SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Miss Maeve Nolan

  • Research


Maeve Nolan
Miss Maeve Nolan
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Thesis title:
Early Silk Road photography: A case study of how and why Dr. Maynard Owen Williams, Litt. D. (1888-1963) photographed the Silk Road during the Citroen-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition (1931-1932)
Internal Supervisors

PhD Research

Early Silk Road photography appeared during the mid 19th century in Europe and early 20th century in America. This was a time of world exploration, colonies and the creation of new sciences for the study of these “new” lands, for example geography and anthropology. By chance this period also saw the creation of photography in the late 1830’s and its rapid development into a transportable medium.

As a result, numerous fact-finding explorations were made across the world, supported by European, and later American, governments and institutions. These expeditions often had photographers attached to them to record the exploration. The resulting photographic images were utilized for a number of purposes; for geographical mapping, to popularize government and missionary activity in the area, to be kept in government records, utilized for “scientific” purposes, public exhibitions, accompanying lectures back in the West, appearing in books, bought by tourists, kept as personal mementoes, sold and collected by people in the West as curiosities, used in magic lantern shows and postcards and, by the end of the 19th century, printed in magazines.

My PhD examines early photography of the Silk Road through a close analysis of the work of one of the last of the early Silk Road photographers, Maynard Owen Williams (1888-1963). I have chosen Williams’ photographs of the Citroen-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition (1931-1932), which re-traced the route of Marco Polo, as a case a study. These photographs present some of the most technically proficient, romantic, painterly and widely distributed examples of early Silk Road photography and appeared alongside articles Williams wrote for the influential American publication, the National Geographic Magazine. Therefore, a large part of my research will take place in the National Geographic archives in Washington D.C.

Williams’ work is considered important enough to be sold at auction houses like Christies, kept safe in the National Geographic archives and even written about, though briefly, in Bendavid-Val, Odysseys and Photographs: Four National Geographic Field Men (2008). To my knowledge however, there has been no extensive scholarly examination of his work and, more specifically, no academic analysis of his photographs taken on the Silk Road. The selection of Williams’ work from this expedition that was presented within the NGSM’s pages is representative of the West’s - and more specifically America’s - changing relationship with Asia during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Through my research I intend to shed light on this little studied photographer and expedition, and gain a better understanding of how and why Williams took this series of photographs. I hope to encourage a better understanding of the impact these photographs had on the Western world’s conceptions of the Silk Road and the Orient. I believe that such research will in turn help to draw attention to the as yet unrecognized genre of early Silk Road photography.


  • Visiting Scholar in 2018 with The George Washington University (Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs)


  • Early Silk Road Photography
  • Silk Road Studies
  • Early Photography
  • Cross-Cultural Studies