14 albumen prints, framed, most signed, captioned, and numbered in French in negatives by photographers including Maison Bonfils and Zangaki images 20.32 x 26.7cm (8 x 10.5in). Taken circa 1890s
As artists approached the turn of the century, there was no more enviable a medium than photography. While painters sketched their surroundings and focused on every brush stroke to produce a convincing portrait or scene, a photographer now possessed the ability to capture that which a painter could not an entire image, perfectly rendered in an instant. Now, visions of the East, bred in the hothouse imaginations of Orientalist painters, were backed by photographs to prove to tourists and those abroad that such scenes and ways of life existed. The picturesque romance of the saturated Orientalist canvas found its mirror with the grainy silver and warm sepia-toned prints produced by early novices to professional artists who set up shop in the Middle East, such as Maison Bonfils and the Zangaki brothers, two photography firms represented in this lot.
Photography was an instrument of fragile truths, and it didn't take long for it to ensnare the market for Orientalist art by ways of feeding into the frenzy for exoticism. Photographers could and did document their own perpetuation of strange, other-worldly lands waiting to be conquered inhabited by natives lacking in Western propriety. Photography became its own brand of souvenir packaging in the Middle East as "the Oriental Maghreb was born in the darkrooms of Western photographers," to quote Éric Milet, travel guide and author of the comprehensive Orientalist Photography. The Orient became, yet again, a staged paradise of the Islamic world that dominated travelers' postcards rather than a reality, and the fictions such photographs represented were to achieve a history all their own.
In 1839, the French government made the process of Daguerreotype photography public, which was invented by Louis Daguerre together with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. This process created unique images that could only be copied by redaguerrotyping the original. By the 1850's, albumen prints were introduced, which became the first commercially usable method of producing a photographic print on paper base from a negative. Using the albumen found in egg whites to bind the chemicals to the paper, these prints became the dominant form of photography up until the turn of the twentieth century. This lot of photographs retains the vital characteristics of albumen prints, from the beautiful tonal ranges of sepia, to the purplish and blue brulee - the paler edges are due to glue.
Yet one of the more remarkable aspects of these prints is the wide variety of formality. Some photographs in the related lot highlight the domestic, such as the man carrying a goat skin water sack and the group of women in the river balancing large jugs on their heads, while others appear clearly staged, such as the studio family portrait in lot 154 which uses the traditional props favored by painters such as Ernst; musical instruments and the water pipe and the entertainment scene of a dancer performing with two turbaned musicians while a trio of women look on, unaffected. Photographic houses such as Maison Bonfils which some of the present photographs bear the firm's later white script signature met the commercial demand for tourist albums during the 1880's, producing work of mixed quality reminiscent of their earlier prints focused on Middle Eastern architecture and Egyptian vistas. Postcard ready prints of market scenes, family gatherings, studio portraiture, and exotic figures, such as the snake charmer and his cobras, filled the pages of those albums creating a tableaux of the familiar seeped in the mythology of the East.
The later 1890's, which saw the creation of the shinier, silver gelatin print, also became known as the period of 'High Orientalism' ending in the 1920s. During this time, pushing the photographic fantasy of the East to its limits resulted in the marriage of inconceivable Orientalist scenes with the new and high-spirited genre of cinema. This style stood out from earlier trend of smaller tourist snapshots and images ranging from everyday-kitsch to weighty sentimentality furthered Western romantic attachments to the Orient as a place of endless deserts and bold characters. Through the use of commercial photography, Orientalism would move from the exclusive salons to permeate the streets of Europe and beyond, reigniting an interest in the Middle East now revisited through the relics of simple yet captivating images.