Visions of Egypt & Nubia @Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 27 photographs by 6 photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and one of the side offices.

The following photographers are included in the show, with the number of works on view and their details as background:

  • François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles: 2 albumen prints from paper negatives, 1858; 1 waxed paper negative, 1858
  • Félix Teynard: 10 salt prints from waxed paper negatives, 1851-1852, 1853-1854; 1 waxed paper negative, 1851-1852; 1 untrimmed proof salt print from a waxed paper negative, 1851-1852
  • John Beasley Greene: 5 waxed paper negatives, 1853, 1853-1854, 1853-1855; 2 salt prints from paper negatives, 1854, c1854
  • Gustave Le Gray: 1 albumen print from a waxed paper negative, 1867
  • Ernest Benecke: 3 salt prints from paper negatives, 1852
  • James Graham: 1 coated salt print from a paper negative, 1857

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the first few decades after the invention of photography, the impulse to pack up this new experimental method, take it to the far flung edges of the world (from the perspective of Europe and Great Britain), make pictures of what was to be seen there, and then bring those images back home to share them with scientists, geographers, archaeologists, and the wider public at large was undeniably strong. The 1850s and 1860s were filled with adventures, tours, and journeys that mixed amateur art and science, and the documentary evidence that was brought back from famous sites, temples, ruins, archeological digs, and other wonders, in the form of photographs, was welcomed with a curiosity bordering on fascination.

This show gathers together a selection of photographic rarities from this period of visual exploration, centered on images made in Egypt and Nubia, primarily in the 1850s. Since these pictures were in many cases the very first photographs to be made of particular monuments and locations, their documentary and evidentiary value is undisputed; what’s perhaps more interesting to wrestle with is how and whether some of these photographs get beyond that practical historical value to take shape as the individual artistic statements of specific photographers. Especially when the images get close to buildings, temples, and other surfaces covered with carvings and inscriptions, we essentially have the case of one artist (the photographer) interpreting the work of another (the architect, designer, or stone carver), within the very real constraints imposed by the medium of photography in its earliest incarnations.

Given the immense scale of their elemental forms, the pyramids (particularly those at Giza) were an obvious subject. As seen here, John Beasley Greene’s dark waxed negative offers us a serene view of the pyramids and the mostly buried Sphinx, but with the faint interruption of the brashly colonial claiming gesture of the French flag placed atop its head. James Graham’s view from a few years later pulls back much further, creating an elegant scene that sets the majestic pyramids amid the sweep of sand, the silhouetted palm trees, their reflection in a nearby pool of water, and a lone figure with his donkey to provide some sense of distance and scale.

But of course Egypt and Nubia were filled with plenty of temples and ruins that were in the process of being rediscovered and excavated at that time, and so many of the images that were made document not just the pyramids, but columns, colonnades, tunneled-hallways, entrances, and walls covered with hieroglyphics. Félix Teynard’s images (made at various locations) make the most of the contrasts of light and shadow in these sun-baked locations, seeming to invite us into the cool darkness that lies inside many of these structures. His works also faithfully document the textural complexity and crisp detail of the all-over decorative carvings, allowing us to almost feel the indentations, shapes, and figures that fill the walls. Other works by Greene get into the trenches with the archeologists and get close to the paper mache reliefs (of Anubis and Amun in this case) made by pushing into the hieroglyphics, while images made by François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles give us an appreciation for the piles of rough rubble surrounding the Temple of Karnak and the vast look upward at the face of the rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel.

One smart arrangement of three pictures, all made at the same location, from essentially the same vantage point, by three different photographers, helps us to get out from under the idea of straightforward documentation and encourages us to lean towards more nuanced questions of artistic interpretation. Photographs of the Temple of Sebonah by Teynard, Ernest Benecke, and de Campigneulles (a few years later) all center the low geometries of the structure against flat empty skies. Teynard’s view offers more foreground texture, and settles into rusty tones of light brown. Benecke’s view is much more somber, even though it includes a shadowy figure perhaps sketching; it’s a pared down composition that feels modern in its elemental formal simplicity. And de Campigneulles shows us the same scene in negative tonalities, again with a foreground figure, likely a guide this time; his study has less sky, making the low structure seem to rise above us even more than the other two. To my own eye, the Benecke picture is the strongest and most memorable, but seeing the three together is a reminder that every 19th century photograph from Egypt and Nubia is still a set of subtle choices and interpretations, even if the content seems to dominate.

The same might be said of views of the Nile, sand dunes, and palm trees from afar, in that without a central archeological subject to draw our attention, we can better see how the photographers are framing the landscape. Gustave Le Gray’s view of the Nile is altogether stunningly unexpected, in that he uses a clump of foreground trees to screen the view, the dark trunks and fronds providing contrasts with the sky, the water, and the low hills in the distance; made on his last photographic voyage (in 1867), it’s an energetic marvel. And Benecke’s view of a dusty scene with palm trees and a small village is centered on a low wellhead, but it’s the sweep of the trees in the background and the restrained contrasts of light and dark that give the picture its sublimely timeless rhythms.

One other pairing of positive print and matching negative by Teynard ostensibly offers us a wide view of the temple at Karnak, but having both together actually provides an opportunity to see how Teynard was manipulating the negative to get his desired aesthetic results. A close look reveals that not only did he block out much of the sky with black ink to give it a uniform white appearance in the print, he seems to have carefully shaped the hills in the distance with more dark overpainting to help sharpen the edge contrasts. The result matches the rubble and ruins with enveloping whiteness, increasing the drama of the scene.

While this intimate show can’t entirely claim to be comprehensive in terms of 19th century photography of Egypt (works by Francis Frith, Maxime du Camp, and Antonio Béato are all absent, among others), it does deliver a handsome sampler of the kinds of images made by intrepid photographers during the mid 19th century. The best of the pictures still simmer with the energy of discovery, and allow us to imagine the challenge of standing with a massive camera on a tripod in the sand and wondering where exactly to put it to maximize the aesthetics of the view. In this way, even the most seemingly mundane of the images has an implied sense of adventurous risk, the ambitious impulse to document the world mixing with the rough realities of that arduous task.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by photographer:

  • François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles: $5000, $7500, $9000
  • Félix Teynard: $12000, $18000, $20000, $25000, $30000, $40000, $50000 (for pair)
  • John Beasley Greene: $25000, $35000, $40000, $60000
  • Gustave Le Gray: POR
  • Ernest Benecke: $25000, $30000
  • James Graham: $8500

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Read more about: Ernest Benecke, Félix Teynard, François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles, Gustave Le Gray, James Graham, John Beasley Greene, Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs

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