Claudine Doury

Camera Obscura

Claudine Doury’s bio tells us that she lives and works in Paris, but it would be more accurate to say that she lives and dreams there. As for work, it happens in the faraway places where her dreams, instincts, and friendships take her (aided and abetted by magazine assignments, grants, and awards). The places are often exotic—Crimea, Siberia, Tahiti, Central Asia—but the photos are not, because Doury is a traveler rather than a tourist, a repeated visitor rather than a reporter pressed for time. Russia is a long-standing passion: She learned the language in high school, and her decision to “take the leap,” as she says, into professional photography after ten years as a picture researcher coincided with the breakup of the USSR. She took the native peoples of Siberia—an interest sparked years earlier by a place-name in an atlas—as the subject of a book in 1999, eight years after her first visit, just as she turned a 1994 report on Artek, a former Soviet youth camp in Crimea, into a book ten years later. And her successive journeys to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Xinjiang province of China between 2002 and 2004 resulted in the Loulan Beauty album, from which the thirty-six photos on view here were taken.

Each of these new photos is charged with exquisite tensions, first of all between the sheer beauty of the image and its formal rigor, but also between the immediacy of the colors, textures, gazes, and gestures and the elusiveness of what is actually going on. Before our eyes and behind the often elliptical captions, there are a multitude of untold stories of people and places in a crossroads region of millennial globalization. Lola, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2002, shown peering down from the other side of a dusty bus window, was preparing to look for work in Moscow when Doury met her, but she dreamed of going to the United States, and now lives in Minnesota. The former port of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, 2003, shows the back of a curiously costumed teenager (returning from a dance rehearsal, the caption explains); the title includes the word former because the continually shrinking Aral Sea is now sixty miles away. Assiel (“Honey” in Kirghiz) Barskoön, Kirghizstan, 2004, seen lying down mummy style in a narrow folding bed, is a makeup artist living in Moscow, but a job on a film shoot gave her the opportunity to visit her father in her hometown.

As for the “Loulan Beauty” of the title, she is a 4,000-year-old mummy discovered in northwest China. With her waist-length braids and colorful dress, the enigmatic mummy (thought by ethnographers to be of European origin, like others found in the region) is considered by Doury an ancestor of the young women she met in her travels, such as the equally mysterious Faïrouz, Fatima’s Daughter, Wearing the Traditional Silk Uzbek Dress. Khan Atlas, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, 2002, who seems to be caught in slow motion as she looks toward the venerable Islamic monuments in the distance. There is the stuff of dreams (and films) in these photos, the disparate threads of a story we’re invited to weave back together for ourselves, or, in more contemporary terms, to edit from an array of establishing shots, closeups, freeze-frames, transition shots. Whether we opt to privilege documentary, fiction, or a mix of the two, we are never voyeurs but Doury’s fellow travelers, and fellow dreamers.

Miriam Rosen