Imagine being a mid-19th-century visitor to Egypt and having few preconceptions of what to expect. French writer Gustave Flaubert and photographer Maxime du Camp were giddy, emotional, and shocked when they encountered a half-buried figure, part human and part animal, that “fixes us with a terrifying stare.” They fled, although later returned to photograph the Sphinx. Even as the British constructed industrial infrastructure in Egypt to facilitate commerce and tourism, European artists used brush, paint, and camera to document tombs, temples, fallen colossi, and other monuments that symbolized a once glorious, now vanished empire. Their images avoided the modern huts and houses nestled among the ruins. Pyramids and sphinxes, not railroads and cities, became the Western world’s vision of 19th-century Egypt.
This exhibition opens with these awed-filled images, including the Cleveland debut of a stunning watercolor of the portal of the Temple of Edfu by John Frederick Lewis, a great master of Victorian English watercolor. Such depictions served as models for the first photographers to explore Egypt, who worked for governments, institutes, and archaeologists. Intense curiosity about biblical lands gave rise to commercial photographic ventures; by the 1860s, these images, along with the rise of the middle class and improvements in transportation, stimulated tourism to the Middle East.
It is now not possible for contemporary viewers to feel the shock of discovery described by du Camp and Flaubert; we have all seen innumerable photographs of the pharaonic monuments. Some artists, such as Lynn Davis and Paul Maurer, still imbue their depictions with admiration, fascination, and romance. But for many more, including Duane Michals, Richard Misrach, Ruth Thorne-Tomsen, and Alex Webb, these monuments have become clichés of the past amid the cacophony of contemporary life and nonstop tourism.