Heather S. Sonntag - Photography & Mapping. Russian Conquest in Central Asia: Early Albums, Encounters, & Exhibitions 1866-1876

The Turkestan Album
A Brief Material Re-Orientation & Its Antecedents

Heather S. SONNTAG

My doctoral thesis combines scholarly interests in Central Asian cultural history, early photography and cultural encounters, vis-à-vis the colonial experience. Titled Photography & Mapping Russian Conquest in Central Asia: Early Albums, Encounters, & Exhibitions 1866-1876, the dissertation contextualizes several photography albums produced under the Russian empire in the first two decades of colonial photographic activity in Central Asia from the late 1850s to the late 1870s. These early albums, costly and ambitious elite colonial projects, preserve the first photographic records of Central Asia, coinciding with a global surge in what I identify as album mania – in which the Russian Empire fully participated. The albums visually conveyed and legitimated scientific ideological trends appropriated by the Russian imperial administration to construct knowledge of colonized populations and territories. These scientific aims primarily predicated the photographic practices that shaped the overall representation of Central Asia that was consequently used for research, military, and economic purposes, as well as for private and public exhibition. The albums represent diverse native communities, as well as Russian settlements and fortifications, from Orenburg to the Amu Darya, Khiva to Kuldzha, and Semipalitinsk to Samarkand. The following summary called The Turkestan Album – A Brief Material Re-Orientation & Its Antecedents is excerpted from a dissertation chapter and forthcoming article for publication. It will specifically focus on the first half of the proposed decade, discussing the Turkestanskii al'bom (1871-1872) and its many manifestations.

I argue that the Turkestan Album – album extraordinaire – was not an original idea, though its production is among the world's greatest colonial photography projects – indeed, album par excellence. This summary shows that what is at stake is a higher number of production copies than previously stated in academic scholarship, and among those numbers, exist varying formats in scale and presentation. The production of multiple copies naturally raises questions about audience and exhibition venues, in addition to the general dissemination and utility of Central Asian representation. It also argues for and names an additional third photographer contributing to the project, who appears to have received scant recognition for his work, barely then in the nineteenth-century and absolutely none now. This new development in the research of the album raises further questions on the possibility of multiple teams of un-credited photographers, not unlike some hired by the Mathew Brady Studio in America who received little to no recognition for their photography documenting the Civil War.

Those familiar with the Turkestan Album, either from few published academic sources or having seen it in person (or now on the Internet at the Library of Congress website), know that it is a formidable creation. Formally commissioned by Konstantin von Kaufman, the first governor-general of Turkestan, the album is routinely described by scholars and authors alike as consisting of 6 books, divided among four sections attending to the subjects of: archaeology (two volumes), ethnography (two volumes), local industry, and history. The appointed chief of photography was the well-known Orientalist, Alexander L. Kun, and the only formally noted photographer was N. N. Nekhoroshev; yet, Grigorii Krivtsov also shares credit for photographic work in Kokand and a few other named locales, like Ura Tiube. The album, however, is not simply compiled of photography, which total over 1,200 images, but also twenty-one watercolors, fourteen architectural plans, and thirteen military-topographical maps. What becomes immediately intriguing in the research of the album is that production numbers of copies are at least twice the previously stated numbers of three, four, six and seven copies (depending on the source). Moreover, those aware of the album extraordinaire might be perplexed to encounter a more popular mini-version of itself used for scientific collections and totaling 133 photographic images. Multiple copies and versions of the Turkestan Album reflect not only a slightly higher rate of production, but I argue based on obvious differences in appearance (seen in cover design), presentation, and even supplemental printed material that there existed multiple lots of production among all albums. Multiple and more highly portable manifestations of the Album emphasizes the overall importance of Central Asia as a new colony to the Empire, whereby the photographic albums both delivered colonial knowledge to better envision and perceive the borderlands from afar, and also legitimated Russian administrative presence and development in the territory.

Identifying a third and previously unknown photographer, M. K. Priorov, to the colonial project advances historical contextualization not simply about the Turkestan Album as a material object, but also that the Album had at least one antecedent. Designating an antecedent, more significantly underscores a deeper history of photographic practice for visual data collection in Central Asia, prior to Kaufman's commissions. Resurrecting this third photographer's album, Out of Central Asia, compiled of studio and field work spanning from 1866 to 1867 and which clearly pre-dates the Turkestan Album, illuminates a growing imperial enterprise of visual discourse on Central Asian representation, circulating the Empire and inspiring future photography projects. A number of Priorov's photographs were immediately used for three-toned chromolithographs and gravures to illustrate P. I. Pashino's popular travel narrative, Turkestanskii Krai v 1866 godu, published in 1868.

This album-and-photographer resurrection also challenges a previous claim that Kaufman's commission of the Turkestan Album was due to the 1867 Moscow Ethnographic Exhibition, which the govenor-general attended. The incorporation of photographs from Priorov's album directly into Kaufman's album demonstrates a genealogical link between album projects, whereby the one is literally referencing the other as if to either make a visual allusion. In other words, the latter album literally begins where the former concluded. This advances a further argument I make in the dissertation that the Central Asian albums have interconnected and overlapping histories, lending themselves to construct a discourse of visual narrative, literally mapping Russian conquest in Central Asia and picturing colonial encounters through prescribed photographic practices. The prescribed nature of photographic practice is strikingly revealed between these two albums in re-photography projects whereby images from the 1867 album are used to capture exact and nearly precise angles of monuments in the 1872 album; I advance this argument in my doctoral thesis. Finally, it is worth noting that all albums under consideration in my thesis, not just the Turkestan Album or Out of Central Asia, are formally commissioned by governor-generals of neighboring Central Asian territories. This trend of elite commissions for albums has precedent outside the Russian empire, beginning with Governor-General John Canning, who commissioned the Peoples of India (1856-1874) with about 700 images.

In my doctoral thesis, I argue that the implementation of the photographic technology, employed by elite military officers, and the dissemination of the albums were intended to conspicuously situate: 1) the colonial region of Central Asia as a key interest for the Empire, and 2) the Russian Empire as an equal with its European counterparts. By thoroughly examining and cataloguing each album's content and then historically contextualizing the photographic colonial archive spread across the albums, I demonstrate how a photographic colonial project, commissioned by the commanding elite, served an elaborate educational campaign at home and abroad on Russia's newer Asian and predominantly Muslim territorial holdings.

Writing on the history of colonial albums of Central Asia, one is suddenly and inevitably immersed in the study of the early history of photography of Russia, which itself has received very little attention but from a few scholars. Similarly, researching early albums, one is especially struck by the dearth of information in scholarship about albums as a legitimate text worth investigation: albums have received practically no attention in any discipline, including art history, until very recently. This initial discussion on the history of the Turkestan Album, its manifestations and antecedents will, therefore, contribute significantly to the overall awareness and importance of such uniquely bound photographic collections not only about Central Asia, but also with respect to the Russian history of photography, encompassing an immense archive of colonial photography. The albums uniquely expose a spatial history of conquest and encounter, resulting in a construction of what Edward Said initially called the “geographical imagination,” later appropriated by scholars like James R. Ryan and Joan M. Schwartz. These albums merit a critical re-viewing of historical content that has previously been used for illustrative purposes.

Key Words: Colonial Studies, Central Asia, Central Asian photography, Turkestan, Early photography of Central Asia, Turkestan Album, Russian colonial photography, re-photography, history of early Russian photography, Turkestan Album, Konstanin von Kaufman, A.L. Kun

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