Issue #55  4/3/2003
Book: From Kashmir to Kabul--The Photographs of John Burke and William Baker, 1860-1900

I have always been a fan of John Burke's and William Baker's early images from the areas that still cause the Western world fits. While there have been a few examples of their images and snippets of information in other books and publications, these short passages only provided a taste of the real thing. Finally, Omar Khan has built a comprehensive picture of this important duo's work and the story behind the images in his new book, From Kashmir to Kabul--The Photographs of John Burke and William Baker, 1860-1900.

Clark Worswick, author of The Last Empire: Photography in British India, calls this book, "a monumental body of work," noting that "For over 15 years the historian Omar Khan has spent a considerable treasure--of both physical capital and his own resources--on gathering what is surely the greatest celebration of the work of John Burke...that will ever be assembled. Extraordinary!" And indeed it is an extraordinary piece of work.

Khan has done much new and detailed research for this fine book. I am frankly in awe of his ability to find so much information about these relatively obscure (but no longer) photographers and the particular images that they made on their, at times, quite dangerous travels.

From Kashmir to Kabul is much more than a well-researched book. While it is an important resource for any student of photography, it is also a vital history of this area. This geography has long been contended by many factions--viciously at times. From what is now Kashmir in northern India through Pakistan and finally Afghanistan, this area has laid a trap for all who coveted it. The early skirmishes and participants are all well documented in Burke's imagery and in Khan's skilled writing.

The story Khan weaves is an important one that also provides a balanced historical context to today's difficulties in these areas. As the famous saying runs, "He who does not know his history is doomed to repeat it." Burke and Baker documented an area replete with historical lessons for all of us, and Khan gives us the background details to these fine images. The combination of words and imagery tell a tale of deceit and long antagonism towards foreign occupiers. It would be a book that I would recommend to those in the Bush administration and others with an interest in learning about such encounters here. It appears to me that many right now are a little light on their cultural knowledge and history of this territory. Such a lack of understanding has resulted in many previous and disastrous pitfalls for foreign forces. Would it surprise you to learn that a world war was almost sparked with an event called the Panjdeh incident in 1885? This was a potentially devastating war prevented through a last-minute diplomatic meeting between the amir of Afghanistan and the British viceroy of India. This meeting, by the way, was photographed by Burke.

This 208-page book with 136 photographs is available from Pestel Press and Mapin Publishing, and at $65 (discounted down to $45) is a very worthwhile investment for any library. But please read Khan's historical context to gain a better insight into today's headlines than what is currently provided on television. And while you don't have to read the book with this intent to benefit from it as pure photo history, it seems to me that we all need to gain a better understanding of what is happening around us lest we repeat history once again.