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Sunday, 29 May 2016


Panoramic postcards of Egypt by Lehnert & Landrock
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”
Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

 When Rudolph Lehnert and Ernest Landrock moved their photographic studio from Tunis to Cairo in 1924 they were announcing to anyone listening that Egypt’s capital was also the cultural capital of the Middle East. Not that they decided this: the year before, Howard Carter and his team had broken into Tutankhamen’s tomb and Ancient Egypt had once again become the most exciting idea on the planet. In far off Hastings, builders excavating a basement discovered some odd glyphs in a dingy tunnel and for a moment the theory that ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians had visited the place was kicked around. The place called Ancient Egypt, or at least the idea of it, had seldom been out of fashion’s eye in the last fifty years but now it was back centre stage. There were at least half a dozen other companies in Cairo producing real photo postcards for the European market but Lehnert & Landrock would become the best known.

 Lehnert, the photographer, had certainly worked in Egypt before the company opened shop there but once it did, business flourished. We can think of its halcyon years as coming between 1924 and the beginning of the war. Although a great enthusiasm among the British for German product seems unpatriotic, even love of country has its limits. There was a booming international market for shots of L&L’s most renowned genre: nude Bedouin women, and the British were driving demand as much as anyone else. But anyway, we’re not here to talk about that, or even more dubious genres the company marketed but rather the flip side; Egypt as a phenomenon of cultural sophistication.  

 From the beginning, postcards were the familiar size by which we know them, approximately 3½ x 6 inches, because they fitted the standard envelopes for informal correspondence. In some countries the laws sounded specific; the post card had to be ‘no more than’ or ‘less than’ or ‘at least’, but this only meant that anything that fitted within the required dimensions was legitimate. Publishers produced midget size and giant size postcards but the most common irregular format was the bookmark size, and though bookmarks of stage stars were popular, landscapes and street views have become the most enduring, especially the bookmark postcards from Cairo that Lehnert and Landrock produced.

 One of the company’s achievements was that it managed to make Egypt look how everyone imagined it to be; a land still touched by its ancient past, with oases of palm trees providing shade from which to contemplate the pyramids, maze-like souks, the stalls piled high with ornate rugs and silverware, and watched over by hawk-eyed Muslims. One hundred years ago, the abiding image of Muslims was of devout, silent and impassive people. Of course, not long before in the Sudan and southern parts of Egypt Muslims were fanatics who needed to be suppressed with violence if necessary, but that was now the past. In popular culture the siege of Khartoum was just another heroic chapter in the history of the British Empire.  

 From 1882 until 1922 Egypt was officially a British protectorate (and less officially into the 1950s). This explains why Cairo, a city inhabited by Egyptians since 969 CE would have a ‘native quarter’.  This was both a ghetto and a slum – neither being necessarily the same thing – separate from areas occupied by Europeans, Armenians, Alexandrine Greeks, Jews and Ottoman Turks. Egypt at this time, well, until 1914, was also a khedivate of the Ottoman Empire. The condition for Egyptians was something like being the child of two parents whose contempt for each other was outmatched by that for their offspring. Said children are usually destined for a miserable adulthood.

Cleopatra, Khartoum, The Greatest Story Ever Told: in the 1960s Egypt became the canvas for epic visions, though ‘bombastic’ might be a better adjective. There’s a suspicion, and maybe nothing more, that one influence was these panoramic views; well they share the same format and there is something about the panorama, no matter how small, that speaks of the vast – in time as well as space. To create this image the studio simply took a standard format negative and cropped what wasn’t needed. There isn’t the distortion a genuine panoramic camera would produce. Still, removing whatever was extraneous and leaving the palms, the camel, the cart and the porter suggests a scene that could take place anytime in the last 200 years. Interestingly this is titled Kasr el Nil Bridge but it may be the one it replaced in 1931, the Kobri el Gezira. Photos of that one have the palms but they are absent in views of the later bridge. 

 The Orientalist argument says that these views tell us more about the consumers than the place, which should be beyond dispute by now, but what after all do they tell us about Cairo? Where, for one thing, are the crowds? Today the city is so densely packed that a view like this one seems impossible even at unlikely hours. Was it really so magically empty in the 1920s? No. As far back at the 1500s, when Europeans began arguing over the biggest, the richest and the most powerful cities in the world, three were inevitably ignored: Peking, Bombay and Cairo. As engines of civilization they were derided, despite the monumental evidence opposing that, and despite the popularity of Ancient Egypt stemming from the great desire of London, Paris, Rome etc to be seen as the inevitable heir to its culture. So no; this is not the vast, hectic and noisy city tourists encountered but somewhere ancient and austere: the place they came to find.


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