And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Japanese photography and interactions with the west 

"They are a people so totally different from any other in the world, that in a year's residence you get less insight into their manners and customs than could be gained in six weeks into the habits of any other nation."
R Mountnoy Jephson, Our Life in Japan (1869)

Unidentified Photographer, Collotype C1890s

There is an image of old Japan that westerners have never shaken off. It involves delicate and highly ritualized behaviour, sipping tea or eating a bowl of rice with a pair of wooden chopsticks, in a sparely furnished room. The atmosphere is of simplicity amidst calm, punctuated by minimalist sounds like the chime of distant bells or the dripping of water on stone. The image is timeless, suggesting rites that had been going on for centuries. Never mind that in the 19th century Japan was class bound and militaristic, or that the arrival of westerners would rip apart traditions as though they were paper screens; as much as Europeans mystified the culture the Japanese embraced this idealized view.

Unidentified photographer, albumen print, C1880s

The hand colouring of photographic prints has such a strong association with Japan it’s forgivable to assume that Japanese studios hit upon the idea on their own. Historians however credit its introduction to one Charles Parker and then its popularity to Felice Beato during the 1860s. Both of them were inspired by Japanese water-colourists so the concept was not completely foreign to the Japanese photographers. It’s also generally recognized that the coloured images that Japanese studios churned out in the 19th century, of Samurais and Geishas, rickshaw drivers and Buddhist monks, were for European consumption. Philbert Ono found records from the Japan Trade Bureau indicating that in 1897 over 24 000 photographs were exported to the US and 20 000 to Europe. All of them were images of Japanese exotica, most would have been hand coloured.

K Yamamura, Yokohama, Cabinet card, C1870s

If Japanese photographers didn’t regard the production of stereotypes as belittling, neither it seems did they treat westerners dressing in Japanese garments and posing for a tea ceremony with suspicion. What appears on the surface to be a pitfall of exploitation is much more a straightforward business transaction, with culture merely a bargaining chip. Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito encouraged western dress and there are stories of westerners arriving in Japan in the 1890s to discover, to their disappointment, the citizens happily wandering about in European clothes. Meanwhile the kimono, Japanese prints, Japanese gardens, porcelain, even Zen were taking on European forms. Frank Lloyd Wright looked to Japan for inspiration, so did Matisse and the Bauhaus travelled east. All that was before we got the Nikon, Sony and the Honda.

Unidentified photographer, possibly at a World Fair in Europe, C1920s

This willingness of the Japanese to appropriate western attitudes to the Orient holds a secret to the country’s economic success in the 20th century. Happy to provide an image of itself that was outdated and irrelevant, Japan went better, reinforced and then adapted it. By the 1970s Japanese design was about the coolest thing on the planet. By the 1990s Tokyo made New York look tired and stale. If we gave the Japanese the hand coloured print. they sold it back to us, and a whole lot more besides.

Rickshaw drivers, hand coloured silver gelatin print, C1930s
Nippon Theatre, hand coloured souvenir photo C1950s
Royal Palace, Tokyo, hand coloured souvenir photo C1950s
Mt Fuji in the distance, C1950s 

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Pascal Sebah in Egypt

“The distinction between past, present and the future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Albert Einstein

 Pascal Sebah, The Step pyramid, Egypt, 190x250mm, C1860s

Distinguishing the work of Pascal Sebah from his contemporaries, the Abdullah Freres, takes a bit of skill. They were based in Constantinople and worked for the European market so they tended to photograph exactly the same monuments from more or less the same viewpoint. When it came to portraiture they followed European convention, the only difference being that their subjects wore outfits not often seen on the streets of London or Paris. They were the quintessential orientalists but they were not outsiders. Christians raised in Constantinople, they were familiar with the Muslim world, its mores and religious codes. Unlike the Europeans who turned up to open studios, they didn’t have to learn to fit in and knew how to gain access to places off limits to foreigners.

Pascal Sebah, Statue of Ramses 2nd, Egypt 190x250mm, C1860s

Two things mark Pascal Sebah’s work as different from other orientalists. One was that he ranged much further than everyone else, from Constantinople across to Algeria and Morocco. The other was that he appears to have photographed everything he saw. The dogs roaming Constantinople fascinated and offended foreign visitors. Sebah photographed packs of them sprawled on dusty streets. He documented musical instruments and jewelry, people at prayer and nudes reclining on divans, street beggars, middle class merchants and the daughters of nobility. If no other photographer had ever turned up in the Middle East, Sebah’s archive would stand as a sufficiently thorough catalogue.

Pascal Sebah, Ouverture du Pont, Nile, 190x250mm, C1860s

One of the problems with Sebah’s prolificacy is that the idiosyncrasies tend to get obscured by the routine. He understood the two fundamental elements of perspective in 19th century landscape photography; the role of light and shade in the image to create depth and the importance of scale and the great majority of his works conform to the formal aesthetic principles required to meet market expectations. Occasionally he turned to interpretation – there is a famous image of Arabs crossing sand dunes, a camel’s skeleton in the foreground - but mostly he regarded himself as a recorder of fact. Sometimes he turned his attention to details Europeans weren’t interested in. Overwhelmed by spectacle and space, they sought aesthetic beauty in the ruins. The Step Pyramid in his photograph is eroded and crumbling and hardly bears witness to the triumph of Egyptian engineering. Compare it to Legekian’s photograph of the Temple of the Sphinx, which is all symmetry and balance right down to the neatly aligned stonework at the back. Likewise the photograph titled ‘Le Nil (ouverture du pont)’ draws the eye in through the gap to the feluccas on the river but the scene overall is messy and whether intentionally or otherwise he gives a sense of the chaos of activity at the water’s edge. That said, he photographed the pyramid at Cheops, the Sphinx and other famous ruins knowing that so long as he stuck to basic principles he was guaranteed sales. 

 Pascal Sebah, Mosque of Mohamet Ai, Cairo, 190x250mm, C1860s 
It is probably the case that he would have found one European obsession with the ancient east baffling. The idea that there was a continuum of empire that linked the Egyptian to the Greek to the Roman, the Byzantine and up to modern times was a point of rivalry between Britain and France. Napoleon had assumed he was a logical heir, the British weren’t so sure of that. European photographers arrived in Egypt at about the mid-point of the great plundering, when temples were sacked and enormous statues shipped up the Nile and sent to museums. One of the motivations for portraying Ancient Egypt’s splendours in pristine beauty was to imply that these were ours, so to speak. As an Ottoman of Arab background (his parents were Syrian) he may have exploited the theory but he can’t have had much sympathy for it. The Ottomans, colonizers of the very lands Europeans believed held their imperial heritage, were excluded from the equation and regarded as tenants rather than landowners.  

Legekian, Temple of the Sphinx, Egypt, 200x270mm, C1870s

Pascal Sebah died in 1886 and his son Jean took over the business. Though apparently not christened with his father’s first name he was mindful of his reputation so signed his work J Pascal Sebah. In 1888 he formed a partnership with Polycarpe Joaillier and Sebah & Joaillier became the biggest studio in Constantinople. 

J P Sebah, Statues of Ramses, Karnak, Egypt, 200x290, C1880s, 

L Fiorillo, Pompey's Column, Alexandria, C1870s


Wednesday, 2 June 2010


19th century portraits from Egypt and North Africa

One curious thing here is the respect, or rather the terror, that everyone displays in the presence of the Franks, as they call Europeans.
Flaubert in a letter to his mother from Alexandria, dated November 17, 1849

When Gustave Flaubert accompanied the photographer Maxime du Camp to Egypt in 1849 he wasn’t yet a famous author but he was a diligent writer. He took notes, kept a diary and sent letters home. Those he sent to his mother described visits to ancient ruins, the heat and encounters with various characters; everything she’d expect to hear from a dutiful son broadening his mind with travel. The letters he sent to his friend Louis Bouilhet had a somewhat different focus:

At Kena I had a beautiful whore who liked me very much and told me in sign language that I had beautiful eyes … and there was another, fat and lubricious, on top of whom I enjoyed myself immensely and who smelled of rancid butter.
(June, 1850)

Flaubert was hardly establishing a tradition – hundreds, perhaps thousands of 19th century travellers had explored Egypt’s ruins and brothels before him – but their descriptions tended to the asinine or only hinted at what they got up to in the evening when they returned from sightseeing. He was one of the earliest writers to depict the somewhat schizophrenic attraction of Egypt. On the one hand it was the land of an ancient civilization still influencing European culture, on the other, cities like Cairo offered all manner of sins and iniquities at bargain prices. The Islamic veil, supposedly intended to protect and distance women, became a symbol to Europeans of exotic, sensual mystery.

For Europeans, access to the world beyond the street was usually difficult to obtain. They were left to wonder what lay behind the walls of the harems, or rather, they left that to their imaginations, were rarely permitted to enter mosques let alone photograph the interior, particularly when people were at prayer, and there are so few accounts of Westerners entering ordinary homes it can be assumed it never happened. It’s not surprising then that so many portraits from the period are of poor tradesmen and workers. These were the people Europeans came into contact with most often and they would have been happy, at least willing, to pose on the offer of a few piastres. What they weren’t to know was that their portraits would appear in expensively produced albums for the European market and they would become representatives from the Arab world. Cairo and the other cities were dusty, squalid places full of beggars and thieves. The dim, narrow streets contained hidden dangers. The intrepid adventurer risked his or her life going there.

It’s worth remembering that people weren’t any kinder towards the denizens of London’s slums. The world Dickens described was every bit as depraved as Cairo and Henry Mayhew’s three volume London Labour and the London Poor catalogued a vast economy of street operators. Mayhew couldn’t illustrate his accounts with photographs but he could use lithographs based on them. The difference was that Dickens and Mayhew were reformers. The photographs here show types whose poverty and physical debilitations were less affecting than their confirmation of everything exotic, sinister and strange about the Middle East.

In 1869, some years after she’d broken up with Flaubert, the writer Louise Colet was in Egypt and went looking for one of the prostitutes he had eulogized. She had a name and a location but wherever she went she met ignorance or indifference. What did she expect? Kucuk Hanim (‘Little Lady’ in Turkish) had probably died abused and neglected years earlier and who was likely to remember her? Only a Frenchman obsessed with his own prowess.