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Boys and girls - Photos d’identité - in colonial French Algeria In his famous Summer in the Sahara (Un été dans le Sahara, 1857), French orientalist painter and writer Eugène Fromentin wrote:
"To go further that he should be allowed inside the Arab life seems to me a misunderstanding curiosity. We must look at this people from the distance where they are used to being shown: closed to men, far from women and never in bedroom or mesquita."
With photography the cultural distance that painters had already surpassed became impossible to respect. A lot has already been written about North African women and bedrooms but very little about children.
In 2006 I was involved in the organization of the first ever Lehnert & Landrock exhibition in Tunis. To show photographs of nude women revealed an opposition between those who accept Western artistic notions, along with the ideological background to condemn what they consider as racism, and those who refused authorization for the display of such photographs. One of the arguments used was that some photographs were of children and therefore they had to take into consideration specific rights for public display of images of children which is a sensitive issue in contemporary society.
Our present perception of this issue depends of moral considerations that have changed over space and time. Twenty years ago, David Hamilton‘s evanescent young girls were omnipresent in the Western media. Today, because of the increasing awareness of pedophilia and the traumatic consequences of how past photography is now viewed, he refused allowing his work to be shown in the recent exhibition at the Elysee Foundation in Lausanne which examined photographs which were involved in legal proceedings, polemics or scandals, from Brook Shields nude photography through to Kevin Carter who committed suicide after the public controversy raised by his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning Sudanese photograph. Children, again…
From 1856 and Felix Moulin’s photographic campaign, Algeria was the first French colonial territory where photographers were working, establishing and expanding their commercial businesses. This expansion was largely thanks to the 1854 invention by Eugene Disdéri of the carte-de-visite (CDV). From its introduction until the end of nineteenth century the portrait CDV was the main support for commercial photography thanks to the use of glass plate negatives from 1851 which reduced costs, improved clarity and simplified the process. The study of the CDV reveals social and cultural issues as well as providing a comprehensive portrait for tourists and the public of Western Europe that purchased and collected thousands and thousands of these CDV in special albums - indeed the first photo albums were created specifically for CDVs. This does not imply, as is frequently stated by some intellectuals, that there is nothing about native traditional societies that can be learnt from these photographs.
Disdéri saw the business opportunities of providing reproducible portraits of a standard size that could reflect the social position of his clients at a better price than contemporary Daguerreotypes. Models paid to have portraits taken so they could be given away to market their most positive image just as the portraits of monarchs and celebrities were photographed by the same artists. In Algeria caïds cooperating with pro-arab Napoleon III policies and later with the even more generous Legion d’Honneur distributions of the Third French Republic were photographed. The motivations for taking these portraits had little to do with exoticism or the picturesque but rather showing that these notables are French allies. So, they were photographed with European backdrops just as if they were in Paris visiting the heart of the French Colonial Empire - which few of them really did. Even Emir Abd el-Kader learnt to appreciate frequenting Parisian photographic studios! French studio backdrops were reserved for the influential caïds but rarely for the children in this exhibition.
The situation with children is different from that of celebrities and notables. Even though there remain questions about the connections between photography in the Orient and colonialism, here the primary motivation was rarely to publicize authority or a political message but rather an exotic representation of the models the photographer had selected and normally paid. The resulting photographs were sold to the European public as what were already called Algerian types. A lot of photographs taken in Algeria were only specialised in portraits of the civilian or military Europeans but there were also types et vues for the local market and occasional tourists and visitors. Here, we could almost say that the CDV is the anticipation of postcard iconography, including first captions ("titre indicateur", says Claude Portier in his catalogue) and some occasionnal additional hand-written comments. At the end of the nineteenth century with the success of Kodak cameras and first photobooths for self portraits the CDV declined and Jean Geiser and Alexandre Leroux changed from making CDVs to the new and expanding world wide postcard market.
The selection in this exhibition shows the variety of photographs taken of children, studio shots and street scenes, ethnographic studies as well as those taken for artistic purposes. Would it be any different in Egypt or India where CDV representation codes were exactly the same? This exhibition allows also one to compare these clichés with contemporary photographs of children by the press and to remember that in the 19th century in many parts of the world there was little, if any, distinction between childhood and adulthood. We never must forget that photographs from this selection are seen through our own cultural perceptions rather than the unknowable thoughts of the photographer or the even more unknowable thoughts of the models. Native men often married girls before puberty and for boys, as in contemporary Europe, they had to work from a young age and there were many young beggars on the streets. This exhibition includes little known photographs and it is hoped it will help to encourage interest in CDVs in the study of 19th century photography.
Michel Mégnin (Toulouse, France, July 2008)
Michel Megnin is French collector born in the South of France in Toulouse (1957) and author of first biography of Lehnert & Landrock (Tunis 1900, Lehnert & Landrock photographes, Paris, Paris-Méditerranée et Tunis, Apollonia, 2005). This online exhibition is a special creation for Luminous-Lint from his most recent book, La photo-carte en Algérie au XIXe siècle (Paris, Non Lieu et Alger, Edif 2000, 2007). Michel considers himself a child of the Mediterranean and, through study of photography, he is seeking a better understanding of all his Mediterranean brothers, whatever their religions or origins. His two most important books were published on both sides of Mediterranean.