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Samuel Martinovich Dudin

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Turn of the century Russian artist-photographer

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In the turbulent years just before the revolution, Russian scientists and explorers found unique opportunities for research in the exotic eastern regions of the Russian Empire. Like the British in India, the French in North Africa and Americans in the Wild West, Russia’s rulers wished to document their new possessions, to join in the colonial movement to photograph the entire world. The imperial imagination was fired by the prospect of revealing things long-hidden from Western eyes, from the ancient monuments of Samarkand to the ordinary rituals of daily life of the inhabitants of the steppe. 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.

Samuel Martinovich Dudin was an anomaly even within this hardy group of explorer-academics. Though honored 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.

Documentary, scientific and art photography in Russia has always been restricted by the government, whether it be Tsarist or Soviet. Permits were required for travel and official sanction for the taking of photographs in sensitive areas. Government sponsored collections like the magnificent albums commissioned by Governor General K.P. von Kaufman are characteristic of the earliest photography in Russia’s colonial hinterlands. The pioneer of early color photography, S.M. Prokudin-Gorski, traveled to Central Asia between 1910 and 1915 under the direct orders of Tsar Nicholas II.

In these circumstances, it is no surprise to find the artist-photographer S.M. Dudin working within the confines of scientific expeditions for Russian institutions. Such official commissions allowed Dudin far 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 worked as a scientist, but saw everything with an artist’s eyes. He wrote of the territory of the Yomud Turkoman, "After Krasnovodsk the landscape is soon replaced by a lifeless and sun faded steppe. To the right there were rather low, blue, sunburned hills, to the left -- in the distance you can see the same endless steppe. There is either loam with spots of low insignificant grey-green, yellow or rust-red grass or moving sands covered with barkhans, sometimes reaching enormous heights and with thickets of haloxylon and tamarisk. Here and there are flashes of a flock of camels or a caravan, a rider in a shaggy black hat passes, a group of yurts appear, ruins of an old fortress or a group of graven tombs, and again flat steppe and steppe without edge or end."

Dudin’s landscapes are more than documentary. He made stark and dramatic photographs of Central Asia’s silt-laden rivers and bare hills as well as intimate, 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 and immediacy unusual in photography of the colonial period. "I do not add anything to the composition of the scenes of the photograph. The ‘overcrowding’ that occurs in almost all photographs in our colonies, produces an anti-artistic impression and increases an air of falsity. It is not only that this photography savors of anecdote and affectation, it is not photography from nature."

Dudin manages to avoid sentimentality – and the orientalist vision - even in portraits of women. These 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 so direct and detailed, that we know their characters. We have no need of labels to understand their position in society. That is clear enough from their attitudes, and from their costumes, whether they wear a camel driver’s rags, a rich man’s silks or the calicos characteristic of day-to-day urban dress. Dudin wrote, "Standing like soldiers, this is the very worst for costumes, which are generally not designed for such tense, still poses." In Dudin’s work we see Central Asia as it really was, and know that what was recorded was truly characteristic of everyday life.

Dudin’s own 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, and educated at the Elizavetgrad School. 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 24, 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, 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 ‘Wanderers’ or ‘Itinerants’, a group of Russian painters associated with Ilya Repin’s social-realistic style. The ‘Wanderers’ believed in bringing art to the masses; they rejected many Academy norms and exhibited their work in traveling shows all over Russia.

Dudin’s first expedition to Central Asia was undertaken while still a student. 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. Dudin could not have had a better teacher as companion; Bartold was to become the greatest scholar of medieval Central Asia of the 19th and 20th centuries. The two traveled by freighter, railroad, carriage and finally on horseback through the steppe. Neither had been trained to undertake such an expedition. Dudin was the better organized and more practical of the two, but years later, Bartold used the word ‘irascible’ several times in his eulogy for the artist. "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…"

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. 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.

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. Dudin wrote in his report, "In the winter of 1900 Academician V.V. Radlov suggested that I prepare a short program for a journey to Central Asia, aimed at compiling an ethnographic collection on the Sarts of Russian Turkestan."

The 1900 expedition was well organized and equipped, thanks to the support of Grand Duke Gregory Mikhailovich. Dudin ordered 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 and of textiles and costumes of the period. But they are also the work of an artist. The photographs are composed, but never contrived; they have a modern energy and impact.

This was Dudin’s most fruitful journey. In addition to making photographs, he collected several thousand objects during three years of almost continuous travel, returning to St. Petersburg for only brief periods each winter to catalog the newly acquired materials. "Among the objects of the material culture my interest was aimed mostly at rugs, embroidery and jewelry. Besides the common and artistic interest that they demonstrate, they are the only items through which you can study Turkoman art. Visiting yurts, I aimed at another very important purpose: I wanted to know about the characteristics and ornamentation of the rugs, to confirm all of the terms which the merchants and local experts use."

In 1905 Dudin returned again to Central Asia to carry out excavations at the Shah Zindeh mausoleum complex in Samarkand. 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. He was greatly distressed by the rapid deterioration of their surface decoration, and at the heaps of broken tile work littering the ground beneath their walls. Dudin argued for the collection and removal to St. Petersburg of as much ancient material as possible, but his proposal was never adopted.

From1909 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. 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"

Dudin worked at several St. Petersburg museums during the war years. He continued to serve in an astonishing number of official positions in the post-revolutionary period, in most of them without pay. He 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. In 1920-1921 the State Expert Commission assigned him the task of stocktaking in the State Treasuries: after that Vneshtorg (the international trade organization) and Gostorg (organization for internal trade) asked him to select and price of major lots of carpets for export. The State Hermitage, the Russian Museum and other institutions employed Dudin as a consultant on ceramics and applied art.

In the chaotic and insecure years just after the revolution, Dudin seems to have found peace. "In my personal opinion, in these years, when many were driven to the breaking-point by hunger and other disasters, Samuel Martinovich remained more composed than before. In spite of the disagreeable elements of the duties of the Secretary, these responsibilities evidently drew him into himself and filled him not only with an irreproachable conscientiousness, but also with love," wrote Bartold in 1930. Dudin’s last post was as an instructor in photography in the geographical section of Leningrad State University at Sablin, where he died in the early hours of July 9th, 1929.

It seems likely that Dudin was fortunate even in death. Dudin’s youthful political activism had given him a measure of security in the early years of the revolution, but soon after his death, Stalin made aggressive moves against the study of ethnography and other sciences dealing with the history and culture of Russia’s colonized regions. Subsequent Soviet ethnographic work was forced to adhere to the Marxist polemic of progressive development. While much valuable work continued, it was always constrained by political concerns.

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. The 600 glass negatives utilized in the Russian pavilions at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 were presented to Germany at the exhibition’s close; only copies were returned to Russia. 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. A number of Dudin’s original negatives were destroyed when the Museum of Ethnology 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 draw us in to that ancient and unfamiliar world.

Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon

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