On Alim Khan & Prokudin-Gorsky

The Flash Bulb Tolls For Thee

Take a look at this picture:

emir1

Emir Seyyid Mir Mohamed Alim Khan

As my helpful caption states, that’s Emir Seyyid Mohammed Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara, as photographed by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky in 1911.

From 1909 to 1915, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled throughout the Russian Empire documenting its peoples and places in a beautiful series of photographs.  The entire collection (well, a large chunk of it) is available for viewing at the Library of Congress and is well-worth checking out.

For the purposes of this posting, however, I’d like to concentrate on the picture above. At the time, Alim Khan was the ruler of the Emirate of Bukhara, then a protectorate of the Russian Empire, now mostly in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.  In his beautiful robes and gilted belt, Alim Khan himself is an almost stereotypical image of Oriental majesty.  Yet his opulent rule seems auspiciously contained: his throneroom is a plain courtyard, his throne apparently little more than a basic stool.

There’s a look of sad defiance in his face, however, as if he were grimly aware of his own anachronism: a direct descendent of Genghis Khan (the last one to be a national leader) captured on film by a modern camera.  A kind of melancholy pride that though he is a relic of the mediaeval world, he has at least survived to be the testament of former glory.

He clutches his sword not as gesture of power, but rather as a sign of weakness: a futile steeling of resolve before the imminent Bolshevik Revolution would bring with it an irruption of the 20th Century into the steppes of Central Asia.  But Frunze comes also for the photographer, the stand-in here for the distant and doomed Tsarist regime.

And that perhaps is the meaning of the Emir’s inscrutable gaze.  It is not antagonism towards a new, succeeding, and alien zeitgeist, but rather empathy.  He sees (or rather, with the lens of time, we see that he sees) Prokudin-Gorsky and his imperial apparatus not as conquerors, but as fellow travelers in the company of Ozymandias, also soon to be lost in the dust of history.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on October 10, 2009.

4 Responses to “On Alim Khan & Prokudin-Gorsky”

  1. I like the jib of this post. A series perhaps?

    • Your comment confuses me. Do you mean a series of explications of other photographs by Prokudin-Gorsky? That might be difficult as, though fantastic, none of his other photos resonated with me like this one. There’s just something about the Emir’s expression that seems majestic and sad at the same time.

  2. Do unto other photos (which engage you), that you have done unto this photo.

  3. Maybe he was just tired?

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