1920 - 1940s
A1938 photographic album, kept in the collection of Armenia’s History Museum, contains dozens of photographs representing the town of Ashtarak and its surrounding villages. These small-scale documentary shots are signed by a photographer named H. Kasparyan, about whose identity we have next to no information.
The album is significant in a number of ways. It gives us important visual evidence regarding the monuments and natural landscapes, the everyday life and labor practices of this region’s inhabitants at a time when the population of Armenia was on the threshold of Stalin's radical socio-economic reforms. Kasparian's photographs are also interesting as examples of unofficial documentary and ethnographic photography. Their unbiased and straightforward aesthetic qualities suggest that Kasparyan was an amateur or perhaps a photographer only making his first steps in the medium. In his representations of Ashtarak’s residents, there is no false festiveness or the kind of obvious theatricality so inherent to propagandistic photography. Instead, Kasparyan transmits the daily routine of the locals in an unfiltered and convincing manner, often hinting at the clear signs of poverty, malaise, and depravation. The photographic collection also localizes this place within the framework of nationalism, presenting the historical monuments of Ashtarak and its adjacent villages – along with the elements of traditional lifestyle - as a binding fabric of collective identity. In this instance, the photographer's direct and searching gaze shares some parallels with the new realism of international, and more particularly American, school of ‘socially-engaged’ photography.
Nevertheless, despite the intimate immediacy of Kasparyan's photographs, the episodes of labor and ethnographic details depicted within them have a surveillance and statistical quality to them. This gives us cause to believe that the photographer had created his album with some official function in mind. Although other photographs made by Kasparyan have not yet come to light, this compilation from Ashtarak is significant enough to be considered one of the more striking manifestations of social-realist approaches in the early stages of Soviet-Armenian documentary photography’s history.
USSR, Armenia, ArmSSR
History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan