Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene, ed. Corey Keller

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by DelMonico Books/Prestel Publishing (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 130 color illustrations. Includes an essay in multiple parts by Corey Keller, a chronology by William Stapp, a selected bibliography, and an exhibition checklist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The exhibition originated at SFMOMA (here, August 31, 2019-January 5, 2020) and will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (here, February 8-May 31, 2020).

Comments/Context: When we look back at the photography of the 19th century, one of the seductive traps that those of us who have a deep-seated appreciation for between-the-wars photographic Modernism can fall into is to constantly conduct a search for protomodernism. Whenever we discover clean lines, sharp contrasts, pared down compositions, or stark isolation in a 19th century image, we can then immediately pat ourselves on the back for noticing a stylistic through line, or worse, credit the 19th century photographer with presciently sowing the seeds of aesthetics that came later. This is a dangerous intellectual game on many fronts, most importantly because we risk fundamentally misunderstanding the authentic intentions of 19th century photographers by shoehorning their output into an artistic future they couldn’t possibly have seen or predicted.

So rather than immediately falling into line with Beaumont Newhall (the founding photo curator at MoMA), who in 1981 declared John Beasley Greene “to be numbered among the master photographers of all time” based on a relatively small sample of Greene’s elemental Egyptian photographs, SFMOMA curator Corey Keller has taken a much more measured and cautious approach. Keller has spent the better part of the past decade researching Greene, trying to methodically fill in the gaps in his very short photographic history. As seen here, she has done her work with crispness and clarity, both in retracing the steps of his life (he died in 1856, at the age of just 24) and in unearthing a broad sample of his best prints, and this exhaustively researched catalog (and the parallel museum exhibitions in San Francisco and Chicago) will undoubtedly become the standard reference on Greene going forward.

What Keller offers us is much more complex than simply a blanket endorsement of Greene’s photographic talents. She starts by filling in his origin story. Born in France in 1832 to the family of a successful American businessman, Greene grew up with enough financial flexibility to pursue his paired interests of archaeology (particularly Egyptology) and photography. He studied with Gustave Le Gray, where he learned the technical details behind the waxed paper negative, and several early prints Greene made in the forest at Fontainebleau bear the aesthetic hallmarks of his teacher.

While Greene wasn’t an academic or scholar himself, he seems to have been well connected to the key thinkers in the field of Egyptology in the early 1850s. The Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1799, thereby beginning the process of deciphering and translating the hieroglyphic inscriptions found across Egypt, but the task was by no means complete several decades later, and Greene’s plan was to use photography to make faster, clearer, and more complete documentary evidence of the hieroglyphics at various temple sites. So Greene wasn’t a Grand Tour dilettante checking off the landmarks of the ancient world; he had a specific plan to use photography to improve the scholarship in particular areas of scientific study.

Greene ultimately made two photographic trips to Egypt between 1853 and 1855, the first to a series of important sites along the Nile, and the second a more targeted return stop to Medinet Habu. During these trips, Greene categorized his images into one of three groups – M (monuments), P (landscapes or paysages), or I (inscriptions) – and when he returned, he packaged his photographs into a small number of bound albums, which he presented to the influential academic societies of the time in France. This system (in conjunction with chronological numbering) is notable because it reminds us that Greene was thinking systematically, and that nearly all of his images of monuments and inscriptions were made with meticulous documentary and scientific purpose, regardless of the artistic merit we have retroactively discovered in them. He took broad views to locate the temples within the context of their sites, circled around the buildings to capture each side or elevation, and then moved in close to document the inscriptions on walls, doorways, pillars, and steles. But his artful arrangement of masses, his interest in deep shadow and contrast, and his overall talent for framing and composition don’t override his central impulse. Greene is often credited for being the first photographer to make photographic archaeological studies in Egypt and Algeria, and Keller reinforces this primacy of archaeology. This was particularly true at Medinet Habu, and a year later at Tomb of the Christian Woman in Algeria, where Greene’s images document the work of archaeologists as they remove rocky debris to get a better view of the inscriptions.

But Greene’s landscapes are another matter. Since they don’t obviously document anything of archaeological importance aside from the broader setting of the surrounding lands, his images can therefore be seen as somewhat more personal or artistic, or at least less driven by scientific concerns. The most famous of Greene’s landscapes (part of the image appears on the front cover of the catalog) captures a scene along the banks of the Nile at Thebes. The photograph is a marvel of simplicity, turning the water, the low clump of palms, the sandy hills in the distance, and the wide sky into a sublimely elegant exercise in compositional thinning. The dark trees become a graceful smudge along the flat line of the water, and the tactile qualities of the paper print enrich the textures and subtle tonalities of the view.

As a single image, it’s a knockout, but its gloriously minimal aesthetics are repeated in many more of Greene’s landscapes. Two views of Luxor employ a similarly expansive approach, with the low temple buildings set between the emptiness of sand and sky and a single dark silhouette of a date palm jutting up into the whiteness. Greene’s vistas repeatedly reduce the land to an uninhabited void, where rocky desert hills and vast skies settle into a kind of visual equilibrium where positive and negative space are relatively balanced. Even when a pyramid, a temple, a clump of trees along the riverbanks, a picturesque boat, or a more prominent feature of rocks is the ostensible subject, Greene steps back and places that object in a context of serene solitude that extends to the indefinite horizon. The result is a set of landscapes that feel timeless, the wind echoing across the still emptiness in the same way that it has for centuries. It is these pared down images that feel so resolutely modern, even though they document places and scenes that are undeniably ancient.

Piecing together Greene’s story has been long overdue, and Keller has done an admirable job of methodically synthesizing the sparse scholarship on Greene without resorting to the historical revisionism of finding exactly what she was looking for. She firmly makes a case for the scientific priorities of (and alternate audiences for) Greene’s photographs, grounding his record in his archaeological pursuits and then leaving the artistic merits of his refined landscapes more open for interpretation. It’s a thoughtful and considered argument, paying close heed to the unusually nuanced mix of science and art that Greene represents.

Collector’s POV: Given the scarcity of John Beasley Greene’s work, his prints have only intermittently come up for sale in the secondary markets in the past decade. Single image prices have ranged between roughly $5000 and $100000, while a rare full album sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for roughly $725000.

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