Imagine the shock of French writer Gustave Flaubert and photographer Maxime Du Camp when, during their explorations of Egypt in 1850, they stumbled upon an ancient, massive half-buried figure, part human and part animal, that fixed them “with a terrifying stare.” They fled in fright, although later circled back to photograph the monument, which before that date had been depicted only in a few drawings and lithographs.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century visitors would have had a very different reaction upon encountering the Great Sphinx of Giza: recognition. Du Camp’s images, and those of all the photographers who followed, deprived later visitors of the tingle of discovery and dampened the intensity of awe experienced by the two French travelers. By the time we get to the late 20th century, these monuments have become icons, still spectacular but also fodder for appropriation, irony, and humor. Juxtaposing 19th-century views with late 20th-century photographic interpretations, Pyramids & Sphinxes traces some of these shifts in attitudes and emotions.
Du Camp’s photographs, along with the work of other adventurous photographers and painters of the time, were the primary sources of visual information about Egypt for most 19th-century Europeans. The exhibition presents examples of these awed and awe-inspiring images, many of them drawn from the museum’s collection. The show also marks the debut of a notable recent acquisition: a stunning watercolor of the portal of the Temple of Edfu by one of the great masters of Victorian English watercolor, John Frederick Lewis.
Lewis moved to Cairo in 1841 and stayed for almost a decade. He made the museum’s drawing on an expedition up the Nile with his wife in 1849–50, around the same period that the first photographers arrived in Egypt. At that time, the temple complex at Edfu was buried in sand to a depth of almost 40 feet. Lewis’s watercolor carefully renders and records, but transcends archaeological description to evoke the thrill of exploration and discovery. Also on view are two color lithographs based on drawings by another British artist, David Roberts. Such drawn and painted depictions served as models for the first photographers in Egypt, who came because of commissions from European governments or learned societies or to satisfy personal curiosity. Some learned to use the medium just for their Egyptian travels.
The tombs, temples, and fallen colossi described by photographer Adrien Bonfils as “this present which is still the past” remained the artists’ primary subjects, even once the British began constructing modern industrial conveniences such as railroads and the Suez Canal to facilitate commerce and tourism. Nestled amidst these ruins of a once glorious but now vanished empire were modern huts and houses, but the artists sought angles that eliminated them from view. Pyramids and sphinxes in desolate landscapes became the Western world’s vision of 19th-century Egypt.
Commercial photographic ventures soon arose to satisfy intense European curiosity about biblical lands. By the 1860s, the widespread availability of prints and photographs, along with the rise of the middle class and improvements in transportation, stimulated tourism to the Middle East. Regularly scheduled tours filled steamboats and trains. For souvenirs, tourists would visit the studios of professional photographers, usually Europeans who had taken up residence in Egypt, and select images from a standard catalogue of existing pictures. Two albums of images by professional photographers, assembled to commemorate excursions and sate the wanderlust of armchair travelers and amateur scholars, demonstrate the use of photography as memory, whether real or imagined. Then in 1888, the advent of the Kodak camera suddenly undercut the professionals’ market by allowing everyone to take their own photographs.
Despite our age’s familiarity with the monuments of ancient Egypt through pictures, artists still make pilgrimages to photograph them. Images by Lynn Davis, Paul Maurer, and Richard Misrach are imbued with the romance of their mid-19th-century predecessors. Others’ views comment on the impact of tourism, commercialism, and urban sprawl. Eugene O. Goldbeck’s 1971 panorama presents the pyramids and sphinx looming over roads clogged with tour buses and tourists. An ocean of plastic chairs for the nightly sound and light show flows between us and the pyramids in Alex Webb’s view of Giza. Both Webb and Misrach document modern urban life encroaching on ancient wonders, and the obverse: the pyramid and sphinx that form Las Vegas’s Luxor Hotel. Views of the ancient marvels of Egypt seemed fantastic to 19th-century armchair travelers but were accepted as faithful depictions because of photography’s supposedly inherent truthfulness.
Some 20th-century artists playfully question the medium’s reliability in their Egyptian images. Duane Michals and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen each built and photographed miniature versions of Egyptian structures that have become such potent symbols—or prevalent clichés—that they no longer need to be real to evoke an emotional response. Fred Parker’s reinterpretation of a print by the 19th-century photographer Francis Frith is perhaps the ultimate example of the slippage between fact and fancy. Parker traced onto acetate a reproduction of one of Frith’s photographs but reversed all the values in it, creating a hand-drawn version of Frith’s photographic negative. He then made a photographic print from that negative. The print looks photographic and thus convincingly real, but close examination reveals its handmade origin.
“Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished,” wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1955). As you visit Pyramids & Sphinxes, consider the impact of your visual journey. A second visit to a place never has quite the same sense of discovery and adventure as the first. Has photography already taken us to all the places we may visit, from ancient Egypt to outer space, and thus forever tarnished all possibility of novelty? Or does it help us venture quickly beyond a first impression to gain a deeper, richer experience of place?
Pyramid and Palms, California 1976. Ruth Thorne-Thomsen (American, born 1943). Gelatin silver print, toned, from a paper negative; 9.2 x 11.7 cm. Courtesy of Schmidt Dean Gallery, Philadelphia