I’m always amazed by high-resolution color photos that look as if they’re taken by modern digital cameras but which turn out to be very old–like this one and this one I’ve featured previously in the “Historic Photo” series. This photo depicts a Buddhist monastery on the sleepy streets of a town somewhere in Mongolia–it may be what’s now called Ulaanbataar, the capital, but I can’t be sure. The year was 1913. This was one of a series of photos taken by a Western photographer whose name may have been Stephen Paseo. The reason I’m not certain about these things is that the web page I found this photo (and others) on was translated from Chinese, and Google Translate does funny things to proper names.
Still, regardless of the details, this is an amazing photo that gives us a very rare and clear look into central Asia a century ago. Almost no Westerners reached what was then called Outer Mongolia, which broke off from China proper about the time of China’s 1911 revolution. Thus, Mongolia was a frontier within Asia, a mysterious sparsely-populated land dotted with quaint villages and Buddhist monasteries like this one. Note the ornamental bells and other decorations on the pagoda-shaped structure. The man who has evidently just come out of the door is a Buddhist monk in traditional garb. This must have been an amazing and eye-opening trip for a Westerner, armed with a color camera, in the wilds of Asia more than a century ago.
We’re so used to seeing the distant past in black-and-white, indistinct images that it affects our whole view of what the world must have looked like back then. Seeing a color photo of this quality reminds us that lines were just as straight, faces and landscapes just as detailed, the world just as rich and colorful in the past as it is today in the crispest photo taken with a modern cell phone camera. I’m fascinated by these surprising images of the past and what they make us think about.