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John Delaney

Kazakh Golden Eagle Nomads

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“Fine horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakhs.” – Ancient Kazakh Proverb

Nobody knows exactly when man tamed the golden eagle of Central Asia. Herodotus refers to nomadic hunters in 5th Century B.C. Genghis Khan is said to have had over 5,000 “eagle riders” in his personal guard. We do know that since the 15th Century, nomadic Kazakh tribes on horseback with Golden eagles have roamed freely across the borders of what is today Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Western Mongolia.

Every fall, soon after the first snowfall these majestic men will head up into the mountains in search of prey.  They will lose their eagles on any unsuspecting fox, rabbit, and even wolf.  At one time this hunt provided needed food and furs for harsh winters. Today it has become an honorable tradition and a right of passage for the Kazakh men.

But at the dawn of the 21st Century, the nomadic way of life is fragile and in danger of being eradicated.  History has long threatened these legendary horsemen: the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s purges and China’s cultural revolution drove roaming Kazakhs to the mountains and valleys of Western Mongolia, where they found refuge and freedom to live as they have for centuries.

I have traveled twice to the far western edge of Mongolia to photograph the Kazakh nomads before these old traditions are lost forever. I shot this work with both large and medium format, and all with natural light. The project has been well received, winning a number of awards including the 2008 IPA/Lucie “Discovery of the Year”.



John Delaney (1963) is an American photographer based in NYC. When not shooting he operates a small traditional B&W printing lab. His client list includes Bruce Davidson, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebovitz.


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John Delaney



Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

60 thoughts on “john delaney – kazakh golden eagle nomads”

  1. John –

    I don’t why you haven’t been on my radar before. Your work is so heartwarming..As someone who strongly believes in the importance of honoring lineage (of photographers) it makes me abundantly happy to see how you have been inspired by Worlds in a Small Room..I cherish my copy. For me the strongest of your images shown here are the interior / backdrop portraits, you’ve done them so well. But the getting there and the doing, that is a sizable credit to you as well..I think that the pressure to have work that is original and groundbreaking often steps on the rewards of working in a lineage..where would we be without Penn and Davidson and Avedon? And where would the world of photography be without photographers who not only respect but grow from their achievements?

    My only question about these as a series is that it feels like the treatment of the inner / outer world shots differs, and I don’t mean in authorship/vision as much as it for me, the change in the light and possibly film stock or way of printing shifted, and in that I felt like I’d like to see them in two bodies..but this is a small thing and may be an erroneous perception..maybe it is a reflection on your handling of MF to LF? What do you think?

    Congratulations..I wonder if you ‘covered’ this or if there are many more eagle riders for you to photograph? Even though you have done so much with this, I’d like to see more..and what a glorious book is possible from your work.

    I’d also love to learn more about your printing services..would you please send me details at erica at ericamcdonaldphoto.com?

    You must have some stories to tell about how the eagles felt about the MF and LF cameras..

  2. absolutely love it =)

    I was expecting photographs on the “artistic” side but I like how you documented the people and their eagles together, although I would’ve loved to see closeup portraits of 16 and 21 with eagles alongside. Its amazing how much personality the animals have.. awesome work


  3. apologies, rule breaking..

    but I looked again, it isn’t about your handling of MF and LF..something else

    Such rich imagery. A bow to you..

  4. straight no nonsense portraiture. the use of Large format always seems to reveal something in the sitter even[in fact especially] in ‘formal’ work like this. They really are very very good. there is a part of me of course that is saying “they are all mainly the same shot”, and while they are, the detail captured lifts them up so that we see quite clearly ‘individuals’ and the formal ‘record’ shot style ceases to matter as much. I suppose that to a certain extent format dictates style. What I mean is had you shot this on 35mm it would have had a somewhat different flavour to these. You didnt of course so thats academic…i am rambling now so i will shut up. Hope I get to see prints of these one day.

  5. the interior portraits shot against backgrounds are breathtaking.

    i think you could lose images 20 and 21.

    i think you could also drop 2-3 of the landscapes which to a certain extent were repeating each other; although the portraits repeated each other in some way as well, they have so many fascinating idiosyncracies that they still work.

    cheers, enjoyed that.

  6. Very big work, your portraits are absolutely magnificent, I like the landscapes, this wait… and this end with the flight! Just one question, why to have chosen the black & white? I saw on your site that you had a part of this work in color?
    Congratulations and thank you for the sharing.
    best, audrey

  7. Gustavo Aragon Garcia

    the pictures speak for them selfs thats the way have to be no to much words amazing just amazing i want to see it in print.
    sorry for my english

  8. Portraits of exotic people. I was wondering why these were in B&W rather than color, but then I read the photographer is a B&W printer. I think the digital conversions could have been done a lot better, but if the photographer’s specialty is traditional we printing, I can how that could happen.

    The work is o.k., but McCurry does this kind of stuff so much better (I’ve been through his book “Portraits” a hundred times at least), so it’s hard to get excited about this essay.

  9. Jim – I have McCurry’s Portraits book as well and so many of those seem too posed and the same shot over and over… However – Thats what one is to expect in a book of portraits by one photographer it think. I see what you’re saying though, however, what I liked best about these photos is that they are in B&W and they seemed to come from another, more primitive era in photography. I like that feeling because it really seems to fit with the people and their culture.

    At one point I started to think about how these would be worked into a story and I do feel that they would need to be narrowed down better. As it is right now, it appears that there were so many subjects in this tribe and each had a way of personalising “their” bird. I would have like to see more of the birds flying and doing their thing, rather than sitting, perched on each person’s arm. The majestic terrain and wide shots give a presence to these people. They appear small, their ways feel right for their habitat. The major cities and hustling people are another world, no where near, that life doesn’t matter here. Their life is one with the world not slaves to it.

    It even felt to me that this is something one would see in a museum of natural history. These people appear to be are relics of a time before Europe had introduced their culture to the west. like the Inuit but more primitive.
    The funny thing though, is these are people from the East. People, I personally have generally thought had more technology due to trade with the west and far east. Even people in Tibet seem to be more up to date. I like to know now that life like this has remained unaltered all though it is threatened.

  10. Really beautiful work John. Amazing birds and lives of these people. I especially love when you got into the portraits of children and women as well as the more posed portraits of the men with their birds ( I think just a few of those (men w/birds) are a bit repetitive and you maybe should just keep the best ones). I just love 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21. I disagree with someone about 20 and 21. I think 21 is amazingly beautiful!, love the hint of the bird to the left, its more about her, she is beautifully interesting and I would love to own this photograph. I also really like 20 because it shows us a different part of the story and this life. Well done.

  11. Brilliant, classic, oldstyle portraiture. Stunning tones, striking personalities shining through. The reportage part somehow little stiff; in my honhest opinion it would be better either to concentrate on portraits alone or work on the essaistic part bit harder and deeper. Still, remarkable photographs.

    Are you familiar with Tomasz Gudzowaty’s “Of Eagle and Man”? With this excellent essay in mind, I would even stronger suggest to go the portrait route.

  12. It is very clear that we see a master printer at work! A pure joy to look at these great faces and this barren landscape. This is b&w photography at it’s best! The images have the feel of a real b&w print on my monitor! Superb work!

    The only thing that really bugs me is the topic. I cannot say how many times I have seen these Mongolian riders with their eagles in publications and films. Uhhh, not again – I thought when I saw the opening image. It seems as if every photographer has to take a picture of them while in Mongolia. However it is good to see that John shows us a side of them which I haven’t seen before, the quiet portrait inside their huts. B&w makes them timeless. I love the guy with the rabbit and the gun.

    Last winter I drove all the way to Berlin to see an exhibition about the work of Richard Avedon. I was particularly keen to see his series “In the American West” which is to me the ultimate masterpiece of portrait photography. To see the images in real life left me in awe. So I can sense what Johns images can look like in real life.
    John is a magician with light and paper and I hope he will shoot many more portraits!

    What a delightful treat to see this work here on burn!
    Thank you so much!

  13. There is no way our screens can do justice to your work, as well as the matter-of-factness that often goes with sitting steady and cozily, clicking from one shot to another.

    I think we all imagine seeing the prints, LARGE!, as many comments indicate.

    Some shots beg to be seen in color, at first, like the one with the little guy in the beginning, but you are a master of your craft and therefore, what we see is exactly what is to be seen.

    Your work has nothing to do with Mc CURRY’s portrait book (which was a strictly a commercial venture, sized down for easier and cheaper consumption, and whose repetition of faces made true for once the old fear that the spirits of these people was being stolen, as should be in a consumering society) , a very distant cousin I should say, here.

    Classic work, capital C, the kind and quality of which shows us that the death of photography as we know it and LOVE IT, is greatly exagerated, as Erica intimated with our comment about lineage.

  14. I’m familiar with your work through the IPA awards (congrats on that btw). I was impressed then and am impressed now—as much by the logistics involved with creating this body of work quality as the images themselves. Great stuff!

  15. Daguerreotypes and Edward S. Curtis’ American Indian series come to mind as I look through your essay, John. But the quality, resolution and composition of your portraits are much finer than these historic references, in my opinion. I would LOVE to see an exhibition of these prints. I think the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be an appropriate venue ;=)

    Stunning work!


  16. Inspires me on such a level I’ll pick up my camera and walk out of my door very soon, but I just need to finish this comment first. I like #9 where the eagle seems restless. And I disagree about removing #20 and #21, they showed something slightly different with the enviroment and I think you need some girls in this series, which is probably one of the intentions of including them..

    I’ll come back to this many times. Thanks for sharing with us and respect for only using natural light.

  17. Akaky – value all opinion, you may not have to agree with it, but value it none the less. If we all smiled or frowned universally then the world would be so dull. Having said that, know this, I value your opinion.

    John – this is fabulous work. I’m thinking big, Big, BIG (format) for this. I love the black / white conversions. I love the contrast used. I love the subject. I think perhaps technically it lacks a little consistency (balance) in the conversions, but that is minor in the context of this great work which you have presented. This is portraiture of the highest.

    On a visit to a far flung part of the world I have but a single image that I think is really worthy and it has been published (small scale) – I hope to send the publication to the individual as the subject of the photograph, difficult and all as that will be. I wonder have you considered doing the same for this photographic experience that you have achieved with these people which are from another world. I think it could be life changing for them.

    I didn’t bother reading the words. The images spoke for themselves.

    Best wishes. This work is most worthy. Thank you burn for publication.

  18. i am trying to color my eyes as i watch this show.
    and i think this works mostly for me as black and white.
    strength in tones of black and white, shades of gray are magnified so,
    not diluted with a rainbow of colors that i may find distracting.

    ‘exotic people’… very interesting.
    who knows the only exotic thing present at that time
    among those hills was a silly man named john

    (btw, love this.)

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  20. I thought it was beautiful work. I dont understand the need to drag work down by comparing, more often than not negatively, work shown here to work by more famous people. If we were to go that route, all but a handful of photography is derivative and boring because McCurry or Shore or Adams or Goldin or Koudelka or whoever did it already. I dont care about McCurry in this regard, all I care about is the work I see shown here, whether it is good or not. And I think this is good.

  21. I haven’t seen the work of McCurry but the portraits do remind me of Irving Penn’s portraits taken in foreign countries. I liked those and I like these. But I do agree with Valerie’s comments about editing. Also some of them are cropped a bit too tight for me and I prefer the ones with more space around them and those with distinctive detail such as when the a different coat shows up. The kids. That old wooden gun. etc. I certainly think Avedon has a lot of teach all of us when it comes to portraiture though this work doesn’t remind me him at all.

    But what i really like about this work is the combination of outside and the inside, though I would like more outside shots. I think my favourite in the whole series is the one of the three men and their birds. I haven’t seen any shots of men with eagles in mongolia before. Please go back and get more outside action shots, even if you have to shoot with an slr. :-)

  22. Thank you to ALL. I’ve valued this critique and am humbled by many of your comments. More important to me are the critical thoughts- (the darkroom can be a isolating environment). And many of them reflect concerns I share about the work. How to mix the color(landscapes) vs b&w(portraits), repetition of subjects. Some of the images did lose a lot in the conversion to the screen, I’m afraid my computer skills are a bit weak.
    Aleksander- thanks for pointing me to Gudzowaty’s work. a different approach, I like.
    Erica- I’ll email you about printing info, my lab is in NYC (west village).
    burn. -Thank you

  23. My favourite on here, the cover image has the same kind of strength as the one for the Sakhalin series. It is leaps and bounds better than most of what pops up here.

  24. Very very good. I think 6 is an absolute blinder. John I would be really interested to know if the lack of hunting photos was due to your equipment not being suitable for action shots or if there are not enough animals to hunt anymore.

  25. Great work, John… I can only imagine the impact of a room properly lit and filled with huge prints of 8/10 of the indoor portraits. Black & white seems the best choice: color of the carpets in the background would have been distracting… but this is only a guess of course: you were there! Maybe scans are a little bit oversharpened.

  26. striking portraits..
    want to see more of the story….
    I too,
    would also like to see color…
    show me 2009,
    but your B/W is beautiful,
    perhaps in addition to…

  27. “Chagatayev sighed and he smiled, he had wanted, out of his single, small heart, his compact mind, and his enthusiasm to create for the first time a real life here, on the edge of Sari-Kamish. But the people could see better than he could how it was best for them to live. It was enough that he had helped them to stay alive, now let them find their own happiness beyond the horizon….”–Andrei Platonov, “Dzhan”


    In Russian the word “Dzhan” (related to the word Dusha, which means soul) is a deeply poetic and meaningful word, and shares it’s brotherhood with a similar word is Kazakh. A dzhan is a soul looking for happiness, a popular belief in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other regions of Central Asia. Like all great and sustained work, your magnificent photographs speak less about soulfulness of photography (though they do that as well, rest assured) than about the act of living and the act of sharing with one another that North Star around which we all navigate our wayward and nomadic lives: the depth and strength of our endurance to live. Your work is not only a celebration of the Golden Eagle nomads, not only a celebration of the power and vision of photography as a force, a living force of community, but is in fact a celebration of living.

    As others have articulated, the technical mastery of the photographs themselves is a testament to your engagement and love of the craft itself, and as a photography one of the fundamental joys for me when looking at photographs is the rich pleasure of being privileged to spend time with photographs and work that resounds with craft and dedication. It never ceases to inspire or to alight with joy. The interior portraits are timeless, in that they are (as Erica and Herve and Ben and Patricia and others have pointed out) not only connected to the history of portraiture (both intimate and anthropological) but are absolutely OF THIS TIME as well. As the photography world all too often bandies back and forth about the ‘death’ of photography or the ‘death’ of film, work of all types and genres, vision of all scales and orientations, continues to be done that undermines the cynicism of so many. To see such strong, committed work is simply a force of light in a valley all to often penumbra’d by shadow. These interior images are just among the finest portraits i’ve seen in a while. I also loved that they too are also held together by the expanse and empty space of the exteriors, for in truth, I feel so much of that extraordinary strength and expanse of light and land within their faces and the arrangements of portraits. As Bruce Chatwin described in Songlines, the real journey, the real space over which each of us must travel and negiotate and challenge is that broad interior of our lives, and you capture this exceptionally well in the interior portraits, which allows the gorgeous exterior photographs to become even more intimate, even more ‘enclosed’, even more ‘known’/friendly. It is an extraordinary and brilliant narrative. The mf and lf treatements iterate that same idea: different tools which carry different metaphoric results. It is, in the best sense, the work of a photographer who understands the tools well, but harnesses them for more broad and more rich implications.

    I looked at the essay 3 times yesterday (with 2 of my Kazakh students) and this morning I sent the essay to my Kazakh teen students who’ve returned to Kazakhstan….My kazakh student Anela said: ‘now you know bob, why i am proud to be a Kazakh”

    In other words, you have shared with all of us that which makes photography such an important and HUMAN expression. It unites us, it informs us (and sometimes misinforms), it gathers us toward each other in celebration of that which is the real goal of why each of us makes pictures and shares them. It is a way to speak out against the passing, a way to speak upon those things which make up our lives, the struggle and the celebration of what it means to live. In truth, i see a deeply emotional connection between your work and the last essay on EMT’s: that though our lives and cultures and languages and understandings are often wildly different and unique, we all share a fundamental bond, and that is about dzhan….

    This work connects us to not only the traditions and language of photography, both that with which it resembles and honors but also connects us to a simple thing: that we search out, whether photographers or barbers or nomads, the way of living, hardwon and challenging no matter where, that seems to be both our unique way and our humanly collective one.

    What sustains this work for me is not just it’s beauty (and make no mistake about it, this is heart-breakingly beautiful and compelling work), but that it HONORS their way of life and their humanity in a simple, humble and unpatronizing way.

    in a word: soul


    ps. when does the book come out?…i’ve got lots of students to give it too :)))))))))))))


  28. ps. i know this was shot in Mongolia, but my kazakh students saw their own lives/families/background there too :)))

  29. pps. sorry about the multiple posts (erica and herve’s fault for breaking rule 1st ;))))) )…


    cheers John

  30. heve ;))))))))

    that’s the herve i love :))))…(or maybe i was just too uptight yesterday, sorry about the madness) :)))….ok, runnning

  31. I’ve been studying this project all morning, compelled to want more diaphanous lighting or more dramatic movement, closeups or softer focus. I want to get closer and form a more intimate connection with these subjects and the romance that their life, to me, represents. Then I realized that there is nothing romantic on their side of the lens. Theirs is a lifestyle that is more vulnerable to the unpredictability of nature than most and their struggle to live in that imbalance is precisely what gives these photographs the texture that I wish were softened, the light that I wish were not so harsh. The distance is consequential, necessary and meaningful.

    The way the images recall photographs of the glass-plate era suits gives it a timeless aesthetic, which belies the fact that they are actually at the mercy of time and change.

    I am very moved by this essay. Thank you, Mr. Delaney, for capturing this group of people appropriately.

  32. This is magnificent craftsmanship on every level. Golden Eagles, I’ll be damned. John this work transcends the medium with your execution. Viewing these images is like savoring a great meal. Thanks for sharing.


  33. This is really beautiful, John. I see the homage to Avedon on the inside portraits, and that’s to say that you captured a bit of their spirit when you triggered your cable release – you can see it in the lines of their faces and you can see their lineage in their eyes. I think what you done and shown here is very important, and I have much respect for it. Thank you for revealing this story and for capturing it on film. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  34. Ever so often you see someone’s interpretation of how they see the world via their art and you are taken to a very deep space within that moves you beyond words, shakes your core. I had that experience when I came upon this photo essay. I especially connected to 20. 15, 18, 21, and 25 kept me coming back and 3 should be hanging in a museum. Thank you John for all the work you did to make these wonderful pictures and thank you Burn for making us aware of this wonderful work and photographer.

  35. Akaky, (and Tommy)

    Gore Vidal once said that irony was so lost on Americans that it should be written in blue ink. I wonder if Worpress can work out something like that? ;^}

    Powerful photo essay, John! Like it.

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  37. Medium/large format black and white was appropriate for this shot. The use of natural lighting is the way all photos from regions such as this should be shot (and all other photography for that matter). Fantastic. This is the, for me, the best and most interesting work I’ve seen on this site. I finally had to sign up and post a comment.

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  39. John
    the relationship between animal and man is compelling. I absorbed your compositions, depth, beauty, primal undercurrents. i love seeing this. i’ll never go there, but want to go with you and experience it.
    my experiences with falcons is so slight, but an inkling of what it’s like to connect with a wild thing.
    thank you. with respect, anne

  40. that was great!
    thoroughly interesting and it held my attention.
    the details in the indoors shots are amazing and i picked up a strong sense of pride from the subjects.
    fabulous work!

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  42. Going back on essay, I check it when i was out And I would say that… one of my favourite here.
    I’ll keep portraits and lands toghether.
    Poetic is appropiate… here I can find the sense of have more detail.

  43. Pingback: Mongolian Girls Carry On a Cherished 6,000-Year-Old Tradition With Golden Eagles | Inhabitat - Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

  44. Dauren Zhumabayev

    I am a Kazakh native. These photographs are a very considerate and tactful insight into the eyes and the hearts and the spirit of my people! And yeah… I agree with the person who said above he saw something related to Native Americans. We Kazakhs and Native Americans are from the ancient proto-nomadic race and we are very far, but still Brothers

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