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Orientalism Adventurers with cameras and chemicals arrived to document the Biblical and archaeological sites of North Africa, the Middle East, the Near East and Egypt in the early 1840s.
Egypt was a particular favourite because of the public interest in all things Egyptian that was generated by the 1798-1801 military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte and this led to a fascination within France, and Europe more generally, of the archaeological sites. Baron Vivant Denon published a popular account of the campaign in 1802 Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, and the multivolume Déscription de l'Égypte (1809-1822) based on the research of the artists and scholars who accompanied Napoleon. The culmination of years of study was in 1822 when Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone allowing hieroglyphics to be translated for the first time.
The introduction of photography in 1839 meant that single plates, prints and albums of the locations could be placed before an already intrigued public and enterprising photographers immediately saw the commercial opportunities.
The 1978 book Orientalism by Edward Said questioned how the Orient was presented within Western attitudes and scholarship. The very concept of the "outsider" and the "exotic" devalued cultural complexity and meant that the literature, both fiction and non-fiction, debased the native cultures and created stereotypes that continue today. Such a narrative does a grave disservice to the richness and complexities of Islamic and Arabic cultures, nations and attitudes. The book was, and continues to be, criticized from a wide range of perspectives - many Western scholars supported local cultures, they did not all come from countries with imperial designs and the intellectuals were not the unwitting pawns of politicians and the military. The content largely addressed literature and to a lesser extent painting but excluded photography. Despite the intervening critical analysis the book continues to provide a much needed alternative perspective on western attitudes to the "Orient". Interestingly the spatial terms Near East and Middle East highlight how deeply embedded our attitudes are.
Photo-historian Nissan Perez examined the original nationalities of 250 early photographers who photographed the Near East and created the following table:
|Country of origin||Number||Percent|
|Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland||44||17.6|
|Residents of the Near East||15||6.0|
|Low countries, Malta, Poland, Russia, Switzerland||8||3.2|
Source : Nissan Perez, Focus East: Photography in the Near East 1839-1885, (New York: Abrams Domino, 1988), p. 76.
The numbers and percentages will change with further research but the table highlighted the dominance of French and British photographers in the nineteenth century. Even if Edward Said's arguments can be criticized there is no denying that the key image makers predominantly were from countries with imperial designs. In Egypt this was confirmed by the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 and the British defeat at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir of Colonel Ahmad Urabi and his forces who had risen up against the Ottoman Khedive. The outcome of this battle meant that British forces occupied Egypt until their final withdrawal in 1956. Through the nineteenth century each of the kingdoms and regions of North Africa were receiving increasing pressure from European countries with commercial, political and cultural interests - France in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Spain in what would become Spanish Sahara, while Libya and the Middle East were under declining Ottoman control.
Within Western Europe and America the Orient under Ottoman rule was characterised as exotic, different and politically sick and thus in need of protection. The imperial powers imposed a number of "Protectorates" to manage the waning control of Constantinople. It is this context that holds such a common sway upon the 19th century imagination and it was reflected in Western culture and the majority of travel writings, scientific accounts, literature, art and photography perpetuated the stereotypes and continues to do so.
In the selections of the subjects to photograph it was the reclining or veiled ladies, exotic dress, archaeological sites and great monuments that captured the imagination. These were the subjects of the early Daguerreotypists and calotypists, and the later albumen prints that were sold to the increasing numbers of biblical scholars, amateur archaeologists, travellers and the tourists that followed. Images of tourists clambering up the pyramids, traditional water sellers, mysterious veiled women, became the common stereotypes of the Orient. The travellers such as Baron Vivant Denon, Giovanni Battista Belzoni,, Captain Richard Francis Burton, Charles Doughty and Edward William Lane fuelled the desire for understanding the region, whilst Edward FitzGerald with his English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859) opened the well of literature. Copies of monuments were displayed at the Great Exhibition in England in 1851 and later Lawrence of Arabia would add to the myth of the exotic East.
At the same time a host of artists created alluring and sumptuous oil paintings of the Orient. The great painters, Ingres, Delacroix, Leighton, Frederick Edwin Church, John Singer Sargent and many others traveled to the Orient and their resulting works have come to be the material manifestation of the Western perception of "The Orient". Although it was not a conscious political statement the paintings can be viewed as a selective form of cultural propaganda. In their selection, and omission, the artists and photographers preserved the old and largely ignored nineteenth century modernisation.
The photography of the Orient should be viewed through a multi-faceted lens as it can, and has, been used to provide a blinkered view of a complex group of societies.
Alan Griffiths [October 2010)