I remember the professional pictures of Brunelleschi’s duomo and Giotto’s campanile: stolid, evenly saturated. Glossy renditions of the cathedral littered the postcards and travel guides in Florence. I seemed to stumble through the angled streets, swept up in some necessary pilgrimage until I was thrown off by the cathedral’s great convexity—the church and baptistery seemed to balloon out into the street, stone walls inducing some claustrophobic motion in my head. It was all glimpsed from alleys, partially obstructed and generally too large to take in. But the postcards continued their didactic assault: take it all in at once. The truth that those pictures declared did not meet my experience. The thing itself was too dimensional, too winding and layered to register in my memory.
Why does memory falter when faced with photographs? What strange power does a glossy image hold over our cognition? In the Met’s dark photography galleries, I looked for answers in the daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey from the 1840s. Searching for subtlety, dimensionality, I was overwhelmed with sparkling reflections, a materiality that obliterated the images.
On viewMetropolitan Museum of Art
January 30 – May 12, 2019
In 1839, when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre unveiled his photographic process developed with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, an immense freedom must have been felt followed by an anxious rush. With the advent of accurate visual transcription and the possibility of infinite pictures, the question begged: what to record?
Those that chose to undertake the laborious, expensive calling of daguerreotypy found an obvious answer: portraiture. Of all things that could be fixed in time and frozen into a picture, the image of oneself or a loved one seemed to offer the most straightforward reward. But what, beyond the living, could prove an adequate subject for such a novel process? Whether through curiosity or unexplained fervor, several early photographers undertook the task of cataloguing the world’s architectural ruins—sites that, for most, would never be accessible without photographic reproduction.
One of the first photographers to undertake such a project, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804–92), was certainly one of the most prolific. This exhibition at the Met gathers over 100 of his daguerreotypes, less than a tenth of his total production, focusing on his extensive travels east through the Mediterranean from 1842 to 1845. Though it only occupies a few small galleries of the museum’s photography wing, the collection is filled with small pictures of a vast geographic scope.
The exhibition begins with a self-portrait. Seated in front of a Damask pattern, Girault looks past the camera, one hand on a large tome, the other holding a drawing implement. The props tell us the subject here is both a draughtsman and an intellectual, wealthy and well-traveled. This composition—posed, fabricated, rehearsed—is an important preface to the exhibition. Photographs, with their seeming material truth, are just as easily disingenuous, just as likely to present an illusion as painting or illustration. Though light fell on a scene and collected on a sensitized plate, even in its inception, the scene itself was subject to all sorts of tampering, modulation, and retouching. The challenge, then, is to see these objects—laid out in contemporary vitrines—not as straight 19th century documentation, but as compositions produced from a subjective vantage.
Girault de Prangey was born into an aristocratic family in Langres, a Gallo-Roman town in northeastern France. As a young adult, he inherited the family fortune and decided to study landscape painting in Paris. Afterwards, he returned to his hometown to settle in the family mansion, quickly becoming involved with the cataloguing of Langres’s historic architectural monuments and ruins. With seemingly unlimited financial resources, he set out on a series of trips to Italy, Spain, and northern Africa, demonstrating an interest not only in painting, but in illustration and archeology, and subsequently publishing two volumes on Islamic architecture.
Before embarking on his longest journey, Girault familiarized himself with the daguerreotype process, an invention that would facilitate the capture of architectural detail for later drawing. Traveling east, he surveyed prominent architectural sites around the Mediterranean, exposing over 1000 plates. These photographs were used as reference for illustrations in two publications, Monuments arabes d’Egypte, de Syrie et d’Asie-Mineure in 1846 and Monuments et paysages de l’Orient in 1851. Decades after Girault’s death, a distant relative discovered boxes of the fragile daguerreotypes in the abandoned villa, neatly arranged, gathering dust.
“What a strange effect, this silvery glimmer and mirror-like sheen!”1
The exhibition design builds a quiet drama, the objects recessed in velvety vitrines, scintillating like jewelry on display or luminescent creatures in an aquarium tank. These precise conditions assert that the objects are more artifacts than artworks: unearthed, fragile, and precious. Curator Stephen C. Pinson, in his catalogue essay, notes that Girault viewed his daguerreotypes as tools similar to plaster casts, “imprints” of the site rather than artistic endeavors.
These pictures are hard to look at. They resist illusion. Under directional lights, the silver-plated copper fluctuates: positive becomes negative, matte and gloss reverse with every tilt of the head. The exposed fields alternate between silver and gold, fringed with blue and violet. I can see my contorted reflection in the surface highlights.
The vitrines form distinct ambulatories to guide traffic. I circle the cases, peering in at their treasure. After multiple trips, I am finally able to look through the plexiglass, smudged with the greasy imprints of eager viewers, past the scintillating frames, and past the surfaces of the pictures themselves, mottled and reflective, to see what Girault’s lens captured.
“This time, it is no longer the uncertain gaze of man that discovers shade or light from afar, it is no longer his trembling hand that reproduces upon unstable paper the changing scene of this world, carried away by the void.”2
The most inventively composed image in the show is not a view from Girault’s Mediterranean trip, but a still life in a Parisian garden. A bust modeled after the Venus de’ Medici is placed in front of an arched exterior doorway, overgrown with ivy and other foliage. Looking closely, a faint veil is visible, draped over the bust. Given the prolonged exposure necessary to render detail in the dark green leaves, a semi-translucent covering was necessary to avoid overexposure on the bright, reflective material of the sculpture.
Just a few years after Daguerre’s unveiling of his new process, Girault was already experimenting with the modulation of light and tampering with his subjects to create a more ideal composition. In a photograph of the ruins of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Girault has moved the capital from a fallen column in order to isolate it, presenting it upside down as some alien mushroom cap. The more time is spent with the photographs, the more subjective this documentary vision becomes.
Two pictures of the church of Santi Luca e Martina in Rome, foregrounded by the ruins of the Temple of Vespasian, present drastically different visual experiences. By merely adjusting the exposure time for the plate, Girault composed two distinct ambiances: the longer exposure allows the church’s façade to gleam in the light, while in the shorter exposure, highlights are found only in the sky and the dispersed rubble, lending the entire scene a somber air, as if we were viewing some bombed out city. The sun—under whose democratic rays one would expect faithful representations, free from subjectivity—appears here as a tool endlessly manipulated by the artist’s hand.
That the majority of these pictures are uninhabited speaks both to the influence of the Western conception of these lands as ancient or primitive, as well as to the physical limitations of the medium. With exposure times of up to half an hour, capturing a living subject usually required a carefully considered pose. It is refreshing, then, to see the blur of a camel in the desert, or the ghostly imprints of figures in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Girault’s camera surveys the landscape in a strange way, mirroring the erratic movements of his eye. Atop hills and towers, he composes moody panoramas, such as the foggy view of the Villa Medici, or the cluttered constructions of Rome as seen from the Column of Trajan. His eye scans horizontally, capturing the Great Mosque of Damascus in two frames, the plates accelerating laterally as if they were film stills. He trains his lens up the columns of the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, then focuses on the entablature, content to capture that skinny strip of shadow. Then, in moments of arresting stillness, he zooms in, letting a singular detail accumulate on the silver—the precise decoration on the portal of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, the radial fronds of a palm tree in Athens, the only mark of life in Girault’s portrayal of the ancient city.
In a view of the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Cairo, the blue sky shines through a pointed arch. In longer exposures, the silver coating of daguerreotypes can sometimes turn into a bright cyan in the solarized highlights. That simple deep blue shape contains within it important evidence. At the time, the origin of the ogival arch was debated—was it Byzantine or Islamic? The Société française pour la conservation des monuments excitedly reported before Girault’s journey that he would employ the new daguerreotypes to study the origin of the Gothic arch. No doubt, the Société hoped for evidence that the arch derived from Roman, not Islamic sources. But, in photograph after photograph, the pointed arch appears integrated in the structure of ancient mosques. Modern consensus suggests that this invention of Islamic engineering began in Syria and made its way to Europe through Tunisia and Sicily.
Without Girault’s complete writings, it is hard to decipher the exact motivations and conclusions of his journey. His early writings, however, do tell us what he expected to find along the way: a civilization in its early stages, a mirage nurtured by fiction. In his 1841 Essai sur l’architecture des Arabes et de Mores en Sicile et en Barbarie, he presents the Arab world as nascent, just removed from nomadism: “The Arabs must have been, for a long time, strangers to the arts, to science and letters, those brilliant conquests of civilization.” Such thorough travel through the Middle East must have challenged Girault’s initial views, must have demonstrated regions rich in scientific and artistic development.
A row of portraits at the exhibition’s center presents locals from his travels as types: the horse driver, the sailor, the exotic woman. A fellow Frenchman from Langres, Nicolas Perron, is pictured with his family in his new home in Cairo. Dressed in a fez, the professor of medicine gestures towards a compass and an armillary sphere. While the portrait of an Egyptian woman named Ayousha nearby is a staged scene of leisure, complete with hookah, Perron, a French immigrant to Egypt, here wields instruments of Islamic scientific discovery. In the vitrine, shadows cast from the raised frames create ghost imprints in the background, suggestions of other faces and untold narratives.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (not yet operating under the pseudonym Le Corbusier) undertook his journey east in 1910, surveying and drawing from significant architectural sites. Present in Istanbul for the great Aksaray fire of 1911, he describes the tragedy as a transformative experience. In his journal entry, the city ravaged by fire becomes a perverse realization of a fantasy. In the flames, the crumbling architecture—ruins in the making—finally fulfills some expectation for chaos:
Through a view of flames, under the immense swarm of golden fire, we glimpse other minarets, white like overheated iron. In a whirl, raging coals go diabolic, dancing, bringing devastation for hundreds of meters. […] We are consumed by the columns of gold, just as the houses are, and we search no more to appease the overwhelming passion for diabolic beauty. We speak of the fantastic, borne from those cupolas and minarets. Finally, we find a piece of that Constantinople—that grandeur and magic—that we dreamed of.
What sources composed Jeanneret’s mental image of Constantinople, conditioning him to expect not a modern city, but a scene of conflict and ruin? There were plenty of itineraries and travel books for French travelers to consult, by such authors as Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nerval, Gautier, Loti, and Flaubert. He must have also seen lithographs based on photographs like those made by Girault de Prangey, emphasizing ruins populated with orientalized, anachronistic figures.
That each subsequent generation of travelers sought out what was described by their former countrymen—stretching and bending their experiences to fit into preconceived formulas of self discovery, ignoring the lived experience of those they encountered along the way—that the West’s accounts of the East further distort themselves with every repetition, makes it hard to imagine these photographs as belonging to anything more than that continuum.
The exhibition’s last gallery showcases Girault’s later experiments with new photographic methods, which included glass plate negatives and albumen silver prints. The last photograph is another self-portrait, a stereoscopic print which, when viewed through a special apparatus, produces the illusion of a three dimensional image. In this gallery, more than others, photography’s unstoppable forward momentum is at its most palpable.
Down the hall, in Théodore Géricault’s Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct (1818), the sun sets on an anonymous Italian countryside. Just beyond, worshippers pray in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1871 mosque scene. If the time spent with Girault de Prangey’s daguerreotypes yields any concrete reward, it is that these types of romantic and orientalizing scenes start to unravel, their composite parts separating, revealing the rough manufacture of the whole. In adjoining galleries, stone capitals and pediments from Cyprus gleam in the light, raw evidence without meaning.
Slowly, I regain memories of Florence: the striations of multicolored marble, the dense façade, the bronze doors of the baptistery. Still, I have no view of the building in its entirety, only glimpses of sky between winding streets, negatives cut out in shifting, crenelated forms, my eyes panning along their axes, ignorant of the horizon.
One of Girault de Prangey’s novel inventions was a slide-draw camera-back with masks that allowed multiple exposures to be made on the same plate. After development, the copper was cut in half or quartered to separate the unique images. A few of the plates in the exhibition remain uncut and present unplanned diptychs. My favorite of them shows two street views of Rosetta, a city famous for the stone that allowed scholars to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. The two scenes are upside down from each other, angled so that the border is unclear. At first, the subject is illegible, just a study of forms and values. Leaning in, bricks and windows appear, and the scene reveals itself. But it is easy to get pulled back in, lured to those unknown shapes, undefined by anyone but you.
- Sadakichi Hartmann, “The Daguerrotype,” 1912.
- Jules Janin, “Le Daguerotype,” 1839.