Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2014
Sophie Gordon Cairo to Constantinople: Francis Bedford's Photographs of the Middle East London: Royal Collection Publications, 2013. 256 pp.; 220 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781905686186)
Carmen Pérez González Local Portraiture: Through the Lens of the 19th-Century Iranian Photographers Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012. 228 pp.; 24 color ills.; 164 b/w ills. Paper $74.95 (9789087281564)
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Photographs, especially when experienced as reproductions in a book, have slippery identities teetering between the qualities of each material object and its represented subject. In contexts where collections, especially those in established public institutions, are scarce or difficult to access, the history of photography has tended to become an account of the subjects of pictures rather than the processes and practice of a medium. This tendency has been especially exaggerated in historical accounts of photography in the Middle East. Origin stories for photography in the Middle East often begin with a description of Napoleon’s colonial excursion to Egypt in 1798, and its subsequent citation at the public announcement of the invention of the daguerreotype in France in 1839, when it was promised to greatly improve future missions to the region. Thus, international politics and nationalist narratives of subject and surveyor became the framework for many considerations of early photography in the Middle East, begging the question: How does one begin to write an art history for photography in the region?

Cairo to Constantinople: Frances Bedford’s Photographs of the Middle East and Local Portraiture: Through the Lens of the 19th-Century Iranian Photographers offer two distinct methodological approaches to this question and thus a view onto the state of art-historical scholarship on Middle Eastern photography. The first is a biographical assessment of the series of photographs Francis Bedford made as part of the royal entourage to the Prince of Wales on his 1862 tour of the Middle East. Sophie Gordon’s presentation of Bedford attempts to distinguish him, as well as his royal patron, within the canon of important early practitioners and advocates of photography. Local Portraiture, on the other hand, culls together hundreds of photographs from the photographic studios of nineteenth-century Iran as well as Europe. These are grouped and subjected to formal analyses in order to reveal the principles that distinguish their cultural character. Carmen Pérez González thus looks not for exceptional photographic instances, but for the representative and typical.

Published by and featuring the photographic collection of the Royal Collection Trust of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Cairo to Constantinople chronicles the 1862 tour of Egypt and the Levant by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. The book’s text, as well as the treatment of the photographs, is as much about the prince’s voyage as it is about Bedford’s process, practice, or photographs. This large-format, well-illustrated publication credits the photographic accomplishment of Bedford to the royal family and situates the resultant portfolio of photographs within a specific lineage of James Robertson and Francis Frith, British citizens renowned for their pioneering photographic excursions in the Middle East. Likewise, this publication adds to the scholarly monographs of early photo-tourists to the region such as Bedford and the Prince, notably Douglas Nickel’s Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) (click here for review) and Nancy Micklewright’s A Victorian Traveler in the Middle East: The Photography and Travel Writing of Annie Lady Brassey (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003). Cairo to Constantinople distinguishes itself from these studies in part by its access to and heavy reliance on the Royal Archives as a primary source. The Royal Collection holds two sets of photographs from the 1862 tour, both of which belonged to the Prince of Wales. The 191 unique pictures that result from the combination of these two portfolios are presented as a catalog in the appendix to the book, arranged in chronological order of the tour.

Bedford produced his photographs as mammoth-sized (10 × 12 inch) glass-plate wet-collodion negatives, employing a technically laborious process that necessitated traveling with an enormous amount of equipment. This included a huge quantity of large and fragile glass panes, chemicals, white sheeting to shade the chemistry in the hot sun, and a portable darkroom that would allow him to apply the chemical emulsion to each glass plate immediately before its insertion into the box frame camera for exposure and to develop it afterwards. Given the time and patience required to achieve so many images of such clarity and careful composition, it is telling to learn that in a comparison of the dates inscribed in the negatives and the dates of the prince’s day book it becomes apparent that on certain days Bedford parted from the entourage, staying behind to photograph while the prince explored on horseback. Gordon, who is curator of the Royal Photographic Collection and a specialist in nineteenth-century architectural photography in India, frames the significance of the pictures that emerged from this tour as a career highlight within Bedford’s life and work. Gordon’s background makes her keenly attuned to that of Bedford, who, trained by his architect father, began his career as an architectural draftsman; thus, she points out that Bedford’s photographs differed in their careful attention to architectural depiction from Frith’s earlier views and from more amateur pictures taken during the prince’s second trip to the region.

Additionally, a short essay by Badr El-Hage, a photography collector, dealer, and scholar specializing in early photography from the region, details Bedford’s itinerary and offers a glimpse into the local photographic community he encountered en route. For example, on March 26, 1862, the prince’s diary recounts meeting and traveling the Nile with French photographer Gustave Le Gray, who was residing in Egypt at the time, and on May 27 the prince sat for a portrait in the Abdullah Frères studio, official photographers to the Ottoman Emperor. Thus, in addition to diplomatic meetings, there is a sense that the prince and Bedford came into contact with certain aspects of the local photographic economy along their route.

A third chapter leads up to the plates section, and presents a survey of the antiquities collected by the prince that remain in the Royal Collection, mostly from the Ionian islands and representing the future king’s taste for Classical art. This chapter, along with the frequent captioning of plates with quotations from the prince’s daybook, reinforces the idea that this book is first about the Royal Tour and, secondly, Bedford’s photographs. Upon the conclusion of the trip, having made prints to meet the requirements of the queen, Bedford was allowed to retain permission to use his negatives to produce commercial portfolios. He selected 172, which were reproduced by the publisher Day and Son in a series of twenty-one parts and exhibited as a group in July 1862, for which his accomplishment was roundly praised.

Although Cairo to Constantinople casts the voyage as an educational tour, part of the careful tutelage of this heir to the throne, political circumstances and the activities of the trip suggest its significance as a strategic diplomatic mission as well. France was over two years into its massive engineering project to build the Suez Canal, which would open a passageway between Europe and Asia to international ships. Britain saw the canal as a threat to its preeminence as the largest naval power and as making tenuous British control of their passage to India. Further, the fracturing political stability of the Ottoman Empire was brought to the fore of Britain’s popular attention during the Crimean War, reports of which were illustrated by the photographs of Roger Fenton. Among the most haunting pictures in Bedford’s portfolio are the elevated vistas onto the ruins of the Christian quarter of Damascus, decimated in that war. Given the particular circumstances balancing world powers in that moment, Viceroy Muhammad Sa’id Pasha’s welcome of the royal party in Cairo or the unique permissions granted to the party by the Ottoman authorities to enter Islamic holy sites take on importance beyond royal privilege. Bedford’s pictures document these interests; his privileged status and the significance of this tour as well as the pictures would have benefited from additional historical context and information about the circumstances of their creation.

Whereas Cairo to Constantinople conforms to the dominant mode of published accounts of nineteenth-century photography in the Middle East, that of a European artist traveling on a government commission and/or with the mindset of a commercial audience for the pictures back home, Local Portraiture makes a substantial effort to develop a stylistic narrative for the practices of photographers living in Iran. This is not a simple task. Royal records document the arrival of two daguerreotype cameras to the Persian court in 1842, and by 1851 photography was officially taught at Dar al-Funun, the National Technical University. Such historical facts indicate photography’s rapid adoption and proliferation in Qajar Iran (1785–1925). Large pockets of these photographs remain; yet in the one hundred and fifty years since then, political revolutions and the art economy have (until recently) failed to place great value on their preservation, documentation, and historical records. Thus, historians of nineteenth-century Iranian photography must contend with hundreds of mostly anonymous pictures.

Important texts such as Yahya Zoka’s The History of Photography and Pioneer Photographers in Iran (Tehran: Sherkate Entesharat Elemi wa Farhangui, 1997)—from which Pérez González has summarized and translated large passages and which forms the bulk of her brief introduction to the history of the topic—are based on his extensive combing of archives at Golestan Palace as well as at the Technical University. Pérez González draws together many of these sources, and for those interested in the subject the bibliography for this book will serve as a useful resource, although she notes that the most comprehensive bibliography of the field was published in a 2013 special issue of History of Photography (vol. 37, no. 1) dedicated to the first century of Iranian photography and co-edited by Reza Sheikh and herself. In Local Portraiture, she does not attempt to repeat the archival project of historians such as Zoka; rather, she sets out to articulate a stylistic identity for nineteenth-century Iranian photography through visual analysis.

Local Portraiture is the product of Pérez González’s doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Leiden in 2010, but the origin of her study goes back even further. Following two and a half years of traveling from Turkey to China making photographs, Pérez González began exhibiting and publishing portfolios of these pictures. One Iranian poet remarked that “he could guess that [the author] was a Western photographer” (19), a comment that served as a catalyst for the exploration and study in this book. Beginning with the premise that “the cultural background of the photographer does play a role in the process of taking a photograph,” she states that the aim of Local Portraiture is “to analyze photographs in order to show this cultural conditioning in the creation of images . . . exploring how indigenous Iranian photographers constructed their own realities in contrast to how foreign photographers constructed Iranian realities” (19–20).

Pérez González gathers an excellent network of resources, collaborating with and drawing photographs and research from the husband-and-wife team of Bahman Jalali and Rana Javadi, who were instrumental in establishing the historical and contemporary study of photography in Iran. They were founders of Akskhaneh Shahr, Iran’s first museum of photography (established in 1997), and have served as editors of Aksnameh (a quarterly journal of photography); for twenty years prior to his death in 2010, Jalali taught photography at universities in Tehran and is credited as a large influence on the flourishing generation of contemporary Iranian photographers. Pérez González has also drawn on the collection of Elmar Seibel and Azita Bina-Seibel, which represents thousands of books of Iranian art as well as nineteenth-century photographs.

From these sources and others, she gathered “as many published books on Iranian photography as possible,” eventually collecting about five thousand reproductions of portrait photographs, around three thousand images of Persian miniature and Qajar paintings, and around five thousand “Western” nineteenth-century portrait photographs (22). The arguments of the book rely on extensive analysis and repeated grouping and structuring of this enormous corpus of visual material around five principles of formal composition: visual laterality, relationship of text and image, pose and posture, compositional space in painting versus photography, and the influence of Western portrait photographers on Iranian practice.

The longest and most substantial section of analysis is devoted to Pérez González’s theory of visual laterality, or the idea that the directional orientation of meaning for text in a culture will correspond to a directional interpretation of images as well, so much so as to also determine the compositional patterns of portraiture. For example, in a picture of a group or couple by an Iranian photographer, the shortest (or seated) member of the group will appear on the right and figures will ascend in height leftward across the frame, giving the picture a right-to-left orientation correspondent to Persian script. The reverse, wherein figures are arranged in ascending height from left to right is more common in European portraits.

Pérez González draws extensively on the studies of neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, and formalist art historians to build a case for the significance of visual laterality. A chart summarizing her findings is less conclusive than her strongly argued position of a preferred visual laterality. In sum, her study revealed a 52/48 percent split in left versus right facing profiles among 445 Iranian portraits and a 61/39 percent preference for left facing profiles in 510 Western portraits. Ultimately, the conclusion here is that Iranian portraits are less predominantly oriented toward the left, and more evenly split in their lateral compositions. In this analysis, her cited examples of European group portraits include one Czech, one French, and one Spanish subject, although in her surveys she has turned most often to pictures gathered from portrait studios in Spain. Given the particularities of Spanish history—which in architecture, ceramics, and many other regards retains the visual presence of seven centuries of Islamic rule, under governments where the common language was Arabic and the literate elite was predominantly Jewish or Muslim—one must wonder whether any remnants of this long period of alternate lateral-literacy remain in the country’s artistic productions. The following chapters in Local Portraiture on other compositional elements add layers to the consideration of laterality as a chief factor in cultural identification.

In a second chapter, Pérez González explores the use of text, asserting that its frequent inclusion in photographs underscores the importance of poetry in Iranian culture and that compositional solutions are drawn from the traditions of Persian miniature painting. In both chapters 3 and 4, she considers ways that Persian painting, and specifically nineteenth-century Qajar painting styles, influenced portrait photography. Concerning pose, she points to studio photographs in which the sitter kneels on the ground (as is traditional in Iranian cultural practice) and to many painted portraits as clear evidence of cultural voice. In chapter 4, she highlights examples of photographic montage that replicate spatial structures from miniature painting and deconstruct the imposed linear vision of the camera lens. In the final chapter, she turns her attention to the influence of Western photographers on Iranian practices and delves into her longest analysis of the Orientalist typologies that consumed a portion of the nineteenth-century photographic economy of the Middle East. Additionally, she begins to suggest future areas of study poised for development: the influence of East Asian art and visual culture, the role and representation of women in photographic portraiture, etc.

As a whole, Pérez González presents an ambitious and innovative approach to early photography in Iran. She treats the photographs according to their inherent properties, refreshingly refusing to create a hierarchy of value relative to other media or foreign practices. Unfortunately, the scope of her project means that many of her conclusions must be accepted on faith. After the chart summarizing her survey of visual laterality, there is no further information detailing how many pictures were considered and to what degree the stylistic principles that she defines as the Persian pictorial practice are represented across her sample set. More concerning is that she is working mostly from reproductions of photographs, where analysis of the medium is limited and the material particularities and processes of the objects are largely absent from consideration. I imagine a future study based on original photographic objects, one that considers the use of retouching and hand-coloring, would add significantly to Pérez González’s analysis of the relationship between the practices of miniature painting and studio photography.

Finally, the stated goal of Local Portraiture is “to transcend Edward Said’s Orientalism by analyzing other constructed realities, those created by indigenous photographers” (25). While Pérez González draws distinctions between the royal court and bazaar photographers, she does not treat “Western” photographs with the same degree of specificity. In fact, “Western” studio portraiture is considered as a monolithic whole, further reinforcing a dialectic of West versus the other, even if the other has a voice in her study.

Studies such as Cairo to Constantinople and Local Portraiture and those cataloged in their useful bibliographies prove that there is now a foundation for examining photography in the Middle East, as art and as popular culture. Further access to royal archives in the region and abroad will be necessary, as will innovative methodologies for contending with the partial knowledge of large quantities of court, studio, commercial, and vernacular pictures, for which these publications will serve as important models. Pictures from the region can no longer serve as floating signifiers of the Middle East; it is time for art historians to root them in the particular facts of their material process, historical economy, and political and cultural contexts. These books thus demonstrate that we are ready for a history that accounts for the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions that shaped photography in Egypt, in the Levant, in Turkey, and in Iran differently and specifically in the various eras of photography’s history in the Middle East.

Mitra Abbaspour
Associate Curator, Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.