Mannerheim as Photographer

Gustaf Mannerheim practicing photography in Finland just before departing on his secret military mission to China.


One of the riches treasures that Gustaf Mannerheim brought back from his journey along the Silk Road from 1906 to 1908 is his very considerable collection of photographs. The pictures contain a huge quantity of information, and the collection amounts to a colourful reportage of a bygone world and of peoples known to few Westerners at the time.

As a military intelligence officer, Mannerheim saw the camera simply as a tool. He would use a camera when appropriate, but photography was not one of his enduring hobbies. He likely first became acquainted with photography as an intelligence gathering technique at military academy in St. Petersburg, and he later photographed horses that he procured for the Imperial Stable. In the 1890’s, photography was also a novelty in vogue among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie of St. Petersburg, a fad that Mannerheim would have been familiar with.

For his secret mission to China, Mannerheim bought a state-of-the-art Ernemann Klapp and a spare camera, which used the same plate-glass system. Ten days before departing for China, he visited his family at Björnholmen, a villa just outside Helsinki, where he practiced his technique. “Gustaf photographed everything and everyone, he is so eager to learn enough,” his sister Sophie wrote about the visit.


Ernemann Klapp

A popular camera among explorers in 1906.

The Ernemann Klappkamera was a fixed-objective, collapsible plate camera with a wooden, self-casing enclosure and a focal plane shutter. It had a movable front panel, which allowed limited perspective control, as to keep verticals straight. “Very elegantly constructed, coated with leather, polished ebony,” according to a Finnish dealer’s catalogue from 1905. Ernemann of Dresden, Germany, manufactured Klapps from 1901 to 1926. They were available in a variety of sizes. Mannerheim’s 9 x 12 cm camera used plates of the same size as studio cameras today. The Klapp was a popular camera among explorers, and Ernemann even manufactured a tropical version for very hot and humid regions.

Techniques and Film

The Klapp’s aperture was set as with a modern (manual) camera, but setting the focal plane shutter was in those days quite complicated. Shutter times were regulated by two different knobs, setting the shutter’s slit-width and the shutter tension. Different combinations of these produced the full range of possible shutter times.

The sensitivity of the film also complicated photography. By today’s standards, the film used in the early 1900’s was quite slow, probably 2 to 4 on the ISO scale, whereas modern all-round films are about 400. That means a photo exposed for 1/125 second on modern film would have required about one second back then. Through trial and error, Mannerheim figured out the proper exposure times for different movements—a walking person, horse, train, and so on—and wrote them in his notebook. He didn’t use any artificial light and didn’t make use of any wide-angle equipment. He was more or less unfamiliar with panorama techniques.

Besides being slow, the film was only blue-sensitive, and produced somewhat unusual hues. Yellows and reds came out much darker than with modern film, while blues came out much lighter. Below are images showing how the colour was skewed: on the left is a modern black-and-white photo, in the centre is a colour photo and on the right is the same photo as it would have appeared using Mannerheim’s film in 1906.

The blue-sensitive film is why people in Mannerheim’s pictures often appear rather swarthy. You could perhaps say that the film underlined the existing class division; the mandarins’ skin remained pale, but the tanned farmers and soldiers turned even darker.

Mannerheim developed the films himself en route, and even made contact copies on a photographic paper named Velox, one of the early silver papers.


Photograph of Muzart Pass in the Tian Shan Range by Gustaff Mannerheim, 1907.

Landscapes form a considerable part of Mannerheim’s 1,300 photographs, which is quite natural considering his military tasks. The pictures often show some sort of obstacle, such as a river, a steep mountainside or a narrow pass. Many of these pictures seem to be taken only for military purposes, and don’t appear very arranged at all. Some others, on the other hand, seem to lack military value and seem to be taken only for aesthetic reasons.

In his diary, Mannerheim expresses his admiration for the mighty landscapes, but the best landscape photos are not those with pure sceneries, but those in which he covers the progression of his caravan – often in a spectacular surrounding. In these photos, Mannerheim makes a thorough composition, and the sense of depth is strong.


Photograph of Kyrgyz women by a yurt in the foothills of the Tian Shan range by Gustaf Mannerheim, 1907.

Committed to his secret mission, Mannerheim photographed military activities and fortifications wherever he could. Still, military intelligence was not the only aspect of this journey. The most interesting photos in the Mannerheim collection are the ones he took in his capacity as an ethnologic field researcher. They form a unique travelogue of Inner Asia that tells of peoples and cultures that are now largely extinct, or at least very much changed. We are introduced to numerous peoples: Kirghiz, Afghans, Uyghurs, Yugurs, Tibetans and even Chinese Jews – just to name a few. Life as it was a hundred years ago is preserved in these images, from everyday drudgery to festive occasions. Socially Mannerheim moves with a surprising agility, and seems genuinely interested in a variety of things. We meet with haughty mandarins and lowly beggars, local constabulary and opium smokers, nomads of the steppes and merchants of the oasis towns.


Portrait of Pan Daren, a mandarin in Yarkand, by Gustaf Mannerheim, 1907.

As a photographer, Mannerheim is at his best in his portraits. These pictures still exude a refreshing spontaneity, the persons seem so alive and the situation so vivid every time you look at the photos. The portraits also bear witness to his skilful direction: the sessions appear to have been quite relaxed in spite of the fact that many of his subjects certainly had never seen a camera before, and perhaps not even a Westerner. Mannerheim succeeds in getting closer to his subjects than many other explorer-photographers. He moves around remarkably smoothly whether his subject is a powerful viceroy or an inmate of a poorhouse. These images are often well composed and the background is chosen with discernment. One of Mannerheim’s enduring interests was horses, and so he also photographed horse-portraits—in fact, there are lots of them.


Photograph of Kyrgyz horse race in the Alai Valley of southern Kyrgyzstan by Gustaf Mannerhiem, 1907.

Beside the portraits, Mannerheim’s most interesting pictures are those we today would classify as reportage. He photographed horse-riding games, performances, festivals, the arduous progress of the expedition itself and scenes from everyday life in Imperial China. He also documented his meetings with high-ranking officials. Mannerheim did this as a reportage photographer should: without interfering with the subjects in any way, keeping a certain distance. He somehow managed to be invisible, even though the sizeable camera must have attracted attention, and the act of photographing itself was a much slower and more complicated procedure than it is nowadays.

Whatever the subject, dignitaries or horses, Mannerheim always retained a certain matter-of-factness, a kind of scientific detachment in his photography. His photography was purely documentary: at no time was he, for example, tempted to try bizarre or unusual angles or new and surprising compositions.

Mannerheim brought back an impressive collection of photographs. All are fully documented as to aperture, weather conditions and so on. The negatives are now a hundred years old and show signs of slow deterioration. This is partly because photographic film in those days was nitrate-based, which made it both highly flammable and, eventually, self-destructing. Luckily, the collection has already been digitized for coming generations and many photographs have been reprinted in various books, including translations of Mannerheim’s travelogue into English, Chinese and Swedish.

Slide Show

Peter Sandberg is a Finnish photographer, photo editor and book designer. He has worked as the photo editor for two books on Mannerheim’s journey across Asia. This essay is adapted from alecture Sandberg gave to a Centennial Symposium on Mannerheim’s Asia expedition held in Urumqi, China, in 2006.