Shushan and Vostanig Adoian, Van, c. 1911, photographed by uncredited photographer (image courtesy Dr. Bruce Berberian and The Arshile Gorky Foundation)

Around 1911, mother and son Shushan and Vostanig Adoian visited a local photography studio in Van, a heavily Armenian city near the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. There, they sat for a portrait, one they might send to Setrag Adoian, her husband and his father, in the United States. The absence of that man from the portrait is palpable. It is but the first of many absences and disappearances to disturb a photograph that in time became a memorial object and then artistic source material. Indeed, the portrait seems almost haunted by its own disappearance, its fading as an autonomous object with its own particular orbit and history as it is overtaken by these other narratives. But could autonomy be regained, and a link to its own world reforged? 

In later years Vostanig, by that time a migrant to the United States and an artist using the name Arshile Gorky, was reunited with the photograph and used it as source material for two canvases, monumental pieces that he worked on over a period of decades, and for a great number of drawings that served as studies for the two canvases, as well as navigations of and negotiations with the image of his younger self beside his (by then late) mother. The two canvases are now in major US public art collections: the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The photograph is in a private collection but belongs no less to the world of art, for it has become part of an art historical narrative.  

Hrag Vartanian made just this point at the commencement of Fixed Point Perspective, an ongoing project convening a number of artists to individually and collectively explore the heritage of Ottoman studio photography. As he observed of Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother artworks, “When we discuss the series, we focus on the avant-garde style of the painting and drawing. But what about the photography?” What might we learn, he went on to ask, when we actively contemplate photographs, and indeed search for the photographer responsible for the image of the Adoians? With these key questions, he proposed the Adoian portrait as offering a path into a wider history and culture.  

Of course, a focus on the photographer can often severely circumscribe a photograph. “What was Egypt will become Beato, or du Camp, or Frith,” wrote Douglas Crimp just as the art market was beginning to sink its teeth into photographs, recategorizing and redefining them in the process. Yet the Adoian portrait has not suffered this fate — because an Ottoman Armenian studio photograph does not fit easily into a Eurocentric market-led art history of photography, and because, of course, art has already overtaken it via other means, Gorky the artist now appearing almost as the creator of his own boyhood image. To turn to the photographer in these circumstances has an unusually liberatory potential. It offers the opportunity to untether the photograph from its present moorings, so that it might spiral, in Allan Sekula’s words, not “inward toward the art-system” but “outward toward the world.”

Thus we are faced with both a photograph and a set of questions. Our starting point as we endeavor to spiral outward is the small space of the studio in which the Adoian photograph was made. Identifying the space is hampered by the photograph’s blurred and murky backdrop, and yet with close study, we can begin to match its backdrop with that of contemporaneous studio photographs from Van. Its design is akin to a cloister scene, depicting a series of columns and arches. Most interesting of all is a detail lying outside the frame of the Adoian picture but visible in other photographs, a view of a path — a winding path no less — leading up to a twin-peaked mountain.  

Also found on other photographs is the name of a photographer, Hovhannes Avedaghayan. As we pursue Avedaghayan through his pictures and the scant mentions of him in a variety of sources — from memory books (houshamadyan) to commercial business listings — a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part, the world from which the Adoian portrait hailed.

Avedaghayan was born in 1863 in Van, just as change was afoot in the Armenian world. Above the city, at the monastery complex of Varakavank in the foothills of the twin-peaked Mount Varak, Mgrdich Khrimian, the recently appointed vartabed (abbot) was at work on a series of radical teachings and publications that sought to situate Armenian life in a distinct Armenian geography, and to draw attention to the poverty and oppression faced by the largely rural Armenians who dwelt in those lands, as well as the plight of those forced to migrate. Varakavank became a symbol of a new sense of Armenian identity, one based not just in religion but also in a shared language, history, culture, and, perhaps above all, a shared ancestral homeland — a homeland in need of rescue. 

Hovhannes Avedaghayan, Varakavank, Van, c. 1910.; image published in Vasbouragan, Venice: St. Lazzaro Mkhitarian Dparan, 1930 (image public domain)

There is evidence to suggest that Avedaghayan himself saw Varakavank as a kind of spiritual home. The only photograph thus far traced to which he applied his name by hand to the front depicts Varakavank and an assortment of figures: clergy of the monastery, teachers and students of the attached school, and what might be a group of visiting pilgrims. (In other photographs the name appears as a print label on the reverse sides of mounts.) Another handwritten note is in the skies above: “To you, oh my beautiful nest of Varak, I fly across the infinite expanse.” The words are taken from a poem by Khoren Khrimian, Mgrdich Khrimian’s nephew and director of the Varakavank school. The poem expresses the yearnings of a migrant for his home, yearnings that Avedaghayan understood.  

As a young man Avedaghayan left his native Van for the Russian Caucasus, part of a defining pattern of Armenian migrancy. There he became involved with the emergent Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as the Dashnaktsuthiun (Federation), or simply Dashnaks, founded in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in 1890. The Dashnaks are thought to have been inspired, in part, by a famous speech in which Mgrdich Khrimian blamed the lack of reforms in the Ottoman East on Armenians’ use of peaceful petitions rather than violent weaponry. Thus revolutionary activity became another defining feature of Armenian life — giving definition, it is important to note, not because revolutionary involvement was widespread among Armenians, but because the activity that did exist would play a decisive part in the unfolding of Armenian history. Avedaghayan’s role in the group at this time is unclear but we do know that he was arrested by the Russian authorities (suggesting that his role was potentially an active one) and exiled along with other political prisoners to the notorious penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, off the Siberian coast.

At some point around the turn of the century, Avedaghayan succeeded in escaping from Sakhalin, returning to his home in Van by way of a long journey through Japan, China, India, and Iran. (Were this the life of a European or American photographer, such as the aforementioned Beato, du Camp, or Frith, this would be the stuff of legend.)

Arshile Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother” (c. 1926–1936) at the Whitney Museum of American Art (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Photograph of Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother” (c. 1926-42) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (photo © and by Carolina Miranda, used with permission)

Back in Van, Avedaghayan established what appears to be the city’s first photographic studio. Photography came to Van a little later than in other comparable cities of the region, but followed a familiar pattern of arriving via an Armenian with imported technology and techniques, and largely serving the Armenian community. Avedaghayan’s clientele broadly resembled that of other Armenian studios of the Ottoman East. He pictured a cross-section of local society — families, businesspeople, clerics, and students — but wealthier Vanetsis were predominant.

Studios served Armenian communities, responding to their particular needs — those of a dispersed people. A number of Avedaghayan’s photographs relate, like the Adoian portrait, to the migratory phenomenon. The regional migrations of the sort that Avedaghayan had embarked upon had been part of Armenian life for generations. But by the late 19th century, a new global movement had come to dominate, in which Armenians crossed continents in search of economic opportunity and security, and the US was the favored destination. Photographs such as the Adoians’ were threads that tied people together, part of a global exchange between those who had left their ancestral homelands and those who stayed behind. They brought people together in another sense, to gather around them, to look and converse, to tell stories, and to remember loved ones. Photographs were the objects around which families, friends, and communities adhered, in and between the Old and the New World.   

The flower in Vostanig’s hands is a motif repeated across many of Avedaghayan’s migrant photographs, evidently placed there by the photographer to serve as signs and gestures of love and friendship for the photographs’ intended recipients. As photographic technologies and techniques were similar from one city to the next, perhaps only in such small details can we begin to observe a particular individual at work behind the lens.

What did mark Avedaghayan’s studio as different was his involvement in a more unusual, clandestine form of picture-making. He had not entirely left the revolutionary life behind, and served as a photographer for Dashnak activists in the Van region. Revolutionary groups, especially the Dashnaks, specialized in visual propaganda. They understood the role photographs could play in gathering people together as communities — their images of revolutionary heroes can be approached as one large nation-building enterprise. They understood, too, the vast narrative potential of photographs; the one they encouraged was of heroic and righteous struggle against oppressive overlords, and photographs proved instrumental in forging mythic, larger-than-life personas for activists.  

Hovhannes Avedaghayan. Khisarji Kevork’s family, Van, 1910s (image courtesy Armen Shahinian collection)

Such figures, in the end, became all too much the instruments of fantasy. The presence of some revolutionaries in the eastern provinces gave the Ottoman government a pretext for the wholesale removal of Armenian populations in 1915, under the cover of war. It was an utterly violent removal, undertaken via massacre and forced migration to the unforgiving climes of the Syrian desert. And it was the violent removal of not only people but also their culture and history.  

Van was one of the few places where Armenians defended themselves against these machinations. Avedaghayan was certainly involved in defending the city’s Armenian sections — as were practically all Armenians, even the young Vostanig — and there is a distinct probability that he was involved in creating the photographs of that defense. Thousands of Vanetsis were saved — but they would never again dwell in their homeland. More than 100,000 of them subsequently marched eastward on foot; two-thirds reaching their destination in the Caucasus. Though some managed to travel further still, the vast majority stayed, under very difficult conditions. Shushan Adoian died in 1919 in Yerevan amid a sea of starving refugees from the Ottoman Empire; Vostanig sailed for the US in 1920; Hovhannes Avedaghayan lived in Baku, where he died in 1923 at the age of 60.

Thus to uncover the maker of the Adoian photograph is also to uncover part of the often shrouded, ignored, and misrepresented history and visual culture from which it emerged. This is possible because Armenians occupied a highly visual world. Theirs were lives lived with, among, and through photographs and other images.

What can be said of the visual culture of the Ottoman Armenian photographic studio? My own assessment is that it is difficult to make a case for Avedaghayan’s photographs, and indeed those produced by comparable local studios, as formally distinctive or innovative. A globalized medium, photography replicated its forms across the world, its methods being imported into each new place as surely as were its technologies. Studying photographs collectively rather than individually helps to lay bare this essential truth. Ottoman Armenian studio photography required the intervention — and idiosyncratic vision — of a Gorky to turn one of its number from a repetitious or “unoriginal” example into something of interest to the art world.

However, Armenian-made photographs are distinctive in a sense, for they were made in and circulated through a distinctive milieu. Their forms and conventions might have been familiar, prosaic, perhaps even hackneyed at times, and yet they took on new life and meaning when created and deployed in the unique circumstances of the Armenian world.

And they carry the searing mark of unique lives. Take the Adoians. When they posed before Avedaghayan’s lens, Shushan and Vostanig were taking part in the same process as hundreds of others before them. Yet they did so in order to speak of their own lives, to declare their uniqueness. The particularity of the photograph lies not in pose or composition but in those lives. It is an object that not only records life but plays a role and has a force within it. Armenians visiting studios tended to understand this about photographs, their power, their promise, their possibility. 

Aram Jibilian’s limited edition poster project for Fixed Point Perspective, which includes the following images, “Ottoman Armenian Figure in an Empty Landscape”(2017), backdrop painting by Simon Agopyan, 1910, and “Dust in the Bellows” (2017), backdrop photograph by unknown Ottoman Armenian photographer, 1912. (image courtesy the artist)

Today, photographs can possess these qualities still — but only if we allow them. The artists involved in Vartanian’s Fixed Point Perspective project work with Ottoman Armenian photographs. This does not position photographs as passive objects, raw source material (in the way the Adoian portrait is regularly perceived in relation to Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother series). Rather, these contemporary artists work with Ottoman Armenian photographic culture in acts of engagement and renewal, even what we might call collaboration with long-gone studio photographers and their subjects. This is what is frequently misunderstood about Gorky’s works — they were created in partnership and part of their power has its source in the original photograph, and the studio and culture from which it sprang. 

The project’s contemporary artists have produced their artworks in conversation, in solidarity, with their century-old partners. Photographs thus continue to bring people together, to bind the fractured world. One piece in particular has a powerful hold on my mind, Aram Jibilian’s print work “Ottoman Armenian Figure in an Empty Landscape,” in which the studio portrait of an Armenian man becomes his ghostly apparition in the Armenian homelands. It speaks of the disappearance of a people and their culture, their absence from the land and from history, and the way in which that absence can haunt us through photographs. But it also speaks of a return from nothingness — a reappearance. It is the sort of return that can occur only when we open our eyes and both converse and commune with the past.

A view of Aram Jibilian’s “Ottoman Armenian Figure in an Empty Landscape”(2017), backdrop painting by Simon Agopyan, 1910, and “Dust in the Bellows” (2017), backdrop photograph by unknown Ottoman Armenian photographer, 1912, both part of limited edition multiple available in the Minerva gallery in Denver, Colorado during the Fixed Point Perspective installation in the Fall of 2017. (photo by Stefan Hagen, courtesy Minerva Projects)

David Low is a photographic historian specializing in the Ottoman Armenian world and intersections of photography, migration, and exile. He received his PhD from the Courtauld Institute. His book Picturing...