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Speaker Series – M. Saandar and J. K. Cluer

August 9, 2018 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

Rephotography of the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Mongolia – 1919-1925: Chasing Roy Chapman Andrews Across the Gobi and Imaging 100 Years of Change

Like most good ideas in Mongolia, the concept of rephotographing the extensive image collection generated by the early 20th century Central Asiatic Expedition sprang up over dinner in an Irish pub in Ulaanbaatar, sometime in 2011-2012. Saandar, land surveyor and map maker, and I, an economic geologist, have been working together in Mongolia since 1997, and over the years we have found that the fun of exploring is never in doubt, nor never disappoints. Rephotographing the Central Asiatic Expedition’s (CAE) amazing 1910s and 1920s views of Gobi landscapes and Urga cityscapes seemed like a natural evolution of our shared interests and specific expertise. For us this was a very attractive project because we both love history, exploration, photography, and Mongolia. And the centennial of the expeditions is just around the corner.
We knew that we’d need to partner with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) because being the original expedition sponsor they hold all of the images and documents in their archives. Michael Novacek and Mark Norell (the original chasers of Roy Chapman Andrews across the Gobi) were supportive of the idea, and subsequently made available their fantastic dedicated staff in the AMNH Research Library. We spent several days in the Research Library in New York and found a lot of high-quality material to work with, and we began to realize that if the rephotography was successful it would help to reveal dramatic changes during those intervening 100 years in Mongolia. Mai Reitmeyer of the AMNH Research Library was a huge help in locating the images and organized scanning them at high resolution – the photos you’ll see in the historic comparative panels in this presentation.
According to our research the major contributors to the CAE photo archive were:
• James B. Shackelford, a Hollywood cinematographer and AMNH director who made some of the first motion pictures in and of Mongolia
• Walter Granger, the lead paleontologist for the expedition, who not only made far-reaching scientific discoveries including the first dinosaur eggs (this was at the Flaming Cliffs), but was also a keen photographer
• Roy Chapman Andrews, who even in the midst of leading the expeditions found time to make photos at Flaming Cliffs
• Yvette Borup Andrews, Roy’s first wife, who’s efforts produced a superb collection of Ulaanbaatar scenes. Seemingly, without Yvette on the mission, there would have been almost no still photos of Ulaanbaatar – history shows her to be a key player in photo documentation
Our first rephotography was at Gandan monastery in 2016, and in October of 2017 we mounted a preliminary expedition to the Flaming Cliffs and camped there several nights under cold and windy skies; the desert’s warning of the first winter blizzards. We used UAV videography when air conditions allowed to quickly scan the expansive cliff front looking for specific landforms featured in the CAE’s photos. We managed to get in two good days of identifying subjects, approximating views, and obtaining high resolution images. In a few places we even felt like we must be standing on exactly the same ground the expedition photographer did, and this was indeed a satisfying sensation.

Preliminary results from the Gobi locations show dramatic landscape changes in the form of cliff retreat that apparently occurs at the rate of several (3-4) meters per century, or 3-4 cm per year in the human time scale. Another way to visualize the cliff retreat is about the width of your smart phone every 2 years – anyway you describe it, it’s rapid change. We will be further documenting and quantifying the rapid changes and possible implications in subsequent missions, but our early ideas are that intense wind, freeze/thaw action, and seismicity combine to undermine the cliffs and eventually topple them over. There is also a human element of erosion as the area is a very popular tourist destination and is virtually unregulated.
From the capital city Ulaanbaatar, of course change has been visually overwhelming in most areas, to the extent that even achieving the same view has Yvette Andrews captured is impossible – a gleaming glass tower is usually in the sight path. However, we have been able to conceptually re-create some of her views and show those buildings that do still exist in today’s altered cityscape. The amazing thing is that so many of the buildings she photographed are still here, somehow saved from the demolition frenzy. It makes one wonder why certain buildings survive massive urbanization, and others don’t.
In this presentation you will meet some of the CAE’s photographers, experience some of their creative work, and learn how Mongolia has changed in the last 100 years from a number of perspectives including landscape evolution, vegetation dynamics and urbanization.

Figure 1. Map showing routes of the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, 1922-1925. Courtesy of Tsogtbaatar Kh.


Figure 2. UPPER: A classic view of Flaming Cliffs with a Dodge car at the base taken by Walter Granger in 1923 that has appeared in several publications, with the same view LOWER captured last fall for comparison. Note the clear evidence of cliff retreat. Interestingly, this photo appeared as Plate LXII of the The New Conquest of Central Asia issued as Volume I of Natural History of Central Asia by AMNH in 1932 with the caption “Granger removing a nest of dinosaur eggs at the Flaming Cliffs, 1925”. Recent photo exif info and geospatial details shown in small inset lower right to assist future rephotographers


Figure 3. UPPER: Exceptional urban composition that Yvette Andrews captured in 1919 showing the administrative buildings of the Russian trading company in Urga. LOWER: The front building still exists as a blue restaurant with green roof in the bustling heart of Ulaanbaatar, though it appears to have sunk into the earth somewhat. It is now dominated by the Wrestling Palace at left and new office/apartment buildings behind. Recent photo exif info and geospatial details shown in small inset lower right that will assist future rephotographers


The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting scholarship in Mongolian Studies. The ACMS Speaker Series are organized in partnership with the U.S. Embassy and the Natsagdorj Library and provides an important platform for researchers engaged in Mongolia to share their experiences and findings with the public. The event promotes information exchange on a variety of subjects related to Mongolia and is free and open to the public.

Co sponsored by American Corner

two men


August 9, 2018
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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