What did the world look like a century ago? Two centuries ago? It’s a question humanity often asks. Answering it may be one reason we’re drawn to exhibitions of early photographs. And perhaps why many recent exhibitions of early photography have focused on Palestine and what was once called “the East.” Photographs, etching, engravings, lithographs — all of these images provide a potential window into that lost world. To take one example: when the Watercolour World launched its online database of global images of the world before 1900 to great fanfare earlier this year, it was promoted for providing access to “documentary” evidence, records of the past. “The Watercolour World,” announced its founder, “provides an accurate and dated visual account of how the natural world used to be.”
Yes, these images are a record in some ways. But they are also products of our humanity. They select. They distort. This idea seems intuitive enough with regard to watercolors or etchings, but it is true of photography as well. The photographer chooses what to photograph, and what not to. He (and in West Asia in the 19th century it is pretty much always a male) frames the scene. He determines the exposure time, chooses the time of day and the lighting. Each artist is essentially producer, director, and cinematographer of his own film. The result is that what we often take for granted as an objective record in fact reflects much human subjectivity.
To observe that images distort reality is nothing new. (John Berger and his collaborators reminded us of this in Ways of Seeing nearly 50 years ago.) What is more interesting and important is to see how and why this is done in European and, eventually, American images of Palestine.
Before photography, prints were often praised as being better than reality — or reality criticized for not living up to the image. “Oriental scenes look best in steel engravings,” declared Mark Twain in describing his own visit to Palestine. Twain’s book was satire, but it reflected a common enough attitude in real life. Charles Irby and James Mangles, two British naval officers who wrote an account of their travels through much of West Asia together in the late 1810s, spent several pages detailing their disappointment with Palmyra in Syria, complaining that it didn’t live up to the images from Robert Wood’s famous Ruins of Palmyra. “Although the designs are generally correct in the work of Wood and Dawkins,” they assure their readers, “we found that the execution of the sculpture is far inferior to what might have been expected from the engravings.” They were right! Wood presented the engravings as evidence for the state of Palmyra, but they were actually greatly elaborated from the original sketches made by Giovanni Battista Borra, the Italian architect who accompanied Wood. Those engravings also shrank the modern houses in the Temple of Bel enclosure — allowing greater appreciation of the ancient ruins, but making them appear grander and more monumental than they did in reality.
Perhaps the most famous artist to visit the “East” and illustrate his travels in the 19th century was the Scottish painter David Roberts, who reached Palestine in the early spring of 1839. Roberts made a number of prints that were turned into lithographs upon his return to Britain, and they sold widely. He has enjoyed a reputation for accuracy ever since. The critic John Ruskin judged the prints to be “accurate records” that were “faithful and laborious beyond any outlines from nature I had ever seen.” “He taught me,” Ruskin added, “attention and indefatigable attention to detail.”
The conception of accuracy here is an unusual one. Ruskin also criticized Roberts’s prints for their brightness and distraction of the foreground: “we have been encumbered with caftans, pipes, scymitars, and black hair, when all that we wanted was a lizard, or an ibis.” (At least one commenter has suggested that what really bothered Ruskin was the presence of the local population in Roberts’s foregrounds. But, at least on their face, Ruskin’s objections appear to be mostly aesthetic.) It was a common practice in lithographs and engravings to include local figures in the foregrounds of “Oriental” images, for a sense of scale as well as “local color.” It was commonly understood that these figures were more or less the creation of the artist or printmaker. In fact, Roberts quite often placed his foreground figures on a platform, looking at the views in the distance — such a common device that the platforms were clearly inventions of the artist. (I thank archaeologist Rafael Lewis for first bringing this observation to my attention.) But, as we see with Ruskin, these liberties were understood as a question of aesthetics and not accuracy! Later, Kenneth Clark suggested that Roberts — like Borra at Palmyra — made his human figures “a trifle small.” But Clark praised this move for adding to “the vastness and majesty of the Egyptian architecture.”
There are other, more serious issues of accuracy in Roberts’s prints. Look at his print of Gaza. In the foreground is a small group of people (on a platform, of course) amid colossal ruins, watching a troop of soldiers marching through the scene in the middle ground. Despite the name of the print, the city of Gaza itself is indistinct in the background. At the time, Gaza was a city of some 15,000 people. But you would never guess this from the image, where its size is hidden by the distance and vantage point.
There is also the issue of what Roberts chose to illustrate — and what not to. Roberts left a journal of his trip to Egypt and the Levant, as part of a biography published after his death. Reading his entries, we find much of the country is described as “richly cultivated,” populated with “olive orchards”; here we find a “pretty little village,” there a “beautiful little town.” Around Jaffa “the ground is carpeted with flowers,” Roberts observes, before concluding that “the country is the loveliest I ever beheld.”
That country, of the flower carpet and the beautiful little towns, is entirely missing from Roberts’s prints. The focus is not on natural beauty but colossal ruins, often half-buried in the sand (part of a larger trend in 19th-century images), and vast landscapes — usually pretty barren. This is all the more remarkable since Roberts traveled through Palestine in March and April, at the end of the rainy season, when (then as now, as Roberts’s journal attests) the ground really is carpeted with flowers and greenery fills up much of the landscape.
Another factor is the coloring of the prints. What we call Roberts’s illustrations are not his own drawings, of course, but lithographs made from them by Louis Haghe for publication in the 1840s. We are used to seeing the landscape in them colored in browns and rather dull greens. This coloring leads us even more to see the land as barren. But this coloring is characteristic of only one edition of the lithographs created at the time, the Royal Subscription edition. After being printed in colored inks, these lithographs were then hand colored. Circulating more widely was the Standard edition, whose prints were also made in colored inks but were not hand colored afterward. The result is an even more muted coloring — and an even greater impression of barrenness.
It is a remarkable coincidence that, the same year David Roberts visited Palestine, the invention of photography was announced back in Europe. Photographs were hailed as truthful record. European photographers of Palestine saw them as “facts endowed with a conclusive brutality,” “faithful representations,” “truthfulness” (either “simple” or “severe”), “unimpeachable.” The effect was so startling that David Roberts’s images — often the hallmark of accuracy — could now be seen as “poetry,” “eloquent drawings” in comparison to the “simplicity and literalness” of photographs.
But photography presents some of the same opportunities for subjectivity, and presents new ones too. Consider these two photographs of Ramallah from the early 20th century.
The print on the below is a detail of the one above; the view is otherwise identical. But we are left with a completely different impression when the print is colorized. What appears gray and drab on the top image is full of life in the bottom one — this is especially true of the field in the foreground, where the grass is barely visible and can be mistaken for dirt. As with Roberts’s images, simply the choice of color in a photographic print, or use of shades of black and gray, or brown tinting, have a major impact on how we see the landscape.
Early photographs of Palestine are remarkable for the absence of people — if anything, even fewer people than in the earlier lithographs and engravings. The earliest daguerreotypes of the region were not usually an end in themselves, since they couldn’t be photographically reproduced, but were a way to produce lithographs or engravings. And in those lithographs and engravings we see figures added in. This continues the tradition that we also see in the lithographs of Roberts’s illustrations.
Why the absence of people? One reason must be technical limitations. The exposure times needed for a legible photograph, especially when taking into account lighting conditions, were a severe obstacle for representing human activity. The earliest known photograph of a person is of someone getting their shoes shined on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838. What’s not immediately clear is that this was a busy street scene: most of the people who would’ve been present don’t appear because the exposure time must have been several minutes long, far too long to capture anyone or anything moving.
Publications by Daguerre and his assistant Alphonse-Eugène Hubert give recommended exposure times for different times of year, lighting conditions, locations, etcetera — all several minutes long, often more than 10. These recommendations were based in part on the first-hand observations of the artists Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet and Horace Vernet, who together took the earliest daguerreotypes of Egypt and West Asia in late 1839. The situation was little changed in the early 1840s, when Girault de Prangey took the earliest surviving photographs of the region. Blurry, often hard to make out, the few images of people — even in posed shots — show why they may have been avoided. Even in the 1860s, when nearly instantaneous photography was possible, photographers working in Palestine would often use longer exposure times. Sometimes this may have been necessary due to the use of large format cameras or choice of photographic process. Or they may have had a simple desire to not be rushed. Scottish photographer John Cramb, who took a series of photographs in Palestine in 1860, noted that, while he believed instantaneous photography would have been possible, he used exposure times of up to two minutes or more. These examples show that, eventually, longer exposures became a choice. Auguste Salzmann chose to photograph the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s doors early in the morning, before the church opened and the crowds arrived, and thus avoided the blur of people in Girault’s image.
Commercial considerations were key. Photographers and other artists, and especially their publishers, were keen to sell what audiences wanted to see. In his journal, David Roberts went into some detail about the arrangements he tried to make with different publishers, starting before he left on his journey. John Cramb was commissioned by a publisher in Glasgow, who gave him specific instructions of what to photograph, and how many views of them. In his notes from his visit (serialized in the British Journal of Photography in 1861), Cramb remarks on how he surprisingly found the men of Bethlehem to be ”fine models of humanity.” Then he expresses regret he did not photograph them: “I was not expected to spend my time on such subjects, though I now think it a pity that I was so scrupulous in the discharge of my duty.”
The fruits of these artists’ work reflect the photographers’ interests and those of their audiences, not in the Eastern Mediterranean but back home in Europe. Girault’s and Salzmann’s photographs emphasize architecture, Cramb’s and Francis Bedford’s the landscape. What they don’t emphasize are people. And certainly not people active in work — when shown, they are typically idle. The effect of these photographs, especially with the absence of people and movement, is a silence — like the silence in oil paintings pointed to by John Berger. In the case of early photographs, we still often mistake the silence of the photograph for the silence of the thing it represents, the actual landscape, as if the land itself were silent, empty.
Later in the 19th century, we do see more figures. Such images were especially popular around the turn of the century in stereographs: a pair of images with overlapping views of the same scene, printed on a postcard so it could be viewed through a special hand-held device (a stereoscope) that provided an early form of 3D image. Sometimes those figures are even active, whether working in the field or bustling in the marketplace. Photographs of activity were fine … so long as they didn’t hint at the modern world. Instead, they were meant to conjure biblical figures and stories. “His name might be Boaz, for aught we know,” as a stereoscope guide to Palestine says of a figure overseeing the harvest in one photograph. Western visitors to turn-of-the-century Palestine regretted that it was too modern. “If the few people in a semi-European dress — combining Paris with Bagdad fashions — were out of the way,” wrote the author of the same stereoscope guide, “we could easily imagine that we have been transported back a couple of thousand years, and that we are looking on a Joppa throng as the Apostle Peter saw it.” Others saw things such as the building of a railroad in the Holy Land as a sacrilege.
The point of the photographs was to show Palestine not as it was in the present, but as it had been — or rather, as it was believed to have been — in the biblical past. Silent scenes offered a window onto pastoral biblical scenes or allowed for quiet reflection. The goal was exactly the same whether those scenes were viewed remotely in photographs or on the spot by pilgrims. We know because they tell us. The New Testament scholar Edgar Goodspeed was glad to have traveled to Palestine in 1899, and not 50 years later: “Thinly populated and almost desolate as we saw it, it brought us all the closer to its ancient story, for there was nobody to come between us and it, and to distract our minds from what had been.”
That these representations of Palestine and the “East” are just that — subjective representation — becomes clear when we compare them to the works of local photographers, who had entirely different ways of representing the land and its people. It also becomes clear on the occasions when European images break the mold, when they give us human figures not as types but as named individuals, or foreground cities and their scenes of everyday life. But these are relatively rare exceptions. Draftsmen, printmakers, and photographers each had many tools at hand to minimize the very life they had seen in front of them. And they sometimes took conscious advantage. But often it wasn’t even intentional. For most European producers and consumers of these images, modern life in West Asia — the cities, towns, and villages, the buildings, and the people who lived in them — was simply not that important. The images they made and saw reflected these priorities, and further entrenched them. Meanwhile, the people who actually live in the region have been dealing with the effects of their own invisibility in Western eyes ever since.