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Central Asia in Press Photography, 1925-1937: Article by Helena Holzberger

Contribution to the Journal of Modern European History on Photography and Dictatorship in the 20th Century


The current issue of the prestigious Journal of Modern European History features an essay by Helena Holzberger, M.A., PhD student at the Graduate School and Research Associate at the Chair of Russian and Asian Studies at LMU Munich. The title of her essay is "National in Front of the Camera, Soviet Behind It: Central Asia in Press Photography, 1925-1937" and is part of the theme "Photography and Dictatorships in the Twentieth Century".

Holzberger has been a research associate at the Department of Russian and Asian Studies at LMU Munich since May 2018. Previously, she was a postgraduate research assistant at the Graduate School for Eastern and Southeast European Studies. In 2014, she earned a M.A. degree from the Ruprecht Karls University in Heidelberg. In her dissertation project "Photography & Russia's Orient" she examines colonial and local pictorial worlds on the Central Asian periphery in the discourse of modernity (1870-1941).


While photography in early Soviet Union is a well-researched field, researchers addressed hitherto mostly Soviet Russia. The history of photography in the Central Asian Soviet Republics, though, lacks research. This article focuses on the means of production and distribution of photographs taken in Uzbekistan 1926–1937. With Roland Barthes theory of "connotation", it interprets the visual invention of the Soviet Orient. Photographs by Georgij Zel’ma and Maks Penson of Uzbekistan that were published in Soviet mass media are analyzed, determining style, content and function. Through additional textual analysis, I discuss the network of photographers on the periphery and image agents on the centre. Socialist connotations are derived from appropriations of pre-revolutionary photographs accompanied by false textual framing, innovative compositions of ethnographic images and combinations of local cultural symbols with Soviet modernity. As photographers, primarily from Moscow, travelled to Central Asia, they greatly dominated its visual depiction. Although they emphasized Soviet modernity, they also reproduced older stereotypes about the Orient. Besides offering a history on photography, this article also discusses the establishment of Soviet cultural structures between the centre and the periphery as well as the subordinated agency of local actors at the periphery.

Helena Holzberger: National in front of the Camera, Soviet behind it: Central Asia in Press Photography, 1925–1937. In: Journal of Modern European History 16 (4), 2018, S. 487-508. URL:

Cover: © C.H. Beck