Egypt exhibit puts early photography in perspective

July 19, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In exploring the early photography of Egypt, the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Excursions Along the Nile" sheds light on Egypt, but also on photography.

With its thousands of years of history and its immense monuments, Egypt has always been a land of fascination. The introduction of photography in the mid-19th century only fueled an already intense interest, and by the 1850s photographers were recording Egyptian sites from the pyramids to details of hieroglyphic-filled walls.

This show, organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and selected from the holdings of collectors Michael and Jane Wilson, contains works from five decades beginning in 1850 with the rich, evocative images of French photographer Maxime Du Camp.

The 80 works include examples by dozens of photographers, but there is a concentration on major ones, among them the Frenchmen Du Camp and Felix Teynal, the American John Beasley Greene and the Englishmen Francis Bedford and Francis Frith -- the last of whom has the largest representation with 20 works.

As much as anything else, these works vividly demonstrate how much a photographic "record" depends on the artist, his point of view and the means available to him. From the beginning these artists (and of course their audiences) were most interested in the monuments of antiquity -- the pyramids, the sphinx, the temples at Thebes and Philae.

There are few images of then modern-day Egypt, and the photographs of people tend to be staged shots that reinforce European stereotypes of "the natives" in quaint costumes pursuing equally quaint occupations -- dung sellers, water carriers, yarn spinners.

We are given, then, the Egypt Europeans wanted to see. But even within those limits, it's revealing to see how works that were meant to be documents can leave sharply differing impressions. That's true of three separate photographs of the sphinx and the largest pyramid -- by Frith (1858), Henry Cammas (about 1860) and Frank Mason Good (1873).

Because of the location of their cameras, the Frith and Cammas photographs lead the viewer to quite different ideas of where the sphinx is placed in relation to the pyramid.

Because Good took his photograph from close to the sphinx and Cammas took his from much farther away, the relative sizes of the two objects appear to be completely different. In the Cammas photograph, the sphinx seems tiny in comparison to the pyramid; whereas in the Good photograph the two appear to be almost the same size. The truth probably lies somewhere between.

The means the photographer has at his disposal make a big difference, too, as demonstrated by two photographs of the same street in Cairo, one by an anonymous photographer (1850s) and one by James Robertson and Felix Beato (1857).

The first is a salt print from a paper negative, an early method of producing a photograph; the second is an albumen print from a glass negative, a later development.

The albumen print could certainly be thought of as an advance, for its image is sharper and more detailed. But if something has been gained, something else has been lost, for the salt print is the moodier, more romantic of the two images.

Its buildings seem to be weeping their shadows, and there is an air of exoticism and mystery to this image almost completely missing from the more straightforward albumen print.

PORTRAITS OF EGYPT

What: "Excursions Along the Nile: The Photographic Discovery of Ancient Egypt"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 1

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

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