During the fin-de-siècle, hundreds of daguerreotypes of the Mediterranean and Near East sat in an attic in a dilapidated villa in France, a little closer to Strasbourg than to Paris, collecting dust. Packed in custom-made boxes, they contained what are now believed to be the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jerusalem, and among the first of Italy. The collection was abandoned after its owner had died in 1892; some boxes were ransacked by locals, perhaps looking for treasure in the estate. Others remained unopened, the daguerreotypes inside preserved from oxidation. In an extraordinary—and very moving—exhibition that is the first of its kind, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unpacks this time-capsule collection, dating to 1841–45, and makes the case that it comprises the very first photographic archive. Curated by the Met’s Stephen C. Pinson, the show is a poetic meditation on vanished empire, memory, and loss.
In 1839, Daguerre sold his eponymous photographic process to France, kicking off the popularity of the medium. One note from the nation’s official announcement of photography’s invention suggests that its precision might be useful on expeditions to Egypt, given the labor typically involved in artists copying detailed artifacts such as hieroglyphics. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804–1892), an aristocratic young man perhaps inspired by this statement, would soon be combining his interests in painting and Islamic architecture by learning photography. Trained in landscape painting, he depicted the Alhambra in an 1833 work in the show with a painted-with-a-horsehair precision that hints at the project to come.
Girault’s earliest daguerreotypes here demonstrate an early aptitude for the tricky process of shooting in the new medium, as in Plant Study, Paris (1841), in which dark-green grape leaves are perfectly exposed, while a diaphanous veil thrown over a sculptural bust comes out in exquisite, adjust-your-glasses detail. Another Plant Study, Paris (1841) shows simply grape leaves, shadows, and a plaster wall. Nothing is happening, but the composition is well lit and therefore beautiful—a totally photographic image. The cropping and subject feel distinctly modern, and the image seems to ask what it means to see the world photographically.
Girault’s trip abroad launched in 1842. Despite the heat, dust, and mercury fumes from his process, the pictures for the most part turned out beautifully. Some images soar into the distance of scrub-dotted hills, like the Monastery of Daphini, Attica (1842). Others are pressed up to the surface of the plate, full of flat detail, like the Agios Eleftherios Church, Athens (1842). Girault used polished metal plates cut as thin verticals to photograph the ornate contrasting colors of the brickwork, bulbous spires, and dazzling geometries of Islamic columns. We also see the bare wooden scaffolding set in place to stabilize the Parthenon (1842). His image of Ramesseum, Thebes (1844) is perfect—its colossal architecture improbably smooth and implacably magnificent with only a thumbprint on the lower-right emulsion marring its placid perfection. Here, too, are images of trees—among them Palm Trees, Alexandria (1842–44) and Cedars of Lebanon (1844); some photographed architecturally like pillars, some spread in ramifying clusters like Barbizon landscape studies.
The exhibition of just over 100 plates minimizes Girault’s Orientalist portraits of people, perhaps wisely, given those present of North African women in languid, inspired-by-Delacroix poses.
As wall text informed by the seemingly heartbreaking field of Islamic art history notes, the images capture a lost world. Buildings that haven’t existed for 150 years stand tall. Groves of trees grow lush over places that are now bare desert. Pillars are erect where they now crumble. The 1835 map of Syria that Girault used is on display.
There are also a few watercolors he made alongside his photographs. One, Bosphore, Pêcheries (1843), of fishing boats on the Bosphorus, is remarkable for its energetically calligraphic brushwork and a palette unusually sensitive to plum-colored post-sunset dusk. Based on the number of bluish skies, Girault also seems to have deliberately exploited a quirk of the medium’s chemistry to produce blue when overexposed. Other happy accidents abound: two women exiting the Portal of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem in 1844 could have had no idea they were being photographed—their twinned veils blur slightly in the long exposure while the portal architecture pops in perfect focus.
In an unusual move, there is nothing on the walls in the first three galleries of the show. Instead, the works hang in custom cabinets at the room’s center, behind nonreflective glass, each lit gorgeously. A daguerreotype can be highly reflective, yet I never saw my own reflection in the image. The gallery walls are deep shades of blue, echoing the occasional blues in the daguerreotypes, and the same blue is echoed in the marbled paper lining the catalogue interior. (I highly recommend that book, so that you can see, in exquisite detail, every scrape on the emulsion, the veil, the glossy grape-ivy leaves, the scrub dotting the hills behind each long-lost building.)
Co-organized by the Met with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, the show will travel to the Musée d’Orsay in 2021. While French exhibition design is notoriously more daring than its American counterpart, in this case the Parisian organizers would do well to pack up the entire gorgeous installation and bring it over.
These daguerreotypes were probably never displayed in Girault’s lifetime. The medium has no negative, so each plate is unique. Using the photos as on-site drawing studies, Girault produced an album of lithographs of Islamic architecture based on the photos, in a tiny edition of around a dozen copies. (Some of these are on display, and they are disappointing. Perhaps contemporary eyes just don’t take in lithographs the same way they read photographs.) He donated artifacts he collected during his travels to the local museum, and he kept the thousand daguerreotypes, with all their exquisite detail, boxed in his attic. As he aged, he was widely seen as a local eccentric and recluse. He died in 1892.
Out of Girault’s 1,000 daguerreotypes, some 10 made their way to the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, and 20 made their way to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. While a few are reproduced in a biography about Daguerre, until the early 2000s few people knew his collection existed at all. It is to our gain that the family’s recent decision to sell the collection coincided with a greater interest from museums in acquiring early photography. (Loans to the show have come from the Getty, and the National Collection of Qatar, the Met, and the Bibliothèque Nationale.)
There’s an element of Bouvard et Pécuchet in all this, Flaubert’s comic country gentlemen futilely intent on cataloguing all the known world. (Flaubert along with Maxime du Camp would make a slightly later trip to photograph Egypt with a salted paper process that produces negatives, essentially walking in Girault’s footsteps, a state-sponsored journey that resulted in a photographically illustrated book.) But Girault ended up with his travel itch seemingly soothed—the photographs in boxes in the attic. In a self-portrait in a modest stereoscopic print toward the end of the show, ca. 1860s, he can be seen gardening in front of his next passion, his greenhouse.
Presenting his trove of carefully stored, largely unseen pictures, the Met’s elegant show asks questions about how we store our memories today, on our own phones and digital archives, and for what purpose. It seems to propose that the project of recording is much more beautiful than anything it could ever be used for, a Proustian endeavor in which to preserve a world’s infinite detail is itself the accomplishment.