In the 1840s and 1850s, during the first half-century of its "opening" to the West, a handful of daring Europeans and Americans set out for Egypt with their cameras. Their ambitions ranged from updating written accounts of the faraway land to documenting its magnificent architecture. These artist-pioneers photographed the pyramids of Giza and the temples of Karnak, Luxor, and Abu Simbel, at a moment of pristine and almost tragic beauty, portraying the material of a legendary culture—for centuries interred—as it emerged from the sand.
The exhibition features a group of rare salted paper prints from a unique photographic album. Drawn from the collection of a legendary French architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the photographs were made by Maxime Du Camp, a Parisian journalist who, in 1849–51, traveled to Egypt with a notable companion: the novelist Gustave Flaubert. The two Frenchmen, both uninhibited writers searching for new experiences, spent months along the Nile recording their impressions in words and pictures. One dramatic photograph, titled Westernmost Colossus of the Temple of Re, Abu Simbel, shows just the head of a sixty-five foot statue of Ramesses II rising from the desert. Atop the king's crown, like a bird on its roost, sits the photographer's assistant.
In 1851, the year Du Camp and Flaubert returned to France, an ambitious civil engineer from Grenoble set out for Egypt. Félix Teynard's express purpose was to update the standard architectural reference of the day, Déscription de l'Égypte, a lavish publication of oversized engravings that was issued by Napoléon between 1809 and 1828. Teynard understood the engineering skills of ancient architects and builders, and his approach to capturing the sheer physicality of the structures they created was graphically innovative and startlingly modern. A striking example is Rock-cut Architecture, Tomb of Amenemhat, Beni Hasan. Teynard left a signature within this bold composition of light and dark by placing a European bentwood cane against a column. Like a surveyor's measure, the cane indicates scale.
The only American known to have worked in Egypt in the early years of photography was John Beasley Greene, a Paris-based archaeologist. From 1852 to 1855, Greene concentrated his studies on the excavations at Deir el-Bahri and Thebes, chiefly involved in the cleaning and analysis of inscriptions. In the photograph titled Dakka, however, Greene abandoned his scientific duties and made a poetic study of a jagged shadow swallowing up the surface decoration on a temple wall. In a sun-blazed land, the cool shadows must have been an oasis for the eye.
The most well-known of all the early photographers of Egypt is Francis Frith, an enterprising businessman from Liverpool. Like many Victorians, Frith fell under the Nile's spell and made three journeys to Egypt, beginning in 1855. By then, photographers had found a way to dramatically increase the sharpness and transparency of their images by replacing paper negatives with glass. The crystalline clarity and classic probity of The Ramesseum of El-Kurneh, Thebes—First View is expressive of the period's romantic fascination with the exotic, and also reveals the era's enthusiasm for fact-gathering and documentation. Frith's work heralds the maturation of the photography profession and also signals the first successful commercialization of the many wonders that were to be found along the Nile.