Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 121 daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, framed in metal, and displayed against dark grey walls in spotlit wall-length cases in a series of 5 connected rooms on the second floor of the museum.

The works on view are grouped by the following geographic titles:

  • Italy: 16 daguerreotypes, 1841, 1842 (2 cases)
  • Greece: 17 daguerreotypes, 1842 (2 cases)
  • Lower Egypt: 26 daguerreotypes, 1842 (5 cases)
  • Anatolia: 7 daguerreotypes, 1843 (1 case)
  • Upper Egypt: 12 daguerreotypes, 1844 (3 cases)
  • Syria: 31 daguerreotypes, 1843, 1844 (4 cases)
  • France: 12 daguerreotypes, 1841, 3 albumen prints, 1860s, 1 albumen stereograph, 1860 (2 cases)

With a selection of wooden storage boxes, 1 painting by Girault (1833), 4 watercolors by Girault (1843, 1844), 3 rock/wall fragments, additional daguerreotypes by Alexander John Ellis (3), Achille Morelli (1), Lorenzo Suscipj (1), multiple book plates/lithographs after Girault, maps/diagrams, and a sample daguerreotype camera. (Installation shots below. The combination of the darkly spotlit exhibit and the shiny mirrored daguerreotypes make crisp photography of this show extremely difficult. The often blurred sample views below are the result.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here). Hardcover, 252 pages, with 202 color illustrations. Edited by Stephen C. Pinson (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When we peer far back in time toward the origins of photography in the 1830s, the decade after the invention of the medium is filled with the spirit of intrepid experimentation. For those who actively took up Louis Daguerre’s startling new innovation, making daguerreotype photographs was very much a challenge, requiring bulky cameras (often custom-built or adapted), long exposure times, and a willingness to deal with complex chemical processes. But what emerged on those silvery mirrored plates was altogether inspiring and revolutionary. The extraordinarily precise detail of the entrancing images made it obvious to illustrators and other artists alike that this machine had the disruptive potential to transform the foundations of visual observation.

So when Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey set out in 1842 on what would ultimately become a three year journey to Italy and the eastern Mediterranean (including destinations now within Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon), his plan to photograph the architectural wonders of the ancient Islamic world was certainly risky and ambitious. He would end up making some of earliest surviving photographs of the region (many of the sites and monuments have since disappeared or been altered by the march of time), and this landmark exhibit offers a comprehensive survey of his pioneering accomplishments.

Trained as a painter and illustrator, Girault spent much of the year of 1841 making daguerreotypes in his native France, perfecting his technique and documenting various monuments and vistas in Paris, Marseille, and elsewhere, so by the time he got to Italy, he was already an adept maker of daguerreotypes. Working with a camera that had a slightly larger plate size than the typical whole plate dimensions that Daguerre was using, Girault inventively used masking techniques to incrementally cover the plate, allowing him to make multiple exposures on each plate, which he would then cut into individual pieces later. This approach gave him the flexibility to easily shoot thin verticals, wide panoramas, and various other rectangular forms, and he smartly leveraged this available variation to match his plate sizing to the demands of his compositions.

To characterize Girault as a tourist misunderstands the seriousness and dedication necessary to achieve his results. His photographer-traveler approach was more akin to systematic academic fieldwork than easy going holiday making, although the discrete disciplines of archaeology, architectural history, and even cultural preservation were less than entirely defined at that point. Girault’s main area of interest was the comparative study of Eastern and Western architecture, what he termed “Arab” studies and what we would now call Islamic art and architecture, the Eurocentric colonialism and orientalism of the times fixed on ethnic rather than religious categorization. While the exact number of daguerreotypes Girault took during his travels is up for debate, more than a thousand images are known today, and his meticulous methods for sorting, cataloguing, and boxing his work undoubtedly helped to preserve it across a long and winding road of storage and rediscovery long after his death.

Clocking in at just over 120 daguerreotypes (along with supplemental materials and ephemera), the Met’s exhibit slides right into a tightly-edited comfort zone, with just enough images to provide an impressive scholarly sense of Girault’s artistry, but without extending further into the next tier of material, which might have led to more variants, duplicates, and less striking views. Seen as an integrated body of work, the images from Girault’s trip reinforce his exacting, almost scientific, sense of observation. He was much more than a passing witness to the famous Grand Tour monuments – he strove to document them from every available angle, seemingly working hard to find the best views, the notable facades, and the most intricate architectural details and features, so that thoughtful comparisons could be made later. In the best of his works, he paired the factual rigor of a surveyor with the aesthetic flair of an artist.

The exhibition is generally organized chronologically and by geography, with Girault’s earlier work in France grouped at the end. The daguerreotypes are housed behind glass and dramatically lit, creating a hushed environment that encourages reverent looking. The Italian images provide a quick sampler of his various approaches. Closer in pictures capture the carved stone details around portals, windows, and bell towers, while vertical frames highlight groups of tall temple columns and the soaring height of the Column of Trajan in Rome. These are balanced by wide panoramas that set landmarks like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum into their broader surroundings or highlight the repetitions of dark cypresses at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. Even in this small group of daguerreotypes, Girault’s ability to expressively center our attention, and to see the graphic contrasts in more mixed views, comes through strongly.

The elegant ruins of Greece offered Girault even more evocative potential. The bright sunlight of Athens seems to have been particularly useful when photographing the majestic colonnades of the Parthenon and other important temple sites, the contrasts of light dark made that much more hauntingly extreme. More subtle views capture decorative carving work, statuary, and refliefs, with the details of capitals and the insistent fluting given particular attention. His wide view of the approach to the Acropolis is singularly vivid, and an upward look at the crown of a neary palm tree (seen again in a wider view of the Temple of the Winds) explodes like a frilly firework.

Girault’s photographs from Cairo and Alexandria dive deeper into Islamic architecture, systematically documenting important mosques, minarets, and carved details, looking at both form (in domes and multi-tiered minarets) and decoration (in checkerboard and striped tiles, cut through geometric windows, precise brickwork, and carved Islamic script). In Lower Egypt, he also took images as he wandered through narrow streets, adding a handful of street portraits to the mix, and then ventured out into the nearby desert, dutifully capturing an exotic silhouetted camel against the sand. In Upper Egypt, the pyramids at Saqqara and temples at Thebes provided yet further opportunities to document carved reliefs and towering blocked archways.

Girault’s tour continued through many more cities and historic sites, including Damascus, where he photographed the Great Mosque, Baalbek, where he carefully documented the Temple of Jupiter (among other structures), and then Jerusalem, where he captured the city’s famous gates, the Dome of the Rock, and portals at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A view of the cedars of Lebanon from the same year provides a grandly poignant natural counterweight to all the images of stone.

Having followed the tour to its end, it’s hard not to come away impressed by Girault’s accomplishments. Not only was he “first” or certainly “early” to photograph many of these important sites (which is why so many of the lenders to the exhibit are national museums from the relevant geographies, who logically acquired the images when they came on the market as part of recording their own particular pasts), he made his images with the twin attributes of scholarly rigor and artistic sophistication. Even though it took the world more than a century to rediscover and rightfully acknowledge the fruits of his labors, Girault’s daguerreotypes should now be recognized to function equally well as history and art, their refined inventiveness and almost modern compositional intelligence always firmly supported by the unwavering clarity of their exacting photographic detail.

Collector’s POV: Girault’s work has generally entered the secondary markets in clumps and bunches, with groups of daguerreotypes tending to come up for sale together. Single image results from the past decade have ranged from roughly $5000 to $245000.

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Read more about: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    This is a great exhibition and a well written review covering all the bases. All I would add is that de Prangey was much more than a taker of pictures , like Atget 60 years later he was an artist. You only have to see the one daguerreotype that he took looking up at the crown of a palm tree to realize how far ahead of his time he was. The Met must have thought so too as this is the image they decided to show on the large banner on the outside of the building.

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