<---previous article

A Mission To Central Asia -
S.M. Dudin's Journey in 1900-1902 To Bokhara, Samarkand, and Beyond
(Original text & photos appeared in HALI 123, © 2002)

By Elena Kordik
(with assistance from Tom Cole in editing the text and selection of photos)

Best known in rug circles for the collection of mainly Turkmen carpets he acquired in Central Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, Samuil M. Dudin was also a photographer of genius, whose visual record of his expeditions is among the greatest treasures in the collection of the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg.

In 1900, the Grand Duke Georgiy II wrote to the Emir of Bukhara: "Being anxious about the addition of new collections to the museum in blissful memory of the Emperor Alexander the Third, I have charged an artist, Mr Dudin, with this task and sent him on a mission to Central Asia."

Samuil Martynovich Dudin (center) and civilian colleagues during one of his CentralAsian expeditions. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

In the early 20th century Central Asia, recently conquered through the opening of new trade routes, covert political machinations and overt military incursions, remained in the Western imagination a land of mystery and intrigue. The vast, remote and inhospitable terrain, with its extreme climatic conditions, posed as many problems for the traveller as the 'barbarian' population whose hostility was only fuelled to a minor extent by religion. The ruthlessness of the traditional Central Asian authorities was not confined to ferenghi but extended to all who were not native to their domain.

Armenius Vambery ventured through these forbidding lands in the early 1860s, disguised as a Turk. Various British militaryagents also travelled here, playing out the drama of the 'Great Game', which sometimes ended in captivity, torture and execution. Edmond O'Donovan, a British journalist, chronicled the conquest of the Akhal Tekke tribes by the advancing Russian troops in the early 1880s. Twenty years later, the Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum commissioned Samuil Dudin, an artist, photographer, and specialist in Asian applied art, to record topographic and ethnographic features, including urban, village and nomadic
lifestyles. Dudin seemed the perfect choice. His interest in the region had taken root in the 1890s when he took part in an archaeological expedition to Turkestan as a painter.

Samuil Martynovich Dudin was born into a family of schoolteachers in the Ukraine in 1863, and from early childhood showed an aptitude for painting. At his special technical secondary school, he became involved with illegal political groups and in 1887 was arrested and exiled to Siberia. Some of the best Russian minds found themselves in Siberia, and it was there that he met G. Potanin, a well-known ethnographer and expert in Asian culture. Potanin helped Dudin to obtain an amnesty and invited him to join the first archaeological expedition to Central Asia. There he took his first photographs, which were used later to document his mentor's discoveries.

After this expedition, Dudin returned to St Petersburg and successfully sat the entrance examinations to the Academy of Fine Arts, from where he graduated in 1897. During his studies he had the opportunity to participate in missions to East Turkestan. Clearly his formative years moulded his life-long fascination with Turkestan and ancient Inner Asia.

A group of musicians performing seated on an Ersari(?) carpet. Circa 1900-02
Photo Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Before embarking on the 1900 expedition for the Russian Museum, he tried to foresee every potential obstacle, drawing up a detailed programme of the expedition's aims, as well as his own as researcher and photographer. The museum helped him to obtain travel documents, and provided a letter of recommendation to the local authorities, together with the usual requests for lodgings and means of support. This also included an appeal to the postal department to forward letters and packages free of charge (which was refused), and a request to the War Ministry's topographic department for detailed maps of Samarkand, Fergana, Syr-Darya and Bukhara.

However Dudin's attention was mainly focused on his photographic equipment. Cameras, lenses and other items were purchased in Germany and special wooden boxes were made to protect the cameras and developing kit for the long and perilous journey. Dudin planned to develop plates on the road, so that he could view his photographs immediately and take alternative shots in case of errors of exposure.

Smoking leather in a Samarkand tannery. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

On 23 March 1900 Dudin supplied the museum with a list of the equipment he had ordered, promising to return them safely. They included: 1. Two wide angle photographic lenses; 2. A camera; 3. Six album cassettes; 4. A shutter by Tornthon-Picard; 5. An oak tripod; 6. A headholder; 7. Four papier maché basins, 18x24; 8. An instant camera with magazine and case; 9. A calico camera case; 10. A flash lamp; 11. Scales; 12. A woollen cover; 13. Three geographical maps. Dudin's competence both as a researcher and an experienced traveller uniquely qualified him for this expedition. The proposals he submitted for the museum's approval included acquiring the most distinctive samples of the material culture and photographing landscapes, architecture and the different ethnic groups, with their national costume and domestic utensils. He would capture on film the daily life of the people of these inaccessible regions.

Turkmen boy archer in Anau, near Ashgabat. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Dudin began his journey at the start of April with Samarkand as his first destination. In total the expedition lasted nearly three years, ending in 1902. During brief winter interludes in St Petersburg, he catalogued his acquisitions and added brief comments. A generous budget enabled him to amass a large number of objects which were the foundation of the Sart, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tajik and Turkmen collections, now housed in the Russian Ethnographic Museum. He took nearly two thousand photographs, many now considered masterpieces of photographic art. If he had bequeathed nothing else, he would have been recognised for his contributions to the history and ethnography of this region. In the end, the fame of his collection of carpets and textiles far surpassed that of his expertise with a camera.

A Kirghiz family striking camp and loading their camels. Circa 1900-02
Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

The journey to Central Asia proved tedious and dangerous. There was still no direct railway route to Turkestan, so he set off by train via Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, and then proceeded by boat down the Volga River to the Caspian Sea. At Usun-Ada he joined the train to Samarkand. The last stage of his journey was on horseback, the traditional transport in this desolate, inhospitable region.

Designer drawing the pattern onto silk yarns prior to ikat dyeing, Bokhara. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

He corresponded regularly with the Ethnographic Department in St Petersburg, writing detailed letters to the secretary relating his progress. "In Samarkand, I settled beside a bazaar to be close to the everyday life of the Sarts and let them become accustomed to my presence and my work", he wrote. But he encountered many problems, even in arranging for simple lodgings. The people of Samarkand were suspicious and he experienced difficulties in gaining entrance to private homes or handicraft workshops. His requests to local officials for assistance with his ethnographic studies were viewed with deep suspicion. If he had requested access to archaeological material, he would have had greater success; treasures were being unearthed routinely and sold in the local bazaars, especially coins from the period of Alexander the Great and relics of the Seljuk era.

Flamboyant examples of craftsmanship in metal, captured by Dudin in the Chill-Khan Mosque, Behauddin. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Dudin begged the museum to provide him with letters which might "convince the local administrations to act more attentively to the museum's interests and then the Sarts would not have robbed me as if I were a common person." Like earlier European travellers in the region, he found that the treachery and avarice of the local population knew few limits.

It took some time for the people of Samarkand to accept the presence of a ferenghi, but after a while he became a local attraction, even a celebrity. Gradually, he became more comfortable in the local culture and everyday life. His inner strength and persistence, coupled with a deep interest in the material he was collecting, enabled him to overcome most problems.

Embroidered skull caps in a shop in Bokhara. Circa 1900-02
Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Dudin pondered the essential goals of photography and spent much time analysing his own techniques. His primary aim was to avoid affectation and posturing: "I see no value in composed images", he wrote. "We have a surfeit of these in our 'colonies' [Turkestan and the Caucasus]. They are not artistic; they smell like anecdotes. They are a photographic affectation and not a picture of reality. Only an unnaturally strong desire to shoot images at any cost would result in such photographs for the museum.

"Fortunately I did not have that need as I had sufficient time for my work. Having a quick-action camera and some experience, I set out to produce instant images when I wanted to shoot live street actions or a craftsman at work. When I wanted to capture natural images of people, I waited for a while and explained that my picture was not of them alone and if they looked at me or at the camera it would distract me. Almost always I got a good result. My expectations were high; if a photograph did not turn out just right, I repeated it again and again until I got the result I wanted."

Persian perfume and fragrance seller. Bokhara(?).Circa 1900-02
Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

One unexpected problem arose from the fact that taking photographs of women was strictly forbidden. To solve this he visited the 'pleasure palaces' of the region, local brothels where he found that the women were more willing to be photgraphed.

Samuil Dudin was clearly the right person to undertake this journey. He was not only an artist with the camera; he also had the eyes of a painter, and this helped him to create images that were immediate and authentic. The true character of the people is revealed through these authentic records of life in Central Asia at the beginning of the 20th century.

Ruins of the Anau mosque, near Ashgabat, which would be reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1946. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Methodical and highly organised, Dudin proved himself worthy of the Tsar's trust. He accounted for every rouble he spent, including the tiniest mosaic fragment and length of packing rope for the luggage. A frugal budget excluded every luxury and he returned to St Petersburg with hardly a kopeck, having spent the entire allocation of 6,000 roubles. For the second part of his trip, he requested 11,500 roubles in advance, to include his own modest annual salary of 2,100 roubles.

The plethora of images depicting life in the bazaars and back alleys of the great Asian cities, the multitude of portraits of the different ethnic groups, expansive landscapes and architectural details of the great buildings were captured expertly, using the bulky wide-frame cameras of the period. Back in St Petersburg he worked on the prints himself, trusting none of the laboratory workers to handle the precious images. He added annotations to the original documents in his own hand, and these still provide the reference material used to identify each photograph in the collection.

Plying silk yarns of ikat weaving in a Kokand workshop, note the julykhyr rug hanign on the wall to the left.
Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

Until the 1917 Revolution, Dudin's camera was his constant companion as he continued his travels to Central Asia, including Xinjiang and western China. He produced thousands of negatives, recording invaluable information for posterity. His images of the architecture of monuments, mausoleums and mosques provided essential information for restoration, used today to assist in re-creating details of the original structures. His photographs also served as models for the watercolours, his first love in artistic life, which he still found time to paint.

Dudin's expertise in Central Asian art proved very useful to the Bolsheviks when they took power. He was asked by the
Commission of Registration of State Values to appraise consignments of carpets intended for export. In this time of economic and political chaos, he served as Director of the Photographic and Asian Departments at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St Petersburg, and as unpaid Scientific Secretary for the museum, organising exhibitions and art conferences. He published articles on painting and photography and talked on his Central Asian experiences, describing in detail what was needed for successful fieldwork. Surprisingly, in this period of turmoil, when many intellectuals were repressed, imprisoned or even executed, Dudin had few problems.

Bazaar near the Shir-Dor Mosque, Samarkand. Circa 1900-02 Courtesy of Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg

The legacy of Dudin's images became the foundation of the photographic archives at the Russian Ethnographic Museum, appreciated as the most comprehensive record of the ethnography of Central Asia. During World War II, when St Petersburg was besieged and under continuous bombardment, a large number of the fragile glass negatives were destroyed, but the prints remained safe and were used to restore the negatives.

Dudin devoted his last years to the youth of St Petersburg, lecturing frequently on photography to the University's geography students. He died on 9 July 1929 from a sudden heart attack while working with students in the countryside with a camera in his hands. Aside from his professional legacy, he was remembered by colleagues and friends for his decency, honesty and integrity, qualities which served him well in his travels. His boundless energy was sorely missed by colleagues and friends. His place in history is secure.

Working on this article in collaboration with Elena Kordik has been one of the more satisfying projects with which I have been associated. Viewing the entire collection of photos (nearly 2000) was a privilege, for which I am very grateful, as well as very educational. I had no idea what to expect before viewing the collection, but it became increasingly apparent that Dudin was not just a photographer, collector or chronicler of Central Asian ethnography and culture, but, in fact, an artist. Ms. Kordik confirmed this fact whens she emailed me her text and I became acquainted with his background, etc.

The image of the metal work on a door in Behauddin, Uzbekistan is a graphic example of the artistry of Dudin's skill with a camera. The composition of the photo is magnificent. The photo of the ruins outside Anau, near Ashgabat, is another wonderful photo, well composed with a graphic image.

Though it may sound like heresy to some, digital re-mastering of some of these photos does wonders. Some of that 'enhancement' is evident in these reproductions for this article. While it is easy to criticize a defect in focus or a dirty lens, one must be aware of the conditions under which he was working.

Aside from being of interest to those already familiar with his name and collection of rugs, an independent curatorial company is currently planning to bring a selection of photos to the States for exhibition in various museum venues along with a number of the rugs and textiles collected by Dudin in his travels. It is gratifying to know that this article has brought deserved attention to the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg, the collection of Dudin photos, and Ms. Kordik as the curator of the photo archives.

This is a link that will take you to further information about SM Dudin, a very sensitive and informative essay with quotes from Dudin's journal.

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 123, © 2002
All text by Elena Kordik (edited by Thomas Cole), © 2003
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
I also wish to thank the publishers of HALI for permission to reproduce this article on the site.

<---previous article