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19th and Early 20th Century Photography
Our oldest photographic material from Central Asia dates back more than one hundred years. After several centuries of political instability, the early 19th C. saw the establishment of three independent kingdoms, the Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand. Slave-based agriculture expanded, trade increased, and new demands for luxury goods brought about an artistic revival in Central Asia. At about the same time, increasing British activity in Afghanistan propelled commercial and military interests in Tsarist Russia to look towards Central Asia. These interests hoped to find not only a bulwark against British influence along their southern borders, but also a colonial marketplace in which Russian goods could viably compete, and a rich source of raw materials, particularly cotton.
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 Khokand and Samarkand, and the administrative city of Tashkent. Prior to the Russian conquest, only a few earlier 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. So for our purposes, and in so far as we have found the sources, the possibility of photography in Central Asia begins only around 1860, and the reality, more likely, about 1870.
Up until the end of the 19th century, it was very likely that photographers were outsiders, foreign to Central Asia and its indigenous culture. Even in the late 19th century, only the most cosmopolitan elements of urban society would have considered commissioning a portrait. For several hundred years prior to this time, portraiture in any form was not a traditional art in Central Asia. Thus, is analyzing these photographs, we should consider the foreign photographer's point of view.
Despite the inherent exoticism of the subject matter, Central Asian photographs have a more immediate and documentary quality than much Near Eastern or East Asian photography of the period. Central Asian photography has never been primarily market driven. While there was some production of souvenir photographs for sale, largely in postcard form, many photographers appear to have been gifted amateurs. Others worked at the behest of governmental institutions, notably Alexander Kuhn, the compiler of the albums of more than 1200 photographs commissioned by Governor General von Kaufmann in 1870, and Samuel Martinovich Dudin, who assembled vast photographic and ethnographic collections between 1893 and 1914. The intent of these institutional collections, whether military or scientific, was to provide the new rulers with an encyclopedic catalog of the regional architecture, industry and customs of the local population.
In urban Central Asia the sources are comparatively rich. There are many photographs of the stunning architectural monuments of the Timurid and Shaibanid period. The genre scenes most typical of urban photography are of handicraft production, the open marketplace and various public entertainments. Individual and family portraits are not as common, but there is great dignity, maintained even under duress, in many of these photographs. There is less arrogance in the photographer's approach, and the sitters' attitude is not as submissive as one finds in other colonized parts of the world.
Photographs taken outside the cities are often less intimate. There are relatively large numbers of photographs of Kirgiz nomads, and relatively few photographs of Turkoman nomads taken in steppe locales until the end of the century. Turkomans were engaged in sporadic military resistance to Russian occupation. It was not a situation that encouraged photographic expeditions into the steppe.
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