In the late 19th century, many publishing companies produced stereoscopic photographs as a way to commercialize images of foreign lands as people began to travel more frequently and as tourism as an industry boomed. Underwood & Underwood was one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of these double images that offered illusions of three-dimensional worlds when seen through a stereoscope, and Egypt was a popular focus of the company’s many staff or freelance photographers. Originally sold as boxed sets accompanied by guidebooks and a viewer, 101 of these images that capture Egyptian culture between 1896 and 1897 are owned by the American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library and are on public display at its Photographic Gallery for the first time in Egypt Stereoviews: Underwood & Underwood. Although the Library digitized the collection in 2012 and each image was always available for students, the exhibition presents all the works together, accompanied by stereoviewer boxes and anaglyph eyeglasses so visitors may immerse themselves in these historic scenes.
Many images of Egypt that surfaced during this period show romanticized, postcard-perfect scenes of the country that captured Western ideas of the exotic, such as those printed by the duo Lehnert and Landrock that center on grand views of the desert and its oases, camel-riding bedouins dwarfed by pyramids, and studio-like portraits of locals. Although some images focused on such typical representations, Underwood & Underwood’s commissioned photographers — all now anonymous — to capture a wide variety of scenes, and many are spontaneous shots of locals that give viewers a sense of daily life in the desert.
One stereoview, for instance, shows a man having lunch outside the Temple of Medinet Habu in Thebes, with his food laid out on a small cloth. Seemingly oblivious to the camera, he is instead engaging with a group of women balancing jugs on their heads and waving palm leaves. Other quotidian scenes show women collecting water from the Nile, men herding goats by a step pyramid, or houseboats docked along the river.
Some pictures offer more unique views of daily life: in one snapshot-like image, children at a local feast sit in a small, rickety wooden ferris wheel — an unexpected appearance of a Western recreational invention. Another recalls the once-burgeoning global ostrich feather trade, showing a flock of ostriches — two grown, and a number of chicks — likely at an ostrich farm, where the birds were bred for their feathers. A number of stereoviews also show Egypt’s famous architecture, usually captured in pristine form, in moments of unglamorous ruin: in one, a man leans against the monumental tip of a broken obelisk at Karnak that balances on a pile of rocks; another is a spectacular capture of a man escaping the Temple of Kournah in Thebes as the massive archway above him gives way to gravity.
Many of Underwood & Underwood’s photos convey Egyptian life at face value, but the company’s branding still speaks to its Western perspective. Each stereoview came with brief descriptions and captions — translated into six Western languages — “which, content wise, often contain inaccuracies that may be interpreted as colonial approaches on the part of the publishing company,” as described on the exhibition’s website. Underwood & Underwood were not just distributing photographs but individually labeled ones, and such descriptors would have influenced thousands of consumers’ understandings of place as much as the black-and-white images themselves.
Egypt Stereoviews: Underwood & Underwood continues at the American University in Cairo’s Photographic Gallery (Abdul Latif Jameel Hall, Room P059, AUC New Cairo, Egypt) through November 12.
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