Photography and Egypt
Reviewed by John Rodenbeck

Photography and Egypt, by Maria Golia.
London, Reaktion Books, 2010. Paperback.  192 pp. 121 illustrations, 77 in colour. ISBN  978 1 86189 543 1. £15.95.

It was in Cairo, as Maria Golia points out, in the  11th century of our era, that photography had  perhaps the most consequential of its many  beginnings, in the optical researches of the Iraqi  savant Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn alHaytham (ad 965–1039), who named, built and  experimented with the first camera obscura, the  direct ancestor of the still camera. But Egypt has  in addition a special plenitude both of the most  vital ingredient for photography—light—and of  things worthy of having their pictures taken. It’s  no wonder that it has become perhaps the most  relentlessly photographed country in the world.

This important book traces the history of the art  and craft of photography in Egypt. Swift-moving,  sophisticated and serious, Maria Golia’s narrative  comes right down to the present day. Of at least  equal importance, however, are the observations  and massive amounts of information reserved,  iceberg-like, in her ‘References’, the notes that  follow her narrative text.

Golia reminds us that the daguerreotype process  was unveiled in January 1839 at the Académie  des Sciences by Daguerre’s primary champion,  the scientific genius François Arago (1786–1853).  Arago had already seen the daguerreotype as  specifically offering the possibility of surmounting  ontological deficiencies that had limited the  usefulness of the Description de l’Égypte (1810–29) as a record of reality. Acting on this  hint, Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours (1807–73), an important maker of optical instruments and an associate both of Daguerre and Arago,  immediately commissioned newly fledged  daguerreotypists to travel across Europe and  Middle East in search of images that could be photographed then copied by any of various techniques to be printed lithographically and sold in albums.

The first photograph taken in Africa was thus a daguerreotype of Mehmet Ali’s haramlik at Ras al-Tin in Alexandria made during the early morning of 7 November 1839. The photographers were Gaspard-Pierre-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière  (1798–1865) and Frédéric-Auguste-Antoine Goupil-Fesquet (1817–78), assisted by the great Orientalist painter Horace Vernet (1789–1863), who was Goupil-Fesquet’s uncle and teacher. All of them had been commissioned by Lerebours.  The Viceroy himself oversaw the operation at very close hand and apparently became an ardent daguerreotypist himself. This historic shot survives, but only in the lithograph version later produced by Vernet.Joly de Lotbinière had already spent a few weeks taking pictures in Greece. The copies of Egyptian daguerreotypes he later published anticipated by ten years the work of other early photographers in Egypt, exemplified by JosephPhilibert Girault de Prangey (1804–92) Félix Teynard (1817–92), Francis Frith (1822–98), Maxim Du Camp (1822–94), and Pascal Sébah (1823–86), who were likewise interested in visual authenticity for its own sake. Goupil-Fesquet also satisfied his commission and published copies of daguerreotypes, but he and his uncle were primarily interested in gathering authentic raw material for their own paintings and etchings. They thus anticipated the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), in which photography would be used synthetically to create an Orient that was purportedly ‘real’, but was in fact a fanciful assemblage of disparate realities. Golia’s lengthy first chapter summarises this Orientalist period in pioneering photography, adds interesting technical detail and some acute critical evaluations, then moves into areas that are less well known, have therefore demanded far more original research, and are thus especially interesting.

Chapter Two, for example, introduces us to the amazing growth of photography in Egypt and to the concomitant changes created by technological advance, which made possible a massive shift of subject matter from inert and inanimate objects—typically, ancient monuments—to people. She deals succinctly with the Occidental myth to the  effect that Muslims won’t allow their pictures to be taken (Wahabist prohibitions still apply only to a small minority) and sketches the popularity that has even entered into popular song: ‘Ana ‘andik wahid surah! Surah, surah, surah!’ (‘I’ve got a picture of you! A picture, a picture, a picture!’).

Chapter Three, for instance, ‘Studio Venus’, deals not only with the rise of studio work, much of it involving celebrities, but also with the extraordinary Armenian contribution to photography both in Cairo and Alexandria, which was paralleled in other Middle Eastern urban centres such as Istanbul, Izmir, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, and has since become a world-wide phenomenon, as Golia indicates with a subtle reference to the great Armenian-Canadian portraitist, Yousuf Karsh.

Photography and Egypt Chapter Four is an acute political history of postrevolutionary Egypt between 1952 and 2000 as observed through the photographic lens. This period saw a massive decline in the quality of press photography, thanks to the introduction of Soviet-style censorship, and in the quantity of art photography, thanks to the evaporation of the social class that had included most of its viewers.The final chapter looks to something like a revival, but also emphasises the preservation of Egypt’s photographic past. Despite the country’s enormous enthusiasm for photography, much has disappeared. ‘The present work,’ Golia observes, ‘hopes to shed some light on Egypt, where photography has played an inestimable role in shaping political and social realities. Today, in the midst of an ever-intense transformation, there are signs that the time of censure and dispersal is ending, and a time of recollection has begun.’ Based on years of first-hand research, this book makes an enormous contribution to the job of recovery.

John Rodenbeck