Awe-some pioneering photographers : A Tribute

From a gilded folio that gathers dust /

peer postcards of men strong and women stronger willed/

and you want to open that box and let the radiance out.

Today, after the announcement of the daily post topic, I thought it fitting to share my enthusiasm about historical photos with all of you, who happen to read this post. I enjoy reading history immensely and find that early photographs that offer the benefit of both armchair travel as well as time travel are the perfect accompaniment.

The first set is an album of rare historical photographs depicting people and places associated with the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Unlike British India, which was relatively much better photographed, Afghanistan, especially in nineteenth century is not photo documented well. There are 92 pieces in all, some of places (Kabul and Kandahar), some of officers but best, of unknown people going about doing their work. In his book, Return of a King, Scottish historian William Dalrymple has had this war as the principal subject and these photos build that world for the reader.There are quite a few of the various British army officers (for obvious reasons), of the Afghan chiefs, army units, and actual war (such as the group of Afridi tribesmen defending Jamrud – the ‘featured image’ for this post) –  but the ones i find most arresting are of ordinary people including those that were not connected with the war.

This one, titled ‘dumps’ – is a portrait of an Afghan girl. We do not have much information about her circumstances or her name and the title of the photograph could be after her expression. Such a contrast from the gritty Afghan Girl that Steve Mccurry photographed a century later.

“Dumps” – photographer unknown. Courtesy the WDL project.

Some lesser known facts emerge too – that these two Sikh men (described as religious figures) fought alongside the British in Afghanistan back then.

From the World Digital Library Collection (link at bottom of the post)


The second, very interesting part is what is called the Turkestan Album, a comprehensive visual survey of Central Asia undertaken after imperial Russia assumed control of the region in the 1860s. The album contains some 1,200 photographs, along with architectural plans, watercolor drawings, and maps. The “Ethnographic Part” includes 491 individual photographs on 163 plates compiled by Russian orientalists. Stunning images, if you like to walk back in time – here’s Registan square, Samarkand, for example.

The best photos in the WDL are not from this time period, they are the work of an early color photographer – Russian Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944), who used a special color photography process to create a visual record of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century – before communism took over. Some of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs go back to about 1905, but the bulk of his work is approximately between 1909 and 1915, when, with the support of Tsar Nicholas II,  Prokudin-Gorskii used an additive color technique but his early results involved errors including serious ghosting. The present color plates were developed by modern computer technology. These two below are my favorite – Emir of Bukhara (can you feel the texture of his brocade dress and the thick gold waist-band ?)

The Fabric merchant of Samarkand (such an intense gaze!).

All these photos are a part of the world digital library project, which is powered by Google and draws from the collections of the Library of Congress and The British Library. Many of these photographs were taken with early photography gear (heavy and cumbersome) in areas were the subjects were certainly not familiar with the idea of photography itself. For this pioneering work, I’m in awe of the these early photographers.

The collection is here –…9&countries=AF

Viewing via the link is much better as you can enlarge the photo or download it.

The total collection is much larger than the link above will show you. (remove the filters I have applied and you’d be taken to the main collection – then filter again for any part of the world and the time period you like – from Abe Lincoln to medieval Japan) – hours and hours of virtual museum visit – for free!

Do you enjoy viewing historical photos too? Any favorites?


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