Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2017
Stephen Sheehi The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 264 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691151328)

Stephen Sheehi’s The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910 focuses on the social history of indigenous photography in the Ottoman World between 1860 and 1910. The book redresses the lack of critical attention to local photography, analyzing the production, performance, exchange, circulation, and display of photography in Ottoman Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. Sheehi pursues in-depth research and analysis of both visual and written primary sources by local practitioners, most of whose names are known only to a small number of researchers. The book is an ambitious and theoretically challenging study, a significant and original work of social analysis of mostly unknown photographic material from the 1860s onward.

Sheehi’s study seeks to engage photographic portraiture as a social practice, a technical act, and a condensation of shifts in political economy that at the same time reveals the history of its production context. It aims, as Sheehi argues, to “provincialize” the history and “nature” of photography, probing how it works within certain conditions, without ascribing those practices, functions, and effects to a European site. The book’s approach is groundbreaking, as post-Saidian studies of Middle Eastern photography have largely avoided indigenous art practice, concentrating instead on “othering” representations produced by foreign photographers. Critical research on Orientalist photography is combined here with an interest in the act of looking, representing, and image production, all three of which have strong ideological connotations, as Sheehi demonstrates. But what makes the book unique is the fact that it offers an explicit answer to the master narratives of “the history of Middle Eastern photography” by switching the focus of interest from photography in the service of the colonizers to an interest in the history of the photography of the late Ottoman Arab world. Sheehi explores an under-researched world of photo studios in cities such as Istanbul, Cairo, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Beirut, analyzing and contextualizing the work of relatively well-known local photographers such as Abdullah Frères in Istanbul, Jurji Saboungi in Beirut, and also the work of unknown figures, such as Garabed Krikorian in Jerusalem and Khalil Raad in Jaffa.

Sheehi introduces some self-coined content-related terms as well as ones defined by leading scholars in the field: a cartographer’s manzhar or perspective, al-nahdah al-‘arabiyah (the nineteenth-century Arab Renaissance), Osmanlilik modernity and nahdah ideology, the reorganization of the empire known as the tanzimat—terms, among others, reinvented by Sheehi—and indigenista photography (coined by Deborah Poole), technomateriality (coined by Christopher Pinney), and aesthetic imagination (as defined by Zahird R. Chaudhary).

Arab photography, like all cultural productions, must be understood within the context of al-nahdah. It should be considered as a product of its own history. The book reads the first decades of nahdah photography through the prism of Ottoman modernity and al-nahdah al-‘arabiya. Sheehi explains that he has resisted looking through the derivative lens of European photographic history in the Ottoman Arab world by examining images produced by indigenous photographers together with their photographic practice, the social practices of the images’ circulation, and their voices in primary Arabic sources.

Throughout The Arab Imago Sheehi stresses the importance of understanding Arab photography from a local perspective. Another point of emphasis focuses on the fact that all photography expresses social relations; hence, the studio portrait is an imprint of the Arab imago that underlies class, gender, sectarian, and national subject positions. The carte de visite and other formats of studio portraiture offer a secure, stabilizing object. The surface of the image-screen expresses the illustrative, representational context of the photograph’s ideology—its discourses of self, modernity, class, gender, nation, etc.

The eight chapters of The Arab Imago are organized in two parts. Part 1 examines the histories of local photographers and defines what the nahdah portrait looked like, its ideological content, representations, social relations, and material history. Chapter 1, “An Empire of Photographs: Abdullah Frères and the Osmanlilik Ideology,” reveals how the repetitious formalism of portraiture, exemplified in the work of Abdullah Frères, represented, enacted, and reproduced Ottoman modernity, imprinting on the photograph’s surface the “optical unconscious” of Osmanlilik ideology. From this larger Ottoman framework, chapter 2, “The Arab Imago: Jurji Saboungi and the Nahdah Image-Screen,” offers a discussion of the pioneer “Arab” photographers Jurji Saboungi, Louis Saboungi, and the Kova Frères in order to understand how their work expressed and imprinted the “Arab imago” as a condensation of the ego-ideals of nahdah selfhood. In “The Carte de Visite: The Sociability of New Men and Women,” chapter 3’s exposition of the carte de visite shows how the social currency and import of the portrait emerges from a new sense of sociability that accompanied these shifts and was essential to the naturalization and reorganization of the Ottoman Arab world. Chapter 4, “Writing Photography: Technomateriality and the Verum Factum,” focuses on the consolidation of a photographic discourse in the Arab print media, particularly the journal al-Muqtataf.

In part 2, Sheehi offers a series of case studies, focusing on particular photographs and practices that unpack the histories and framework expounded in part 1. Chapter 5, “Portrait Paths: The Sociability of the Photographic Portrait,” juxtaposes Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s unpublished photographic albums with the production of the Krikorian and Raad studios in Jerusalem. Chapter 6, “Stabilizing Portraits, Stabilizing Modernity,” examines how the portrait’s “manifest” content, the hegemonic nahdah and Osmanlilik civilizational representation discussed in part 1, stabilized and mediated the profound social and economic transformations of the day. Chapter 7, “The Latent and the Afterimage,” is the only chapter to explore fully the latent content of the portrait. Finally, chapter 8, “The Mirror of Two Sanctuaries and Three Photographers,” veers from formal, metropolitan studio photography to examine a form of photography hitherto largely ignored: the narratives of the first Egyptian officials, such as Muhammad Sadiq Bey, who photographed the Hajj between 1860 and 1902.

Previous studies of Asian indigenous photography include Pinney’s The Coming of Photography in India (London: British Library, 2008) (click here for review) and Chaudhary’s Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), as well as my Local Portraiture: Through the Lens of the 19th-Century Iranian Photographers (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012) (click here for review). But Sheehi’s book is the first attempt to write a history of photography from the sociological standpoint of Arab photography. While it represents a fundamental piece of this history, the wider story of indigenous Arab photography has yet to be written, and Sheehi invites scholars to take on this task from different perspectives. His study focuses on the carte de visite and related formats; thus, many other genres of photography practiced by local photographers remain, as Sheehi argues, to be critically explored, including landscape, tourism, amateur photography, and institutional photography. Sheehi provides, as well as an extraordinarily informative book, an initial path through the unexplored universe of indigenous photographers, studios, and studio practices of the Ottoman Arab world.

Besides being a most welcome and successful attempt to provide a new (social) perspective on indigenous Arab photography, this study provides a methodology with which to decompress the manifest and latent content of indigenously produced photography in order to begin to understand the “nature of photography” of the Ottoman Arab world and re-create the histories of its ideology and social relations. Sheehi is also generous in pointing out different topics and perspectives in (and beyond) indigenous Arab photography that need to be addressed and might inspire researchers. The book will appeal to readers interested in local photographic practices outside of Europe, but also to scholars interested in methodological aspects of research on the history of photography from a sociological standpoint. The Arab Imago is fundamental reading for scholars not only of the history of photography, but also of the modern Middle East. The book will, it is to be hoped, inspire similar studies in other countries, such as Iran, which has a rich photographic legacy of indigenous photography, with a yet-to-be-written social history of photography.

Carmen Pérez González
Lecturer and Post-Doctoral Researcher, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Bergische Universität Wuppertal