John Beasley Greene: Paris, Egypt, Algeria @Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 photographs (28 waxed paper negatives and 12 salt paper prints from paper negatives) variously framed and matted and displayed in the foyer and the two rooms of the gallery. The negatives are illuminated from behind inside the frames. The works are arranged on the walls as well as on picture rails and in individual frames on a table. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog (67 photographs, paper cover) published by the gallery, with an essay by Eugenia Parry. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: From the opening of his gallery in 1983 until today, Hans Kraus, Jr. has exhibited negatives by 19th century photographers. Presented not only for their historical value but as objects of aesthetic quality in their own right, sometimes on an equal footing with the prints they were templates for, they were at first a challenge to appreciate. Impressive though many of them could be—as glowing and translucent as stained glass—and authored by pedigreed names such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Charles Nègre, it was hard to banish the though that they existed as intermediate steps and mere helpmates for the calotypist. Had they never been preserved or displayed in a gallery, only a few specialists might care.

With these caveats in mind, they have been an enlightening feature of Kraus’s shows for more than 30 years. And just as it’s no longer jarring to see 19th century photographs in a contemporary art gallery, so has his sponsorship normalized the appearance of negatives in his Sun Pictures catalogs and exhibitions.

This selection of J.B. Greene tests one’s tolerance for this innovation. Only a dozen of the items in the gallery are salted paper prints; the bulk of the show consists of waxed paper negatives. What’s more, although most of the images were taken in the Middle East—primarily Egypt—they are not characteristic of the style for which he is justly celebrated.

Ever since Beaumont Newhall discovered in the 1960s that Greene was not English, as until then generally supposed, he has been a figure of mystery. Many facts of his brief life and career remain in dispute—the Getty continues to leave out the “e” in his middle name—but most researchers agree that he was the son of a wealthy American banker stationed in France. Born in 1832 in Le Havre, raised and educated in Paris, Greene studied photography with Gustave Le Gray and became a founding member of the Société française de la photographie. During this time, he was also training to be an archaeologist. He learned to read hieroglyphics, traveled to photograph in Egypt and Nubia and Algeria, and died in Cairo in 1856, at the age of 24, probably from tuberculosis.

Were he only another rich man’s son who died too young and took some pictures of tourist sites along the Nile, few would care. He wasn’t just another dilettante, however, and students of 19th-century photography have yearned to know more about what has seemed to be his precocious talent. His views of Egypt were admired enough by Blanquart-Evrard that he published some 95 of them (another disputed fact) in his Le Nil : monuments, paysages, explorations photographiques in 1854.

More importantly, a group of these 1854-55 landscapes displayed a pictorial sensibility found in almost no other photographers at the time. Etiolated, minimalist, less reportorial than abstract, they’re like Whistlers in their patchy graphics, but with blinding sunlight and palm trees instead of night and fog as the natural materials for establishing mood.

Eugenia Janis could not help writing a long enthusiastic note about him in The Art of French Calotype (1983) even though, as she admitted, he was “outside the scope of the present study” in being American.

She calls him “one of the greatest artists with paper negatives” and recognized the work for its distinct formal audacity: “In the manner of Chinese landscape painters on scrolls, his lens seems to scan a terrain rather than extract it as a fixed whole or from a single vantage point. The effect of this is greatly heightened by the emphasis on tonal nuance and an interest in slender sketches of transparent land mass rather than the usual emphasis on a solid monument surrounded by a site.”

The present show is disappointing in that Greene’s artistic boldness, as we have come to understand it from Janis, is hard to detect. The early works from his Paris years (1852-53), when he photographed out a window across the city or placed a plaster Venus de Milo on a table on a rooftop, are interesting chiefly because so little is known from this period of his life.

The later works, from Algeria (1855-56), are more exciting. In his photograph of the city of Constantine, it’s the dark crags and vegetation of the massive cliff below the line of houses that he wants us to feel in our bones. The Aqueduct of Churchill is also noteworthy. The tones of the Roman ruin are blended with the low surrounding hills, as if they formed one continual slice of stone and sand.

But any number of Greene’s compères could have made these professional images. Even the examples here from Egypt—of the Sphinx and Pyramid at Giza, or the Pyramid of Menkaure with the Three Queens’ Pyramids at Giza—don’t bear his true stamp of originality. (More fun is a glimpse, in a negative, of the boat that carried the photographer and his groaning loads of equipment on the Nile.)

Only a few images convey his unusual sense of space and atmosphere In Pompey’s Pillar, Alexandria he portrayed a triumphal monument, one of the largest monolithic columns ever erected, as a pathetic object. Dedicated in 297 AD by the Roman emperor Diocletian after he had crushed an Egyptian revolt (the Roman general Pompey actually had nothing to do with the structure), it is here seen as isolated, canted and close to toppling over, now detoured by pilgrims, with only a small footpath leading to its base.

The high number of negatives in the show doesn’t help in assessing the work. The catalog compensates with digital positives so you can see what Greene hoped to achieve. It’s hard to recognize an artist’s abstract vocabulary in a negative, however, as they’re already more abstract than a positive print.

We shouldn’t have long to wait to get a fuller measure of Greene as an artist. Corey Keller’s retrospective with full catalog, scheduled to open within the next two years at SFMOMA, may tell us whether the Nile landscapes should be considered an anomaly or proof of a highly advanced artistic mind.

Collector’s POV: The works in this how are priced as follows. The waxed paper negatives are priced from $20000 to $80000, and the salted paper prints from $20000 to $40000. Greene’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets over the past decade or two – there just aren’t that many prints running around in public hands. Recent prices for single images have ranged between roughly $6000 and $82000, with multi-image sets as high as roughly $250000.

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JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 18 works by 9 artists, variously framed and matted and hung against white walls in the main gallery space ... Read on.

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