Sight-Seeing or Seeing Sights?
"Seeing is believing" is a common mantra in Western culture, and in the artistic world, photography is, for many, the best medium to capture reality. Photographs are admissible as court evidence, and we take photographs to document events, preserve memories and visually relate to others part of our experiences.
"Sight-Seeing: Photography of the Middle East and its Audiences, 1840-1940," which runs through April 22 at the Fogg Museum, masterfully takes up this issue and explores the ways photography shaped both Europe's real and imaginary encounters with the Middle East. The exhibit combines both commercial and amateur prints in the forms of snapshots, commercially reproduced photo albums, postcards, panoramic prints and lantern slides. The exhibit focuses on the main areas of photographic representation: landscapes, portraiture, Western technological innovation and representational images.
As in any exhibit of this nature, the curator places heavy emphasis on the photographs as historical texts which raise questions about colonialism, Western depictions of the Middle East, Orientalism and way the western world used photographs to construct attitudes of "otherness." The photographs are largely selected for their historical value, rather than for their intrinsic artistic or aesthetic beauty.
Some of the photographs depict breathtaking landscapes rendered with great artistic flare and attention to aesthetics. One landscape of a pyramid taken by Francis Frith depicts the subtle beauty of the pyramids of Saqqara. His use of light and shadow rivals many Ansel Adams landscapes. The printmaking is of such high quality that the footsteps and the tracks of the cart Firth was pulling his camera equipment in can be seen snaking through the photograph. In spite of these few photographs made with great artistry, most of the images in display seem to be staged, trite, commercialized depictions of the Middle East.
Much of this has to do with the limits of photography of the time -- during the later half of the 19th-century photographic processes were in their infancy. Equipment was cumbersome, had to be moved in carts and took a considerable amount of time to set up. Each exposure typically took several minutes and required a stationary subject. This severely limited the photographer's ability to capture events as they happened. The amount of time to correctly expose a negative grew shorter and shorter as time progressed, thereby allowing for more spontaneous photographs to be taken.
In spite of the fact that most of the people and landscapes depicted were carefully arranged and posed, the photographs were marketed as realistic depictions of the Middle East which could function as surrogates for the real images they depict. In constructing representations of the Middle East for European audiences, photographers played off of several themes in producing their photographs.
First, they incorporated the idea of Orientalism into their work commonly depicting people as types rather than individuals. These staged images reinforced Western prejudices and conceptions of the Middle East by an air of "authenticity" to these notions. For Europeans at the time, photographs were objective and offered "proof" for their pre-conceived notions. One example is a disconcerting picture of a man in the act of prayer. The photography positions the viewer as God, or the person to whom the man is praying. Not only does the photography exhibit a complete lack of respect for the native people or their religion, but also underscores the notion Europeans held about their cultural superiority.
Other works in the exhibit reveal how photographers leveraged religious notions and imagery to sell their images. Photographers would often photography various sites from Christianity as a way of validating the Biblical record. One such example is a photograph of the city of Jericho depicting the city as a dry, barren landscape. This photography was received as physical proof of the validity of the Biblical account of Joshua cursing the city causing it to dry up and be unfruitful.
The exhibit does a very good job of providing the viewer with detailed explanations of the history behind each photograph, and teaches the viewer a great deal about the various ways the Middle East was constructed and interpreted in Europe in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.