Concerning certain issues of Mongolian historical photography studies (End of 19th century to 1957)

By B. Baasanjargal 
B. Baasanjargal graduated from the National University of Mongolia, at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Department of History, as a historian and history teacher in 1998. 
     In 2013, she received her master’s degree at the Mongolian history department of the Mongolian National University of Education. Her thesis was “Concerning certain issues of Mongolian historical photography studies (End of 19th century to 1957)”.
     She worked during 1998-2010 at the Mongolian National Museum of Mongolia as a registration officer of treasury and at the repository department, as a research worker, and as a head of the treasury, repository and conservation department. 
     Since 2010, the Mongolian People's Party has been planning to establish a “Museum of Independence”. She is currently working as a researcher in charge of collecting and researching exhibits related to Mongolian history during twentieth century for the museum.

Baasanjargal 2013 "Concerning certain issues of Mongolian historical photography studies (End of 19th century to 1957)", master's thesis approved by Mongolian State University of Education., <your access date>


Concerning certain issues of Mongolian historical photography studies
(End of 19th century to 1957)

  • FIRST CHAPTER: Photographs Taken By Foreigners Of Mongolia
             1.1 Photographs taken by tourists that traveled through Mongolia
             1.2 Russian and Chinese photograph Studios in Mongolia

  • SECOND CHAPTER: Establishment Of Mongolian Photography Agency and Its Operation
             2.1  Institute of Literature and Script and Mongolian photographers
             2.2  Establishment of the State Cinema and Photography Agency
             2.3  Research Conducted in Some Photography  


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In Mongolia, photography was first called “suuder dur” (shadow figure), “suuder zurag” (shadow image) and after the people’s revolution, it was called “batiar zurag” (picture image) and eventually it was renamed “gerel zurag” (light image).        

In his Mongolian Language Dictionary, the scholar Ya. Tsevel defined it in this way: “Photography is an act of developing the form and shape of an object on a special film that is sensitive to light; also, the photography that developed likewise and the entity in charge of taking photography is called photography agency”. It can become a main research tool and an invaluable source.

The fact that there are high capacity photographic tools and sufficient historical material provides a vast array of opportunities for research development in this area. It includes an observation of historical photography as one part of a research work.  

Photography offers insights into lifestyle, properties, dress, accessories, faces of the people of the time, building, food and ritual, which reflect social and economic changes. 

Importance of studying the topic: In recent times, there has been a growing interest in the daily lives of Mongolians, with numerous autobiographies appearing in print. In addition, photography has secured a significant place as a critical research tool. To summarize, studies of photography related to Mongolian history encompassing the end of 19th century to early 20th century, yet it has barely been studied.

There is a need to carefully examine and interpret the historical photographs from different points of view, such as timeline, historical circumstances, origins, content, photographer’s motivation, documentation, other images, and correlation to historical events.

It is important to note that there have scarcely been studies on intention, physical properties, content, photographic technique and approach. Unfortunately, invaluable documents and photographs have not survived.

One instance of disappearance of historical materials and photographs kept in the archives is an unfortunate incident when valuable documents and pictures that were historical witness to Mongolian history and maintained at the Central Archives of the Mongolian People's Party were burnt during the chaos took place during political election of 2008. At the time the archives maintained approximately ....................... historical pictures which were Mongolia's historical documents and of 20th century history, autobiography of the members of the Mongolian People's Party and …...... deposit unit under …....... logs related to the autobiography.

In addition, we need to pay attention to the fact that issues concerning the records, maintainence, protection, categories, definition, videos, cataloging, usage history, current state, future development issues of photographs maintained at the state foundations, archives, museums and individuals have not been cared for to an adequate degree or raised as a matter in question.

Source and principal research instruments: When the Institute of Literature and Scripts was established for the first time in Mongolia, scientific and research work was intensified, hence much work was completed in regards to foundation of a photography reserve, small number of items were collected and in 1924 the photography laboratory was formed.

For my thesis work “Concerning certain issues of Mongolian historical photography studies” (End of XIX Century to 1959), historical photographs preserved at the National Central Archives of Mongolia (NCA), Center for Audio Visual and Photo Records, Photography Reserve of the National Museum of Mongolia, Academy of Sciences, Reserve of the Institute of History, Central Archives of Mongolian People's Party, Special Archives of the General Intelligence Agency, Photography Center of the “Mon Sudar” Publishing House and historical pictures of a number of individuals were used as my primary sources and principal instruments.

Research works and manuscripts of Mongolian scientists are preserved at the Reserve of Institute of History, Academy of Sciences, and well over 4000 historical pictures are preserved, of which the majority belong to the period after the 1920s.

Approximately 56,800 photographs pertinent to political, social, economic, party and state leaders and individuals of 1913-2007 and a photography album consisting of 342 log units pertinent to historical events of 1920-2008 are preserved at the Center for Audio Visual and Photo Records of the NCA. Among them pictures related to monks, aristocracy, people's revolution under the Bogd Khanate of Mongolia and those showing social life of the beginning of early XIX and XX century are the principal sources.

A large number of XX century photographs, which reflect many developments in XX century history, are held and well preserved at the Central Documentary Archives of the political party and public institution of the NCA. These photographs were not preserved under special logs and are held as pictures glued on to party member's application profile, statement of employment, or account records.

The account log of the Photography Reserve of the National History Museum of Mongolia lists 6300 photographs registered under order, over 3000 unregistered and approximately a total of 10 000 historical, rare photographs is a very valuable source. These photographs reflect political, cultural, art, and people's way of life and are to a large extent, political, social, and individual portraits.

For the 50th anniversary of the People's Revolution, the Photography Reserve of the Museum passed a resolution to establish a “Mongolian People's Revolutionary Museum,” and it decided that “Negatives and photographs pertaining to the history of Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party and people's revolution preserved at the Photography Reserve, Academy of Sciences of People's Republic of Mongolia shall be transferred to the Department of Revolutionary History, National Central Museum, hence, the Photography Reserve shall be established.” [1] This played an important roel on forming the stock of the Photography Reserve.

The Special Archives, General Intelligence Agency primarily holds photographs concerning social state, autobiography of the politically repressed, confidential material related to missions and historical photographs that were not made publicly available. Consequently, there is a need to introduce them and employ them as valuable research sources by identifying the historical events and people's autobiographies.

In addition, the photographs taken by the foreign expeditions, scientists, tourists, and foreigners who lived in and passed through Mongolia between the middle of the XIX century and beginning of the XX are essential research materials and are critical sources for ethnic research.

The photographs of the early XX century of Mongolia were usually taken for clients and photographs and can be mainly classified as amateur. Moreover, historical photographs preserved at the hands of the people were used as additional sources for this research.

Research goal: Through this work, we aimed at summarizing the current state of research of historical source photographs relating to the XX century; determining further research patterns, identifying research methodology, conducting the research on historical photographs with scientific basis, attracting researchers' and scientists' attention to further use of these photographs for research.

Within the framework of this research, we propose the following objectives:

            First: Conduct analysis on historical overview of the photographs related to Mongolian history; history of the development of photography in Mongolia, taking the documentary photography into account; collection steps and principles; structure; unique features; value of information; level which conveys history of Mongolia and research made on photography reserves;

            Second: Through our research, demonstrate that photography is a historical source material which reflects specific periods in Mongolia; conduct comparative research on some photographs and on the basis of determining how history of Mongolia was documented on them, develop research models and methodology for researching photography as a source and demonstrate its importance;

            Third:  Study the preservation and protection of the photographs and demonstrate how this shall be connected to the photography studies.  

Innovative aspect of the research: The innovative part of this thesis is the first overview of the history of Mongolian photography of the past century. Moreover, it offers a methodology to study and interpret historical photographs.

Research methodology: A principle of historical realism, analysis, summarizing, systemizing, investigative-interpreting, and comparative historical methodology were primarily applied for writing this thesis.

Literary sciences, practical importance:

[1] Resolution of the meeting of the Central Political Bureau of the MPRP. NCA. Log-388. D-1. Log -110. Page-1-2

  • During the research process, over 150,000 historical photographs covering the end of the XIX century to the 50s of the XX century were reviewed.
  • Photographs included in the research were categorized into 5 main areas such as political, social, economic, cultural and military-defense, with chronology as the basis of such assignments. Moreover, a methodology to categorize photography according to its main features, namely, an object taken, location, period, content, type and genre, information carrier/messenger, photographic material and size was developed.
  • State of the society, lifestyles of the people, changes occurring in Mongolians' social life, clothing, household appliances and their evolution will be carefully examined and applied as primary research instruments.
  • Deepen the research that explicates society, politics, individuals and Mongolians' lifestyles and provide new knowledge and information.
  • As the historical photographs preserved in most places are inclined to be duplicates, they may have similar origins or distributed from one place, it is important to carry out one consolidated research by introducing these historical photographs maintained in above-mentioned places into research.
  • This work can be used as a manual for university training, museum reserve research, exhibition and promotion.