor does it appear richer, more precious, or more value laden.

Scholarly, amateur, and state-employed photographers are often not well known simply because their photographs were not commercially available. The disruptions of Revolution and the hostility toward historical study of the Imperial period by the Soviet state prevented work in Central Asian archives until quite recently. The frequent transfer of collections from one institution to another has left many museum and institutions collections with large gaps in provenance.

Commercial photographic series, in comparison, were far better distributed and well known, but their creators sometimes lack an official history. The series were numbered, captioned, and dated, sometimes in the negative, at other times on the printed cards in which they were mounted. The series photographs attempt a different sort of all-inclusiveness than is found in the Kaufman albums, which were an anthropologically-based. The series photographs presented the standard tropes of travel photographs everywhere: famous sites, curious customs, interior and exterior decorative programs, crafts manufactures, and costumes. They answered all the most obvious questions about Central Asia that a casual visitor would be likely to ask. They were commercially produced, marketed in all towns with a substantial European population or visited by tourists, and were purchased as souvenirs by travelers and Russian occupiers alike.

F. Hordet was the first photographer of an extensive commercial series. [Fig. 30-35] Hordet was French – his prints are also captioned by writing directly on the negative and sometimes additionally on the print itself in both French and Russian, but his name is signed using Cyrillic print. Almost nothing is known of Hordet except that he traveled in Central Asia between 1885 and 1892.[l] Hordet produced an extraordinary series of photographs covering many aspects of life in Samarkand and Bukhara, from the commercial enterprises of the bazaar to scenes of the Emir’s palace and portraits of men, women, and children. His photographs often focus on the details of a scene - elements of dress, interior decoration, individual items in a shop or display. Though often faded, his photographs contain a wealth of information about the material culture of the Central Asian khanates, and his portraits have greater individuality and character than those of many other photographers. Hordet’s sepia-toned albumen prints were in the general range of 16 x 22 cm size and mounted on board. His negative-numbering system gives some clue to his prolific nature. Known prints span at least between numbers 1504 and 1602, a few are numbered in the 1800s or 2000s, and many more appear between 2745 and 2791.

G. A. Pankratiev, a Russian army captain and amateur photographer, produced an important series of photographs of architectural monuments and images of the city of Samarkand between 1894 and 1904, in part funded by Count Rostovtsev. [Fig. 36-38] Bookstores in Samarkand and Tashkent sold sets of twenty, fifty, and eighty albumen print photographs mounted on card, [li] each of 11.5 cm x 17 cm dimension, and generally accompanied by a printed, glued-on caption identifying subject and locale.

Traveling Europeans brought another dimension to Central Asian photography. Many superb French, Swiss, German, and Austrian photographers photographed extensively in Central Asia, occasionally publishing works – primarily as illustrations to travelogues but more often donating their photographic collections to archives and museums in their home country. The work of several French and Swiss photographers is particularly refined. The exoticism of the subject or landscape is less important than the beauty of an elegant, formal composition.

The son of a Swiss merchant active in Russian trade, Henri Moser (1894-1923) was in many ways typical of the European adventurer of the late 19th century - the type one finds photographed dressed in native costume in the frontispiece of an inevitable book of travels. Moser had a far greater commitment to the region than many of his fellow travelers. He made four arduous journeys into Central Asia; in 1868-1869, 1870, 1883-1884 and 1889-1890, but never fulfilled his hopes of making his way by land to India. Moser was a talented writer and a close observer of artistic detail. His A Travers l’Asie Centrale,[lii] a description of his journey in the suite of the Prince of Wittgenstein through the steppe to Bukhara, provides valuable details of the costume and habits of the native Central Asians. [Fig. 8-10]

Moser’s economic ventures in Central Asia were less than successful; he served as a soldier in the Tashkent Russian garrison, as manager of a Turkish bath, as a silk dealer and an agricultural specialist, also publishing a more prosaic work on irrigation in Central Asia. He eventually abandoned hope of finding wealth in Central Asia and returned to Switzerland, where after more difficult years he finally became a prosperous businessman. Moser was a great admirer and passionate collector of exotic crafts, a man who reveled in the romance of the East. He collected over 4000 objects on his travels and from dealers in subsequent years: metalwork, jewelry, fabric, costume, manuscripts, and hundreds of knives and other arms. On his death, his enormous collection of Central Asian materials and photographs was donated to the Berne Historical Museum.

French photographers of note include Leon Blot, a furrier who traveled frequently to Russia on business and journeyed into Central Asia in 1905.[liii] Henri de Bouillane de Lacoste, an officer and diplomat, traveled through Persia and the oasis town of Central Asia and into Kashmir through the Pamir and Karakorum.[liv] The Dutch-German Hughes Krafft, came to Central Asia only after extensive travels around the world. In 1898 he set off for a long desired journey to Turkestan where he made an enormous number of photographs, some 200 of which he published,[lv] and subsequently formed part of an exhibition with his antiquities and works of art gathered during his trip.[lvi] The collection of photographs of Louis Marin, some of which were purchased from various sources enroute on various travels through Central Asia in 1899, and China and Siberia a few years later – and others which were executed by himself and his companions – demonstrate the changing range of photographic styles at the turn of the century. The Marin collection ranges from clichéd studio portraits of richly costumed native “types” to moving, highly individual portraits of native peoples, caught at the instant as he and his companions passed them by.[lvii]

The most sophisticated and skilled of the traveling photographers was undoubtedly the Frenchman Paul Nadar (1856-1939), son of the celebrated photographer Felix Tournachon (Nadar). {Fig. 39-41] Paul Nadar was the representative of the Eastman photograph company in Paris. In 1890, he traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to Central Asia with his friend Edouard Blanc, a naturalist, geographer, and railway construction specialist. Nadar made over twelve hundred photographs on Eastman’s new flexible nitrocellulose film with a box camera. His photographs are unabashedly nostalgic and hauntingly beautiful, and have what are probably the most elegant compositions and strength of form of all the photographs made in nineteenth century Central Asia.

The works of the photographers listed above demonstrate clearly the evolutionary steps within Central Asian photography. Photography moves from nearly anonymous, colonial period documentary into both “amateur” and commercially promoted works that offer a compendium of virtual Central Asian experiences and reach an aesthetic level in which the subject matter – whether native life or native architecture – becomes less important than the artistry of the photographer. Each of the photographers above was a professional, technically skilled photographic artist. Each developed an individual style, with characteristic, often distinctive choice of subject and composition. The quality of their prints is strikingly even and consistent.

By the mid 1890s however, after the introduction of the Kodak camera, another type of Central Asian photograph comes to dominate the oeuvre, if it can be called that, but only by its numbers. The most common Central Asian image dating from about 1890 until the 1917 revolution is a street shot. The majority of such photographs are hazy, poorly lit, and flat. They often lack information or visual interest because they are taken from too far away for the subjects to be clear. In all probability, this is because the photographer is an amateur who, struck by the color or exoticism of the street scene before him, raised his camera and shot without thinking anything but, “I’ve got to have this!” It is to the credit of the many Russian families who painstakingly organized family albums that these indistinct and disappointing home-generated snapshots are invariably supplemented by professional photographs and postcards purchased to improve the album’s overall quality and impact.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a Golden Age of artistic photography in Central Asia. Looking back upon these photographs from the present, the photographs seem imbued with a feeling of nostalgia, of hearkening back rather than looking forward. Perhaps it is only with the clarity of hindsight that the end of the century seems also be an end to the Romantic period in Central Asian photography.  Some photographers of the twentieth century attempt to recapture this sense of romance and exoticism, but their work is inevitably tinged somehow with the modern age – it is too casual, too fast moving, or in the case of the finest work, the focus has shifted slightly to give more weight to the interests and agenda of the artist – the scene is Orientalist, but the treatment is subtly Modern.

With the close of the century, there was a very public culmination and summation of the work of past decades in a monumental exhibition. The First Turkestanian Photographic Exhibition was held in Tashkent from the 19th-26th of September, 1899 and included works by all of the most important artistic photographers working in Central Asia. K. Timaev headed the exhibition commission, which presented more than 2500 prints in twelve different sections or divisions. The exhibition included, among that of other artists, works by L. S. Barshchevski, Bykovsky, B. N. Kastalsky, N. N. Nehoroshev, S. F. Nikolai, G. A. Pankratiev, and A. A. Polovtsev. [lviii] Important collections made by B. N. Kastalsky, N. N. Pantusovy, A. A. Polovtsev, and the Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich were shown. No other exhibitions held in Central Asia with a focus on photography have been identified until the First Turkestan Exhibition of Paintings held in Tashkent in 1911, and none has ever again taken place on so grand a scale.[lix]


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, postcards became enormously popular both for carrying messages and as collectors items and souvenirs. Literally tens of millions of postcards were produced in a single year, and the business was highly competitive. Postcards were made to order for clients in small and large cities on every continent. Postcards soon became one of the most important ways that images of foreign locales and people were transmitted and understood around the entire world.

Postal cards without ornamentation became available for government use in Russia in late 1894. Soon, “otkrit” or “open” letters were available for sale as printed cards with illustrations and a small space for writing on one side (only the address was allowed on the back) in Moscow, Kiev, and Riga.[lx] The first postcards with Central Asian images date to just before the turn of the century. [fig. 39-41] The “otkrit” were quickly adopted both for local use and for sale to the tourists that first arrived in substantial numbers around the same time. Firms located outside of Central Asia printed many of the postcards. Before the 1917 Revolution, Kunstanstalt Friedewald und Frick in Berlin, Sherer, Nabholz and Co. in Moscow, and Granbergs Brekfort in Stockholm appear to have been the largest outside firms. Central Asian firms located in Andijan, Ashkabad, and Kokand are also credited on early postcards.[lxi]

Traveling salesmen from large postcard companies solicited orders in distant locations, at the same time collecting and even taking photographs to enhance their available stock. Photographs with Central Asian images were also produced for the great international fairs of the period, where they were sold in vast quantities. (It is interesting to note that the Bukharan Emir Abdulahad Khan had tremendous enthusiasm for fairs and expositions, and sent items for display from his personal collection to at least twelve international exhibitions.

In Central Asia, the use of postcards as both document and personal remembrance represented a natural extension of the series photographs by artists such as Hordet and Pankratiev. In previous years, series photographs such as cabinet cards of the “sights” of Central Asia, were purchased as souvenirs of journeys or longer stays in Central Asia. The tropes of the series postcards that followed were virtually identical to the series photographs: bazaars, native wares, eating houses, spectacles, fairs and entertainers, and compositions including anonymous but colorfully dressed natives before a monumental building or a shrine.

Many essentially documentary photographs made by an earlier generation of photographers were reproduced as postcards with the generalized titles characteristic of the genre. The earlier photographs were not only a ready source of pre-existing, and therefore inexpensive postcard “stock” photographs, they also showed a more traditional and exotic way of life. Sometimes these reused images bear incongruous or implausible messages – there are printed greetings in colloquial Russian from steppe nomads and less than friendly native girls. With the exception of portraits of native rulers, postcards do not identify human subjects by name, at most they identify them by occupation or as ethnic “types.”

The earliest images found on Central Asian postcards, dating to 1897-1898, are often lithographed drawings drawn from photographs.[lxii] Photographs made specifically for postcard production range from relatively uninspiring views of government buildings and shop fronts (a means of advertising commonly employed in Europe and the U.S. as well) to the more dramatic "native" themes. A photographic image could carry multiple meanings, but the message of the postcard was purposeful and unambiguous. The Central Asian postcard provided a pre-defined, encapsulated vision of an exotic culture or else it celebrated monuments of empire. If there was any possibility of misunderstanding the visual content of the image, the caption clarified it. Many images on postcards are titillating or deliberately exotic; crippled beggars, lepers and dervishes, faked executions and contrived harem scenes. Until the Soviet period, postcards rarely departed from the familiar, colonial themes of native types, landmarks, local handicraft production, markets, and public entertainments.

The rapid spread of photography and the development of new printing techniques such as the invention of halftone screens in 1888 and rotary presses in 1900 permitted an infinite choice of subject, treatment, and quality of production, from simple line drawings to good quality photo-prints.[lxiii] More romantic subjects like luxuriously clothed Central Asian men and women lent themselves easily to the addition of very dramatic colors. Colored postcards are far less common than simple black and white printed ones, but it seems likely that these colored postcards were more treasured and likely to be preserved, and that they originally formed an even smaller proportion of the total postcard production.

Postcards were sold in several shops in Tashkent and Samarkand, and carried by at least one store in Margelan, Kokand, Andijan, and Namangan. It is likely that no less than three thousand different Central Asian postcards were made before the Revolution.[lxiv]

Social change and the arrival of Modernism, 1900-1917

The turn of the century brought not only changes in artistic styles in photography but also alterations in the social map of Central Asia that for the first time, welcomed native residents into the professional and technologically oriented stratum of society. 

Boris Golender identifies the first native Uzbek photographic establishment as that of Ilkhom Khan, a photographic atelier that opened in the Old City of Tashkent in 1902, and which was very popular in the pre-revolutionary period.[lxv]

Hudaibergen Divanov (1878-1938), the first well-known Uzbek photographer, was an example of this type of new, modernist thinker.[lxvi] Divanov was born in the Khorezm region, where his father was secretary to the Khivan Khan. The young Divanov was given a camera by a German craftsman, Penner, who had been moved from the Volga region into the town of Aq Meschit. Divanov began taking landscape photographs and portraits of his family in 1903, but soon came into conflict with the religious authorities of the town. They complained to Muhammad Rahim II, Khan of Khiva, that Divanov’s photography was incompatible with Muslim teachings. Divanov’s father defended him and encouraged his work. In response, the Khan asked Divanov to take his portrait. (Muhammad Rahim was a literate, well-educated, and exceptionally open-minded ruler. A poet, he had established the first mechanical printing of Uzbek literature in Turkestan in 1875.)[lxvii] The Khan was satisfied with the resulting portrait. The ruler quieted the clergy, and gave Divanov a job at the Khivan mint. Divanov also acted as official photographer to the court. When the Khan sent a mission led by his Vizier to St. Petersburg in 1907, Divanov accompanied it and was allowed to study photography there for two months. He returned to Khiva with a Pathé film camera, a gramophone, and new camera apparatus.[lxviii]

Divanov also supplied materials to commercial photo studios. For the most part, his work has a quiet, unobtrusive character – the viewer feels that he is an unnoticed participant in the scenes of agriculture, canal building, and village meetings. [fig. 51-53] (There are a few known exceptions, in particular one extraordinary photograph of a very busy bazaar scene in which everyone is looking directly at the photographer, as if he had called out, “Hey, look at the camera!”) [fig. 54] There is also a very traditional, undisturbed feel to the environment in which the photographs were made; Divanov’s photographs of the teens and twenties could have been taken in the late nineteenth century – except for the paper and the written date. In part this is because his subjects were the people and events of a small provincial capital. Khiva and its environs had a population of only 30,000 in 1900.[lxix] Life in the town had changed little in comparison to the larger cities of Turkestan. Divanov’s prints are generally small in size. Often a date and description of the activities depicted is written in Persian or Turki directly onto the negative.

Divanov held a variety of posts; he served as Minister of Finance of the Khorezm Republic; in 1910 he was the first cameraman at the first Uzbek film studio,[lxx] and later taught at the Pedagogical Technical College. He became suspect during the years of Stalin’s terror, and was shot in 1938, but was posthumously “rehabilitated” in 1958 on Stalin’s death.

In the turbulent years just before the revolution, Russian scientists and explorers made by far the most serious examination of Central and East Asian cultures to date. Despite sporadic uprisings among the native population, well-entrenched colonial administrative centers could provide secure home bases for archeological and ethnographic expeditions to Central Asia. For the most daring explorers, it was even possible to travel through the lands of the Turkoman, desert horsemen who a few years before had lived by plundering caravans and capturing unwary travelers for slaves. International scholars, most of them Russian, collected and translated manuscripts and inscriptions dating from the Achaemenid through the Timurid periods. Historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers delved into archives and treasuries, excavated sites, and collected data from informants. V. V. Radlov, V. V. Bartold, Albert Von Le Coq, and the British Aurel Stein are among the most remarkable Central Asian scholars of this time. Their work enabled a far more accurate and detailed understanding of Central Asia’s history and culture than have hitherto been achieved.  It is unusual to find a photographer among the ranks of great scholars, but in this time and place, such is indeed the case.

Samuel Martinovich Dudin (1863-1929) was an anomaly even among explorer-academics. Though greatly respected in scientific circles, he was an autodidact, a self-taught photographer, archeologist, ethnographer, and collector of artifacts who had learned through fieldwork rather than university studies. Trained as a painter under the artist Ilya Repin, Dudin had an extraordinary eye and a passion for the art of many periods and cultures. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Dudin moved easily in a strange and utterly foreign world. He devised new methods of research, following potters and metal smiths through each step of their work in order to understand the techniques of medieval craftsmen. He studied local languages, especially the terminology of the makers of handicrafts.

Dudin made many important acquisitions for Russian museums, among them, one of the finest collections of tribal carpets in the world. Never content to rely on information gathered secondhand, Dudin traveled to nomad encampments on the steppe to learn directly from weavers. The results of his extensive journeys in Central Asia between 1893 and 1915 are preserved in his numerous published works, his paintings and drawings, and in many hundreds of glass negatives in Russian, German, and Central Asian archives. [fig. 55-61]

Dudin worked within the confines of scientific expeditions for Russian institutions. These official commissions allowed Dudin greater freedom of movement and choice of subject than would otherwise have been possible. The work of 19th and early 20th century amateur and studio photographers in the colonial centers is often artistically accomplished and of substantive documentary interest, but only Dudin was able to spend months, even years, taking photographs in the most inaccessible regions of Central Asia.

Dudin’s life was a difficult one, in which good fortune and opportunity were interlaced with catastrophic events. He was born in 1863 in Rovnoye in the Ukraine. Like many idealistic students of the period, he joined a political-cultural movement engaged in educating local peasants. Dudin became the group’s artist-propagandist, translating revolutionary works into Ukrainian, making posters and printing leaflets. In 1882 his school-based group joined the radical Kharkov “People’s Will” group, and began making explosives. A government agent infiltrated their circle and Dudin was arrested in the summer of 1884. He was eventually transported to a central prison in Moscow, and three years later, at the age of twenty-four, he was exiled to Siberia. There, Dudin was assigned to care for the Selenginsk meteorological station, and began collecting geological and folkloric material. He met the famous Russian explorer G. M. Potanin, who asked Dudin to make ethnographic sketches of Buriat life.

The authorities arbitrarily determined places of exile, and Dudin was moved to Troitskosavsk, Siberia, where he found employment with the local photographer. In 1891, Dudin met the great Russian scholar V.V. Radlov, leader of the Orkhon expedition, who was so impressed with the young artist that he asked him to join his archeological expedition as painter and photographer. When the expedition ended, Radlov brought Dudin back to the capital, and with Potanin’s help, successfully petitioned for his release from exile. Dudin joined the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and was given a scholarship to study in Vienna and Paris. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he joined the “Peredvizhniki” or Itinerants group of Russian painters.

In 1893, Radlov announced to Dudin that he and another young scientist, V. V. Bartold, were to set out to study the ancient monuments in the regions of the rivers Chu and Ili[lxxi]. Dudin could not have had a better teacher as his companion; Bartold was already a distinguished academic and would become the greatest scholar of medieval Central Asia. The two traveled by freighter, railroad, carriage and finally on horseback through the steppe. Neither had been trained to undertake such an expedition. Many years later, in his eulogy for Dudin, Bartold wrote, “I have not yet spoken about the steppe wells with half-salt water or about those days when having reached the end of his cigarettes, Samuel Martinovich arrived at the furthest bounds of irritation - particularly at night time…in an overcrowded third class wagon, and this state not only affected his fellow traveler but also the surrounding public. Sometimes several days went past, before he was himself again. It was understood by us that any trifling irritability disappeared at once, if only he succeeded in producing some kind of archeological find…”[lxxii]

In 1898 Dudin returned to Central Asia to study the 14th and 15th century monuments of Samarkand, which would be the subject of an early monograph.[lxxiii] He made over 200 large plate (24 x 30 cm) negatives of the tile-worked buildings – which are still used today as a basis for restoration work. [lxxiv]

Dudin’s most important contribution to Central Asian studies came about as a result of a decision by the Russian imperial family to expand the ethnographic department at the Russian Museum.[lxxv] This 1900 expedition to collect materials for the new department was well organized and equipped. Dudin was able to order the latest German cameras and lenses and special crates were built for a portable photo laboratory, so he could be sure that his photographs had been successful at each point on his journeys. This expedition resulted in a collection of over 2000 glass negatives. These images have incalculable scientific value, especially in the documentation of crafts processes[lxxvi] and of textiles and costumes of the period. But the photographs are also the work of an artist. They are composed but never contrived. They have a modern energy and impact.

Dudin made stark and dramatic landscape photographs of Central Asia’s silt-laden rivers and bare hills as well as shadowed studies of tree-lined villages, and the rough-cut meander of irrigation canals. Formal composition is more important than the activities of a small bazaar in a photograph of a street scene, where the cylinder of an ancient, tiled tower thrusts out and above the shanty-like stalls. Despite the inherent exoticism of his subjects, Dudin’s photographs have an intimacy unusual in photography of the colonial period

Dudin manages to avoid sentimentality – and the Orientalist vision - even in portraits of women. The women in his photographs are working girls: weavers, musicians, and nomads on the move, not languid odalisques. Dudin’s commission to photograph native costume was difficult to achieve in the cities, where women were secluded. He is said to have found his female models in the ‘houses of entertainment’ near the bazaar. His portraits of men are direct and detailed. Their position in society is clear from their attitudes and from their costumes, whether they wear a rich man’s silks or the calicos characteristic of day-to-day urban dress.

In addition to making photographs, Dudin collected several thousand objects during three years of almost continuous travel from 1900 to 1903, returning to St. Petersburg for only brief periods each winter to catalog the newly acquired materials. In 1905 Dudin returned again to Central Asia to carry out excavations at the Shah Zindeh mausoleum complex in Samarkand.[lxxvii] At the same time, he assembled a large collection of Central Asian ceramics for the Academy Museum and the Russian Museum. Three years later he made another journey to Samarkand, where he made remarkably detailed watercolor sketches and still more photographs of its Islamic monuments.

From 1909 to 1910, and again in 1914 and 1915, Dudin took part in expeditions in eastern Turkestan and western China, photographing and making a detailed scientific study of the early Buddhist wall-paintings and sculpture in the ancient cave temples of Dunhuang and documenting the oasis cultures of the Tarim Basin.[lxxviii] The expeditions were headed by S. F. Oldenburg, who wrote, “Very often, the enormous significance which the photographer had on the work of the expedition is not sufficiently taken into account, nor is the enormous difficulty and the completely special character which the expeditionary photographer must have. S. M. always considered the chance that it would be impossible to repeat exposures… where in the passage of time… valuable scientific objects might disappear totally. S. M. might justly be called a photographer-scholar…it is no exaggeration to state that in many areas involving the material culture of Central Asia, it would be impossible to do decisive research in our time without the materials of Samuel Martinovich.”[lxxix]

Dudin worked at several St. Petersburg museums during the war years, serving as Director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography at one time. He continued to serve in an astonishing number of official positions in the post-revolutionary period, in most of them without pay.[lxxx] In 1920-1921 the State Expert Commission assigned him the task of stocktaking in the State Treasuries.[lxxxi] The State Hermitage, the Russian Museum, and other institutions employed Dudin as a consultant on ceramics and applied art. Dudin’s last post was as an instructor in photography in the geographical section of Leningrad State University at Sablin, where he died in on July 9th, 1929.

For the most part, Dudin’s photographs are preserved in glass negatives (many of them signed in the negative) in the archives of the Russian museums where he worked for so many years. Many of the 600 glass negatives made in 1899 documenting the folk art and customs of Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk regions were utilized in the Russian pavilions at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. These were presented to Germany at the exhibition’s close, and only copies were returned to Russia. [lxxxii] (Glass negatives continued in common use well into the 1970s in parts of the Soviet Union, and negative copies, sometimes of the third and fourth generation, also rest in Central Asian archives.[lxxxiii]) Many of Dudin’s original negatives were destroyed when the Museum of Ethnography received a direct hit in aerial bombing during WWII. A limited number of vintage prints are known outside of archives within the former Soviet Union. Most of these are sepia-toned silver gelatin prints.

S. M. Dudin remains one of the most extraordinary figures in the Russian colonial period. His intensity and his passion for art astonished and sometimes bewildered his academic colleagues. His versatility as artist and scholar, his combined scientific focus and technical skills make him difficult to categorize. His work as ethnographer and archeologist helped to define Central Asia’s past; his photographs establish his position as the finest of all pre-Revolutionary Russian photographers in the region.


Pictorialism versus Realism – S. M. Prokhudin-Gorski, technician, ‘light-painter’ and color photographer for the Tsar

The first decades of the twentieth century saw the growth of a photographic style called Pictorialism that relied on painterly effects akin to those of Impressionist painters. Pictorialist photographers stressed abstraction, suggestion, and emotion rather than clear representation. The photographer manipulated the lens or created effects in the darkroom that gave the photograph a soft focus or shadow, deliberately obscuring detail and otherwise altering the image. Photographers in Central Asia doubtless experimented with these methods, especially in the post-Revolutionary years, since Pictorialism as a movement lasted longer in the Soviet Union than in Europe and remained widespread until the mid 1930s. (The artist-photographer Max Penson worked in the Pictorialist style in both the 1920s and in the 1940s.) Well-known Pictorialist photographers such as Yuri Eremin and Vasily Ulytin worked in the Caucasus, creating romantic, soft-focus images in that dramatic landscape. While photographs in what may be a deliberate attempt at Pictorialist style are occasionally found in Central Asia, no named Central Asian photographer can be identified working in that style until after the Russian Revolution. Perhaps this is because the Pictorialist style stood in contradiction to the documentary interests that drove most of Central Asian photography and it never took hold as an important style in the region.

Samuel Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) was a pioneering color photographer, staunch advocate of photographic Realism, and one of the most noted opponents to the Pictorialist movement. Prokudin-Gorskii was deeply committed to the advancement of modern photographic science in Russia. In 1906, he became editor of Russia’s premier photographic journal, “Photo liubitel,” amateur photography. Prokudin-Gorski used his editorial position to support the general interest of photographers in Russia as well. His dedication to achieve recognition – and copyright – for photographer’s work as art led to passage of the first copyright law related to photography in Russia in 1911.[lxxxiv]  Prokudin-Gorskii encouraged astronomical studies and other forms of scientific photography. His greatest contribution to Russian photo-science, however, was his development of one of the earliest methods of producing color images. [fig. 62-67]

Prokudin-Gorskii was a member of the St. Petersburg elite, and a graduate of the Alexander Lyceum and the Natural Sciences Faculty of the Institute of Applied Technology. He taught chemistry at Charlottenburg in Germany, where he met Adolph Mieth, a chemist working on panchromatic emulsions. Prokudin-Gorski then went on to Paris, where he worked with Edme Jules Maumene, researching color photography. On his return to Russian, Prokudin-Gorskii established technical workshops in photography and published several books of photographic instruction. Starting in 1904, he concentrated on designing a photographic system using color-sensitive photographic plates that was suited for projected images. Prokudin-Gorskii built a camera with which he exposed three images in rapid succession through red, green, and blue filters onto a long glass plate. When developed and projected through a similar filter system, the superimposed images appeared in rich color. Prokudin-Gorskii’s system could also be used to print in color,[lxxxv] but his primary interest lay in educating the Russian people about their country, and he believed that projected images would be most effective when used for public education.

 A series of invitations to demonstrate his color projection images led to a presentation for Tsar Nicholas and his family, and an audience with the Emperor. There, Prokudin-Gorskii was able to lay out his plans for an educational project for use in schools that would utilize color images from all the Tsar’s dominions. Prokhudin-Gorskii wished to photograph the varied peoples of the Russian empire, their customs, homes, monuments, historic buildings, and churches.

Tsar Nicholas II granted Prokhudin-Gorskii permission to travel throughout the Russian Empire to create a photographic record of its historical riches and diverse cultures. Between 1909 and 1915 Prokhudin-Gorskii traveled by specially equipped boat and train to collect images from the Far East, the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as from the central and western regions of the empire.[lxxxvi]  In Central Asia, his photographs include portraits of people from many of the different ethnic groups that made up the Khanates’ population. He photographed the Emir of Bukhara, shepherds in their fields, clerks, schoolboys, and even prisoners in the jails.  Despite the physical constraints imposed by his three-exposure system, Prokhudin-Gorskii achieved a remarkable naturalness in many of his photographs. Notwithstanding their apparent ease, his images are extremely self-conscious. The subjects – perhaps because they had to remain so still for the completion of the three shots – sometimes seem to be participating in the act of photography. The mere fact of their color may distract the viewer from their excellence in conception and execution. Prokhudin-Gorskii’s artistic strength is revealed in powerful compositions of masses of color at a time when no models—except for painting— existed for such work.

The Revolution forced Prokhudin-Gorskii out of Russia in 1918. The Tsar’s patronage had made his researches possible; now his association with the Imperial family endangered his life. Prokhudin-Gorskii determined to leave Russia with his family, and applied for permission to transport his archives out of the country. State officials refused permission for Prokudin-Gorskii to keep images of locations of potential strategic importance (mostly related to his work for the maritime ministry). Images of the Royal family were removed by Prokudin-Gorskii himself, who considered them too dangerous. Prokudin-Gorskii was eventually permitted to leave Russia with approximately two thousand glass plate negatives. He settled in France with his wife and daughter. In 1948, the negatives were acquired by the Library of Congress from his heirs.[lxxxvii]

The revolutionary forces that drove Prokhudin-Gorskii abroad also curtailed the documentary work of other photographers. Ethnology and anthropology  were no longer perceived as empirical social sciences. They existed to serve a political function, cataloging and defining the human resources available to the State. Soon, photography itself would become a tool of the communist movement - the most  immediate and eloquent expression of the Marxist progressive polemic.

The color photographs of Prokudi-Gorskii serve as a formal as well as a chronological endpoint to the photography of the colonial period in Central Asia. Prokudin-Gorskii’s invention came about through a conjunction of interests in public education, scientific development, and Realist art – all forces of the Modern age. The shock of seeing a photograph from almost one hundred years ago in true color is palpable – these photographs provoke an entirely different reaction in the viewer than paintings and hand colored photographs and postcards of the same period. To a degree, this reaction forces a reassessment of how the perceived age of a photograph affects the way it is seen. In a sense, the period itself is viewed through a black and white or sepia internal lens, and it is difficult to accept these color images as antique, or the people pictured in them as long dead.

The Russian revolution marked a break with all past traditions in art and documentary. There are, however, many elements of colonial perspective that are strongly retained and even reinforced in the art of the early Soviet and Stalinist period. In Soviet photography, the roles of civilizer and barbarian are given even greater definition, albeit within a “Modern” visual formula. In Soviet photography, it is the communist Russian who is the adult and the civilizer, and the Uzbek or Turkoman becomes the child who must learn.

The revolution also marks a point of departure between the styles of Soviet and Western photography. Western international photographers begin to embrace a sort of “National Geographic” style: exceptionally well composed, well-lit, and richly beautiful photographs with a humanist and compassionate message. In 1932, while travel was still possible in Central Asia, the Swiss photographer Ella Maillart made outstanding photographs of this genre.[lxxxviii] On the other side of the Soviet curtain, the photographer Max Penson created a highly influential Soviet vision of Central Asia that set the standard for decades to come. Penson, the photographer most closely associated with the building of a Soviet state in Uzbekistan, utilized dramatic angles, dynamic, thrusting forms, and idealized, heroic models. His work valorizes mechanization, homogenous social development, and a caretaker State. Photography became more important than ever before as the key transmitter of an unambiguous vision of a Soviet, rather than Central Asian future. Throughout the Soviet period, photography was the medium of choice for spreading the Bolshevik message to the Soviet Union’s multilingual and multi-ethnic population.

Author’s Final Thoughts

Although at great human, social, and cultural cost, seventy years of Soviet domination did succeed in transforming Central Asia. It reduced native languages to secondary status, consolidated ethnic identities, and disrupted or destroyed many religious, social, and family traditions. In the process, it also removed important elements of Central Asia’s past from history books and from people’s consciousness. Despite Central Asia’s isolation and its relative poverty, factors that tend to retain traditional ways of life in other parts of the world, there is almost nothing to connect the region’s present with the photographic images of the past. Only Central Asia’s superb but still-decaying architectural monuments remain as visual keys linking modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan to the period of the Khanates and early Russian empire. For the visitor of today, nineteenth century Central Asia seems to exist only in museum displays of artifacts or in silvered photographs of turbaned men and veiled women, bazaars, and camel caravans. The tropes of these early images – their visual themes - define and limit both how and what is seen in early photographs. The world they depict becomes unreal and irrecoverable.

            Discussions of anthroplogical photographs often impose a social science and/or a political framework for interpretation of certain groups of photographs instead of exploring the more abstract considerations of the meaning or essence of photography. The first historical, event-driven approach provides a very useful methodology for analyzing the photography of a certain period. There is no question, in this method, of the existence of a “message” that is transmitted to the viewer. The pre-existing cultural bias of the person seeing the photograph is a lens through which the message is viewed. Essentially, the viewing and interpretation of photography is considered within the same anthropological framework as the photograph itself.

A flaw in this methodology lies in the assumption – perhaps a necessary one – that cultural bias in the photograph (as the product of a specific political and cultural era) and in the viewer (as the same) can be clearly defined. This framework then establishes the limits of what can be seen in a photograph.

            An historical framework is absolutely necessary to understand the photography of – for example – the early Soviet period. The viewer was not there: he can only understand and interpret by placing the photographer and his subjects in historical context as a first step, and afterwards, look to the photographer’s use of the tools and arts permitted to him at the time.

            At times, when examining photographs from Central Asia’s early colonial period, these limitations can be burdensome. They may not always be necessary. A person immersed in the contemporary culture of the region could interpret early photographs differently from other more distant viewers. It is possible to see the photographs - not with the eyes of a Central Asian of the nineteenth century, but as a neighbor who speaks his language. In Afghanistan, particularly in the Uzbek and Turkoman towns of Tashkurgan and Aqcha, there was not a great deal that had changed in the visual tropes between nineteenth century Central Asia and the 1970s. Simply by removing a bus and a telephone pole or two, one could be in Andijan or Kokand in 1900. The physical objects present to the eye were consistent with those of nineteenth century photographs. Gesture and pose in nineteenth century photographs are also familiar to me because of my experience in Afghanistan. Greater familiarity with a more modern, if still traditional world, can give the viewer greater security in interpreting the photographic scene and in understanding what has changed and what remains the same. People in Uzbekistan today no longer sit or stand or greet each other the way that Afghan Uzbeks do; they have been trained by generations of Soviet schooling, television, and the movies to behave in a way unthinkable to their great-grandparents. They also have a completely different understanding of what it means to be watched, documented, and photographed.

            Mere familiarity, however, does not enable one to understand photographs more accurately or with greater “truth.” No one can see with another’s eyes, much less into the past. I had a personal lesson in this more than thirty years ago. I worked with women weavers to reproduce nineteenth century rugs on a Turkoman family farm in the steppe north of Tashkurgan, Afghanistan. Most of the women there had never owned an illustrated book or been to any large town where photographic images were commonly displayed. I showed black and white photographs of old carpets to the weavers. They said, “These must be carpets that have lost their color in the sun.” Many could not recognize themselves or family members in the two-dimensional images of Polaroid photographs until they had looked at them for four or five minutes.

Their eyes were highly trained in other ways, however. I gave the women an extremely elaborate, highly irregular, design template of a carpet to be woven. They looked at it for two days, and then insisted on returning the graphed-out cartoon. They were puzzled when I asked if they were not interested in doing the weaving. No, they said, they just didn’t need the template any longer. Two months later, they delivered the rug. It was an exact rendering of the template, knot for knot, with the exception of a small area that they pointed out to me, explaining that the design had been faulty, and they had corrected and balanced it. After many years of working in Afghanistan, I had thought that I understood a great deal about Central Asian design, its history, and its evolution. At that moment, I realized that everything I thought I knew about Central Asian art and visual perception was subjective, a projection of my own cultural bias and the product of a far weaker understanding of the nature of pattern. However hard I tried, I could never really understand what the weavers understood, because I could never see with their eyes.

            This consciousness of the relativity of perception – of how differently people see, define, and remember what they see - discourages me from accepting any particular interpretation of colonial photography as absolute. Twenty-first century viewers often assume that they can understand more, feel greater compassion and sympathy, and react more intelligently to an image than viewers did in the past. I doubt that this is true. I am not comfortable with the value-laden paradigms of dominant and subaltern so popular in analyzing photography of the colonial period because I cannot be certain how that perspective was seen at the time. This is not a depressing thought, but a liberating one. By accepting that photography cannot offer a single true picture of Central Asia, the corollary may be argued as well: a photograph can provide the viewer with multiple, partial but still valuable truths. No doubt, the photographs of the nineteenth century would have been seen differently in the past, and future generations of viewers will appreciate other qualities in them than we can see today. This essay merely attempts the first steps of a chronology, identifying authorship, and examining usage. I hope it will prove useful in future interpretations.


[i] Major imperial period photographic publications  included Francis Frith’s Egypt and Palestine, Photographed and Described, and John Forbes-Watson and John William Kaye’s six volume, The People of India: A series of photographic illustrations with descriptive letterpress, of the races and tribes of Hindustan, 1868-1872.

[ii]  This perspective continues to dominate documentary photography, even that which serves a “highbrow” art audience. See The Americans series by Swiss photographer Robert Frank. The series was published first in France and portrays Americans as unsophisticated and comparatively uncivilized people, living in a tasteless environment and driven by superficial, crass or base desires.

[iii] James C. Faris, Navajo and Photography: a critical history of the representation of an American people, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico P, 1996) 14.

[iv] Compare Metz’ assertion that film captures life, but photography confirms death. This clichéd interpretation of Imperialist programs is valid, but also relegated to the emotional response of the viewer to an individual photograph and individual subjects, rather than to the entire colonial project.. The subjects of a photograph are not only “captured” in a moment in time, they are trapped in it, bereft of future – but only within that particular frame. See Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” in Over-Exposed: Essays in Contemporary Photography, C. Squiers, ed. (New York: New Press, 1999 [1985])

[v] The antecedent to the colonial period documentary photographic enterprises was France’s 1851 Commission des Monuments Historiques, the first major architectural and archaeological campaign. The publication by Maxime du Camp of Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie in 1852 was the “first photographically illustrated travel book.”  Heather S. Sonntag, “Tracing the Turkestan Series – Vasily Vereshchagin’s Visual Representations of Late 19th Century Central Asia,” MA Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Spring 2003,   65, 68, 77.

[vi] This nineteenth century attempt to use visual art as a propaganda tool prefigured the many uses to which the visual arts were later put in order to carry clear social messages to a little-educated population during the early Bolshevik period.

[vii] David Elliot, “The Photograph in Russia: Icon of a New Age,” in Photography in Russia, 1840-1940, David Elliot, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992) 12.

[viii] The first article appeared in the Severnaia pchela, The Northern Bee, and stated, “We see no point in discussing the likely influence of this discovery on art in the future; it is an invention which has only a practical application.” Elena Barkhatova, “The First Photographs in Russia,” in Photography in Russia, 1840-1940, David Elliot, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992) 24.

[ix] Elena Barkhatova, 26.

[x] Julius Fritzsche, “Report by Julius Fritzsche to the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences on Ackermann’s apparatus and the work of Fox Talbot,” in Photography in Russia, 1840-1940, David Elliot, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992)  30.

[xi] The flexible film was discovered by Ivan Boldreyev in 1878, some six years prior to George Eastman’s work, but the process was not pursued. David Elliot, 1992,  15.

[xii] David Elliot, 1992,  15.

[xiii] Levitsky was a prominent daguerreotypist who specialized in portraiture, very active in scientific research, the commercialization, and the public popularization of photography. David Elliot and Elena Barkhatova in David Elliot, 1992. 15, 32.

[xiv] Elena Barkhatova, 26.

[xv] Elena Barkhatova, 35.

[xvi] For example, six hundred original Dudin negatives prepared for the Paris World Exhibition were left with the Hamburg Museum. Vladimir Anatolevich Nikitin, Rasskazi o fotografakh I fotografia “Tales of photographers and photography,” (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1991)  37.

[xvii] Boris Golender, Okno v proshloe, Turkestan na starinikh pochtovikh otkritkakh (1898-1917), “Window on the past, Turkestan in antique postal cards,” (Tashkent: 2002)  14.

[xviii] For a list of fifty exhibitions held between 1867 and 1915, either specific to Central Asia or containing substantial amounts of Central Asian materials, see Svetlana Gorshenina, The Private Collections of Russian Turkestan, Second Half of the 19th and Early 20th Century, ANOR 15, (Lausanne: Martin-Luther-Universitat Halle-Wittenberg, Humboldt-Universitat Berlin, Fondation du 450e Anniversaire de l’Universite de Lausanne, 2004)  66-67, 125-130.

[xix] James M. Reilly, Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints, (Eastman Kodak, 1986)   4-27.

[xx] Svetlana Gorshinina, La Route de Samarcande, L’Asie Centrale dans l’objectif des voyageurs d’autrefois, (Geneva: Editions Olizane,  2000)  216.

[xxi] Ergun Cağatay, Bir Zamanlar Orta Asya, Once Upon a Time in Central Asia, (Istanbul: Tetragon, 1996)  7.  I was able to see a small group of Murenko’s original, much faded photographs in St. Petersburg. They were on display in a cracked case in a damp, freezing hallway of the Institute of Material Culture.

[xxii] Murenko then moved to Saratov, where he opened a commercial photographic establishment. Golender, 2002, 9.

[xxiii] For example, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Smerdyakov’s passionate description of such a captive’s refusal to apostize forms the core description of his character in the book.

[xxiv] In Russia, there had been far smaller but similarly conceived projects like Mikhail Bukhar’s Album of Views and Types of the Orenburg Region, which had been presented to Tsar Alexander II. David Elliot in Elliot, 1992,  16.

[xxv] Sonntag, 77.

[xxvi] Gorshenina, 2000, 122-127.

[xxvii]  For the library, Kaufman commissioned what would become a 416 volume scrapbook to collect everything written on the region; established the Turkestanskie Vedomosti, a Russian newspaper, and the Turkestanskaya Tuzemenaya Gazeta, the Turkestan Native Gazette, written in Uzbek. Richard A. Pierce, Russian Central Asia: 1867-1917, A Study in Colonial Rule, (Berkeley: University of California P, 1960)   99-101.

[xxviii]  Kaufman initiated the creation of the Tashkent branch of the Society of Amateurs of Natural Sciences. Sonntag, 48. See also Vahan Barooshian, V.V. Vereshchagin: Artist at War, (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1993)

[xxix] See M. I. Brodovsky, D L. Ivanov, I. I. Krause, A. Fedchenko, A. A. Fedchenko, Catalog Turkestanskovo Otdela, (Moscow: Moscow Polytechnic Institute, 1871)

[xxx] The painter Vasily Vereshchagin faced severe criticism for including the paintings “The Forgotten Soldier,” “Surrounded! They’re Pursuing,” and “By the Fortress Wall. They Have Entered,” in his Turkestan Series of works when they were exhibited in St. Petersburg in 1874. He destroyed the paintings after a private showing attended by the Tsar.  Sonntag, 89.

[xxxi]  Kuhn himself excavated sites at Khojent. Kuhn obtained many important works for Kaufman’s library, accompanied expeditions to Khiva and elsewhere and gathered manuscripts, numismatic, archaeological, and ethnological specimens for the Asiatic Museum, the Dashkova Ethnographic Museum, the Moscow Society of Friends of the Natural Sciences, and the Saint Petersburg Public Library. Gorshenina, 2004,  41-42, 75-76, 103.

[xxxii] Brenda Parker, “Turkestanskii Al’bom, Portrait of a Faraway Place and Another Time,” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Fall 1983,  293.

[xxxiii] The Orientalist Lerch wrote a booklet of instructions for collecting under Kaufman’s auspices with detailed instructions for collecting and preserving manuscripts, locating archives, and included directions to make as many written notes, site drawings, and photographs at the time of collection. Gorshenina, 2004, 41-42.

[xxxiv] This is not surprising. At the time that the Al’bom was made, many Turkoman regions were actively engaged against Russian troops. The Tekke Turkoman tribe, one of the largest, ceased resistance only in 1878, after the massacre at Geok Tepe.

[xxxv] These photographs of the wedding of ‘Hannah’ and ‘Mula Baruch’ were core research for A. Z. Amitin Shapiro’s seminal work, “An Essay on the Legal Mores of Jews in Central Asia,” ATICOT, 1931, as the were for me in 1995.

[xxxvi] Brodovsky, a collator of the Kaufman Turkestanskii Al’bom, also wrote on craft traditions in Central Asia. Brodovsky et alii, 1871.

[xxxvii] The 1870s-1880s Kustar movement in Russia arose in response to rapid industrialization and the loss of folk craft traditions throughout the Russian empire. Kaufman’s dedication to craft documentation may have been influenced by a growing awareness in Russia that valuable knowledge and traditions were being lost.

[xxxviii] Svetlana Gorshenina suggests that seven were made. Heather Sonntag  is currently engaged in detailed research on the Turkestanskii Al’bom in Moscow and Petersburg. She has found evidence of only five of the full-size versions, but has made exciting discoveries of smaller versions, her evidence to be published very soon. Personal communication, Heather Sonntag, March 2006.

[xxxix] According to the Library of Congress catalog, the preliminary pages were printed in St. Petersburg, volumes one, two, and four by the Voenno-topograficheskii otdiel of the Turkestanskii voenni okrug (Military-Topographical Department of the Turkestan District), and volume three by A. Argamakov, both presses in Tashkent.

[xl] One now rests in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. How is got to the LOC is still a mystery. Some sources state that is was purchased from Israel Perlstein, a New York Dealer, in 1934. It may also have come to the LOC as part of the Tsar’s Winter Palace Collection, acquired in the early 1930s. Parker, 294. Another copy of the Al’bom is in the collection of the Navoi Library in Tashkent. According to Heather Sonntag, (citing Pierce, 1960, 317) one was printed for the Turkestan Public Library in Tashkent (established by Kaufman), one for Tsar Alexander II, for General von Kaufman, for the Rumiantsev Museum Library in Moscow. Pierce states that the Library of Congress copy in incomplete, but in my comparison to the Tashkent copy, it appeared to be in better condition and more complete.

[xli] Personal communication, Heather Sonntag, 2006.

[xlii]  Gorshenina, 2004, 17.

[xliii] Golender, 10.

[xliv] In addition to other works cited here, a major source for the appendix of photographers working in Central Asia is in Gorshenina, 2004, 122-124.

[xlv] Some of Vvedensky’s work was published under the name of N. Petrovsky, a educator and also a local photographer.

[xlvi] Boris Golender identifies several other “photographic masters” whose signed work I have never encountered, among them a Captain I. A. Brezinsky, E. Vilde (or Wilde) in Kokand, and V. Virvinski in Margelan. Golender, 12.

[xlvii] After the Revolution, Chistiakov was employed as a photographer at the various incarnations of the St. Petersburg Institute of Material and was the photographer for the Imperial archaeological commission in Samarkand. Vitaly V. Naumkin, Samarkand, Caught in Time: Great Photographic Archives, (Reading, UK: Garnet, 1992)  9.

[xlviii] Naumkin, 10.

[xlix] Faris, 303.

[l] Naumkin, 10.

[li] Golender, 12.

[lii] Henri Moser, A Travers L'asie Central: La Steppe Kirghize, Le Turkestan Russe, Boukhara, Khiva, Le Pays Des Turcomans Et La Perse - Impressions De Voyage, (Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit Et Cie) 1885.

[liii] Gorshenina, 2000, 171.

[liv] See Emile Antoine Henri de Bouillane de Lacoste, Around Afghanistan (D. Appleton, 1909)

[lv] Hughes Krafft, A Travers le Turkestan Russe, (Paris: Hachet, 1902)

[lvi] Gorshenina, 2000,   201-202

[lvii]  See Kenneth White, Frontieres d’Asie, Musee national des Arts asiatiques (Paris: Guimet,  1993).

[lviii]  Gorshenina, 2004, 128.

[lix]  Golender, 14 and Gorshenina, 2004,  128.

[lx]  Golender, 14.

[lxi]  Boris Golender supplies several names, others were found on numerous examples of the postcards of the period. See Golender, 16.

[lxii] Golender, 14-16.

[lxiii] The sequence of available printing processes began with a monochrome collotype. To make the early colored cards, transparent watercolor washes were applied by hand with stencils. Lithography  was used early on, then asphaltum plates. Cylinder presses, and the rotary presses that followed around 1900 and offset presses in 1908 continued to speed processing time. A chromo-lithographic process was developed just after the turn of the century to produce exceptionally fine layers and definition of color. In each of these developments, the large German postcard manufacturers were at the forefront of the field. Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, Delivering Views, Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998)  39-43.

[lxiv] Boris Golender bases this number in part on his personal collection of over 2100 different cards. Golender, 17.

[lxv]  Golender, 12.

[lxvi]  Many modernist Central Asians advocated educational, social, and economic changes based not on the Russian, but on the Turkish model. The Jadid movement was the most powerful expression of modern Muslim thought in Central Asia, but was first co-opted and then viciously attacked by the early Bolsheviks, who among other actions, closed all Jadidist schools, banned teaching in native languages, and obliterated almost the entire town of Kokand after attempts to establish an independent Turkic democratic republic there.

[lxvii] Golender, 228.

[lxviii] Tashkent House of Photography, Introduction by Tursunali Kuziev, O’zbek Fotografiyasi 125 yil, 1879-1940, (One hundred twenty-five years of Uzbek photography), (Tashkent: Tashkent House of Photography, 2005) 8-10.

[lxix]  Golender, 228.

[lxx]  Golender, 12.

[lxxi] Dudin afterwards published “A Preliminary Account of a Journey from Erdenitza to Kiazhta”, where, according to Bartold, “he described the ruined buildings and ancient tombs, that were completely unknown in the literature of Central Asia, among the number of architectural monuments of Central Asia.” V.V. Bartold, “Vospominanie o S. M. Dudine,” Recollections of S. M. Dudin, muzea antropologii I etnografii, Pamiati Samuila Martinovicha Dudina (In memory of Samuel Martinovich Dudin), (Leningrad: Sbornik muzea antropologii I etnografii, t. IX, 1930) 348.

[lxxii] Bartold, 350.

[lxxiii] S. M. Dudin, “Ornamentation and the present conditions of the Samarkand mosques”. Izvesti Arkh. Kom. VII, (Leningrad: 1903).

[lxxiv] Nikitin gives this date as 1895, but he also places Dudin in the Ukraine in 1894. Karski more convincingly dates these works to 1898. Nikitin, 43-44 and E. F. Karski, in Muzea antropologii i etnografii, 1930, 341.

[lxxv] Dudin, S. M., "Pile Rug Articles of Central Asia," presented by E. F. Karski at the meeting of the Department of Historical Sciences and Phylogeny on April 21, 1926. Collection Studies of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, v. VII, Leningrad, 1928, S.71-155, translated by Elena Tsareva in “Thirty Rug Masterpieces from the Collection of S. M. Dudin, Part I,” Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 11/1. Also see  Elena Tsareva, “Samuil Martinovich Dudin, 1863-1926”, Hali, Issue 27, July-August-September 1985.

[lxxvi] To give only a single example, Dudin made the only known early photographs of the silk ikat binding process.

[lxxvii] The expedition was commissioned by the Russian Committee for the study of Central and Eastern Asia.

[lxxviii] One product of Dudin’s studies was the work “Techniques of mural painting and sculpture in ancient Buddhist caves and temples of western China,” Collections of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, (no date available).

[lxxix] S.F Oldenburg, Muzea antropologii I etnografii, 1930.

[lxxx]  Dudin was Secretary of both the Turkestan Committee for the Academy of the History of Material Culture and of the Radlov Circle at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, and in 1920 became the director of the museum. At the same time, also without pay, Dudin took on the administration of the ancient Central Asian department and the department of illustrations and the photography and plaster-casting laboratories. He worked for the Geographical Institute, then at Leningrad State University, at the State Academy of the History of Material Culture, and at the Society of Artists Named for Kundji, where he was one of the members of the constituent assembly and director of the library. Karski, 341-343.

[lxxxi] After the October Revolution, the fledgling Bolshevik state was bankrupt, and sold many cultural assets abroad. Vneshtorg (the international trade organization) and Gostorg (organization for internal trade) asked Dudin to select and price of major lots of carpets for export. Bartold, 349.

[lxxxii] Nikitin, 39.

[lxxxiii] Many are now located in the archives of the State Historical Museum, Tashkent.

[lxxxiv] Robert H Allshouse, Photographs for the Tsar, The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii commissioned by Tsar Nicolas II, (Garden City, NY: Dial Press, 1983)  xxi.

[lxxxv] Prokudin-Gorskii used hypersensitized plates to make contact prints from which color photographs could be made. Allshouse, xiv.

[lxxxvi] Photographer to the Tsar: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Library of Congress, December 9, 2003 <>

[lxxxvii] Allshouse,  ix.

[lxxxviii] Maillart not only traveled independently from Moscow to Almaty, and then through the Taklamakan desert, she was a true adventurer, intrepid journalist, and feminist as well as stunt-woman for Marlene Dietrich in the ski scenes of the 1930 film, Der Blaue Engel. Gorshenina, 2000, 205-207.

Subpages (1): 10. Bibliography