Interest in culture and history of Central Asia outside the countries of this region has been maintained for many decades and even centuries. A large role is played by repositories, libraries, museums of countries of the world whose archived written and visual materials can significantly expand the list of resources and ensure the formation of new historical narratives, or enrich existing ones. To clarify and confirm, or refute the prevailing vision and perception of the past, it makes sense to refer to the facts and evidence of history, art, science of other nations and peoples whose historical destinies were intertwined or developed in parallel with Central Asian destinies.
One of the most valuable sources of historical memory is photographs as unique documents that have survived to this day. The Library of U.S. Congress, which was established on April 24, 1800, in the new capital city of Washington, being the largest library in the world with millions of books, records, photographs, newspapers, maps, and manuscripts, has extremely valuable collections on the history of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia [Library of Congress, n.d. (a)]. Obviously, participating in the international cultural space, the Library of Congress also performs an important “domestic” function – to demonstrate the cultural diversity of the world to the national audience.
In particular, it is there that the “Turkestan Album” – a Russian study of Central Asia undertaken in the second half of the 19th century (1860-1880) – is stored. The album, created by order of General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman (1818-1882), the first governor-general of Russian Turkestan, consists of four parts: “Archaeological Part” (two volumes), “Ethnographic Part” (two volumes), “Handicraft Part” (one volume) and “Historical Part” (one volume). The album contains about 1,200 photographs of representatives of various peoples of the region, episodes of their daily lives and activities. The compilers of the album were Russian orientalists Alexander Kun and Nikolai Bogaevsky. All photos are digitized and posted in the public domain.
Some photo portraits seem to immerse the viewer in a different era; however, these faces look surprisingly recognizable and modern. It is hard to believe that the distance between us is 150 years. This is a rare opportunity to look at our ancestors and compare people of our time with them. We are used to filling the gaps in national history associated with a series of tragic events, revolutions, wars and crises by semi-legends, semi-fantasies about great khans, batyrs, biys and other significant personalities, thereby raising our historical status to unthinkable heights and sizes, erecting monumental figures and structures in which no one sees either real personalities or real life. This is the tradition, and not only the Kazakh one – to remember the great people of this world and forget about mere mortals, who in essence were those real people, the continuation of which we are today. Each photograph of the “Turkestan Album” represents a specific person with his own name and ethnic characteristic, for example, “Cholak-Kazaki: Sardzhan-kazak”, “Kirgiz-Kazaki: Utkul-bai”, “Kirgiz-Kazaki: Arslan-biy”, “Cholak-Kazaki: Uzan-bai”, etc. [Library of Congress, n.d. (b)]. Each of these photos can replace entire paragraphs of the written text if you give free rein to the work of thought and imagination.
One of the volumes of the “Turkestan Album” is also available at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) in St. Petersburg. Museum experts believe that the picture of the album “Horse racing (baiga) of the Kyrgyz”, which captures moving figures, is an important stage in the history of photography since the movement of a large number of figures was first recorded there [Prischepova, 2011]. Along with the “Turkestan Album”, another album is stored in the Kunstkamera – photographs from drawings and paintings by artist Vasily Vereshchagin, commissioned by the Turkestan Governor-General in 1874. Vereshchagin’s album contains portraits of representatives of different peoples of Central Asia, men and women, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Gypsies, Indians, and Afghans. The paintings “Relocation”, “The inside of the Kyrgyz tent” (in the form of a photograph) and portraits of Kazakhs became one of the earliest graphic images of the internal structure of the Kazakh yurt and scenes from the life of Kazakhs in the collection of the Museum [Prischepova, 2011].
Another project implemented by famous Russian photographer and inventor Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944), who is called the pioneer of color photography, is a resource of our historical and cultural heritage. He set an extremely important goal – to capture the landscapes and faces of the peoples living on the territory of the Russian Empire, to familiarize the general public with the most remote areas of the enormous state in the space from Siberia to Crimea, and lifestyles of its multiethnic population. As part of this large-scale project, he took a series of trips in 1909-1915, during which he took several thousand photographs. The technique used by Prokudin-Gorsky to obtain color photographs was to shoot each object three times – through different color filters: blue, green and red. Then three pictures were projected onto each other, resulting in a color image. The photographs taken in this way looked very vital and aroused universal admiration. In Central Asia, the photographer took hundreds of pictures of Samarkand, Bukhara, the Hungry Steppe (Betpak-dala) [Library of Congress, n.d. (c)].
His objects were both architectural and construction structures, such as madrassas, mosques, minarets, bridges, canals, as well as landscapes of valleys, rivers, mountain ranges, and many portraits of local residents – shepherds, traders, rulers, religious figures. One of his famous portraits depicted the Emir of Bukhara. In his photographs, we can see people in their traditional costumes, at various activities, immersed in that lifestyle that had not yet been affected by Russification, modernization, and other innovative processes: “Nomadic Kirghiz”, “Profile portrait of a woman”, “A zindan (prison)”, “Portion of the Shir-Dar Madrasa” and hundreds of others. In 1918, Prokudin-Gorsky emigrated from Russia to France. His descendants retained these photographs; the Library of Congress purchased unique images from his heirs in 1948. The collection included glass negatives, prints in sepia and 12 albums with photographs and notes by Prokudin-Gorsky. Thanks to modern technologies, color images were created based on negatives. Later, the materials were digitized, systematized and uploaded to the Web [Library of Congress, n.d. (d)].
Specific photographs, individual and group portraits made by ethnographers and travelers eventually became historical documents. It turned out that the language of photography can tell the story of not just one particular person but also the whole people, even if this was not an initial goal. Photography, which was originally intended for neutral fixation of an object and was rather a technical operation, has very quickly turned into a form of cognitive art. The images created by the talented photographers in the above collections not only contain high artistic merits, but also indicate genuine interest, a desire to understand and accept a different culture and identity in all their diversity and originality. The authors could hardly have suggested that their work would contribute to the cultural heritage of the Central Asian peoples, and that American and Russian scholars and collectors would preserve and convey through the centuries the historical memory of the ancestors to the descendants, but this happened, and this is another evidence that science and art are cosmopolitan in nature, have no boundaries and prejudices.
Library of Congress (n.d. (a)). Digital Collections. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/collections/. Accessed on 06.09.2019.
Library of Congress (n.d. (b)). Photo, Print, Drawing. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/2007682000/. Accessed on 06.09.2019.
Library of Congress (n.d. (c)). Views in Central Asia, Russian Empire. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/2001696387. Accessed on 05.09.2019.
Library of Congress (n.d. (d)). The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/gorskii-ru.html. Accessed on 05.09.2019.
Prishchepova, V. (2011). Chapter II. Formation and Main Content of the Illustrative Fund of the MAE Central Asia Department. In “Illustrative collections on the peoples of Central Asia of the second half of the XIX – early XX centuries in the collections of the Kunstkamera”. Retrieved from http://www.kunstkamera.ru/files/lib/978-5-02-038269-5/978-5-02-038269-5_03.pdf. Accessed on 08.09.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Nadirova Gulnar Ermuratovna graduated from the Oriental Faculty of Leningrad State University, in 1990 she defended her thesis on the Algerian literature at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, in 2006 doctoral thesis - on modern Tunisian literature at the Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor.