Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East

Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East

by Ali Behdad

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In the decades after its invention in 1839, photography was inextricably linked to the Middle East. Introduced as a crucial tool for Egyptologists and Orientalists who needed to document their archaeological findings, the photograph was easier and faster to produce in intense Middle Eastern light—making the region one of the original sites for the practice of photography. A pioneering study of this intertwined history, Camera Orientalis traces the Middle East’s influences on photography’s evolution, as well as photography’s effect on Europe’s view of “the Orient.”

Considering a range of Western and Middle Eastern archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ali Behdad offers a rich account of how photography transformed Europe’s distinctly Orientalist vision into what seemed objective fact, a transformation that proved central to the project of European colonialism. At the same time, Orientalism was useful for photographers from both regions, as it gave them a set of conventions by which to frame exotic Middle Eastern cultures for Western audiences. Behdad also shows how Middle Eastern audiences embraced photography as a way to foreground status and patriarchal values while also exoticizing other social classes.

An important examination of previously overlooked European and Middle Eastern photographers and studios, Camera Orientalis demonstrates that, far from being a one-sided European development, Orientalist photography was the product of rich cultural contact between the East and the West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226356549
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/22/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Ali Behdad is the John Charles Hillis Professor of Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution and A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Camera Orientalis

Reflections on Photography of the Middle East

By Ali Behdad

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35654-9


The Orientalist Photograph

To speak of the Orientalist photograph is not to assume the fixed nature of either the notion of Orientalism as a discourse of power or photography as a medium of representation, but rather to interrogate the conventional and dominant criteria used to define these terms and their entangled histories, interrelations, and legacies. To speak of the Orientalist photograph is not to privilege photography's role in Orientalist cultural production either; nor is it to dismiss its particular characteristics as a visual and material object. Rather it is to elaborate the historical and theoretical nature of the relationship between photography and Orientalism. More specifically, my aim is to bring into dialogue the iconography of the Orientalist image with an historical understanding of its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century. This chapter sketches an approach to the Orientalist photograph that engages its form as much as its politics; what follows is at once a historically informed account and a formal elaboration of a particular form of photographic representation. Without attempting an exhaustive inventory of the features of Orientalist photography, my goal is to provide a general description of some of its formal characteristics, situating them specifically in the historical context of their formation. An Orientalist photograph is an imaginaryconstruct, though always historically and formalistically contingent; it is marked by iconic fractures and ideological fissures, yet nonetheless regulated by a visual regime that naturalizes its particular mode of representation. The photographic representations of "the Orient" and its people, in other words, are linked and actualized through a web of practices and institutions that figure it as the exotic other.

What has motivated my description of what one might call the "visual regularities" of Orientalist photography are recent claims by some art historians and literary scholars that Orientalism no longer provides a viable conceptual framework for engaging nineteenth-century representations of the Middle East by European writers, travelers, and photographers. In light of the wide-ranging influence of Edward Said's Orientalism, it is remarkable how much critical energy has been expended in recent years to demonstrate that his path breaking book misrepresents or inadequately delineates the project of Orientalism. To be sure, Orientalism has always attracted more than its fair share of critics. Just a few years after its publication, scholars such as Aijaz Ahmad and James Clifford indicted Orientalism's "high humanism," took issue with its use of Michel Foucault's theory of knowledge-power, and questioned its omission of German and Russian Orientalism. What distinguishes recent criticism of Orientalism, however, is that it emanates from a broader rejection of the field of postcolonialism itself, and indeed of the project of political critique of literary and artistic expressions altogether. Recent art-historical discussions of nineteenth-century photographic representations of the Middle East provide an exemplary case of this recent anti-Saidian tendency.

"In contemporary writing about nineteenth-century photography of the Middle East," writes Michelle L. Woodward, "it has become almost a cliché to describe many of these images as 'Orientalist' — that is, reflecting or propagating a system of representation that creates an essentialized difference between the 'Orient' and the 'West.'" This claim aptly captures the predominant sentiment among art historians and curators who work on representations of the Middle East created by both European and indigenous painters and photographers. To be sure, responses to Said's discussion of Orientalism as a discourse of colonial power among art historians and museum curators span the critical spectrum, from more rigorous and subtle critiques articulated from the left to the sometimes facile and reactionary stances adopted by those of an opposing political orientation. On one side are art historians such as Zeynep Çelik, Christopher Pinney, Mary Roberts, and Woodward who argue that "the trend to extend Said's analysis to apply equally to visual representations has ... been used too broadly, obscuring nuances and inconsistencies, not only between different photographers' bodies of work but also within them." These scholars typically aim to constructively revise Orientalism to encompass "a disparate and disputed set of discursive constructions," while at the same time acknowledging "Orientals" as "participants in the production of counternarratives or resistant images." On the other side are writers, including John MacKenzie and Ken Jacobson, who betray a marked suspicion of "theory" and seek to return the term "Orientalism" to its prior usage as an art-historical term that could be deployed without suggestion of a broader political or ideological critique. In Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, MacKenzie argues against Linda Nochlin that "there is little evidence of a necessary coherence between the imposition of direct imperial rule and the visual arts," claiming in laudatory terms that "Orientalism celebrates cultural proximity, historical parallelism and religious familiarity [with the Middle East and North Africa] rather than true 'Otherness.' "Given such perceived "misconceptions inherent in postcolonialist analysis," Jacobson similarly suggests that "a return to more traditional methods is desirable for the study of 19th- and early 20th-century photography in North Africa and the Near East," urging commentators to focus more single-mindedly on the "notable aesthetic, as well as documentary and historical merit" when analyzing visual representations. Despite their ideological differences, art historians in both camps share the claim that the genres and concepts of aesthetic theory are applicable to Orientalist photography, and focus on its artistic aspect instead of its topographical characteristics. While critics on the left have attended primarily to the aesthetic and stylistic differences of Orientalist photography, those on the right have been more apt to dismiss altogether the characterization of the practices and institutions to which this archive originally belonged as ideological.

The recent tendency of photographic historians to elide the politics of Orientalist representation in favor of a return to business-as-usual aesthetic analysis underscores the critical necessity to assert the photograph's status as both illustrative and constitutive of notions of "the Orient." More specifically, if Orientalism is understood neither as a merely ideological discourse of power nor as a neutral art-historical term, but instead as a network of aesthetic, economic, and political relationships that cross national and historical boundaries, then it is indispensable to the understanding of nineteenth-century photography of the Middle East. Whether considered in the context of their production and dissemination in the nineteenth century or in relation to their present status as collectable objects or historical archives, photographs of "the Orient" become meaningful and legible only if they are considered in context, understood broadly to encompass not just geographical regions but histories and social imaginaries. While insisting that Orientalism offers a crucial perspective from which to comprehend the meaning and significance of photographic representations of the Middle East, I do not mean to suggest that such images should be understood merely as a reflection of Europeans' racial prejudice against "Orientals," nor that these images simply transmit or validate European, imperial dominance over the region. Nor it is the case that Orientalist photography entails a binary visual structure between the Europeans as active agents and "Orientals" as passive objects of representation. Rather, I hope to advance an alternative view of Orientalist photography that carefully attends to the interplay of a multiplicity of operations that generate a distinctly exotic vision of the Middle East — operations ranging from those of the photographers who staged and produced the images to the curatorial practices that have packaged them as collections and archives. It bears noting here that such an exotic vision of the region was generally embraced and often perpetuated by the elite in the Middle East. Given this, it is evident that indigenous photography in and of itself does not represent an oppositional locus or resistant iconography; rather, photography as a general practice was enmeshed in the kind of operations that rendered its vocabulary and thematics of representation equally exoticist. A network theory of Orientalism, therefore, concerns itself neither with the motivations of individual photographers nor with the attributes of art objects, but instead studies the symmetric and asymmetric relations between discrete images, specific individuals, and concrete practices.


The history of photography has been intimately connected with Europe's knowledge about the Middle East since the invention of the medium in 1839. Significantly, at the very meeting in which Daguerre's invention was introduced to the Chamber of Deputies, the presenter, Arago, commented upon "the extraordinary advantages that could have been derived from so exact and rapid a means of reproduction during the expedition to Egypt." He then recommended that the French government immediately furnish various institutions of knowledge-gathering about the Middle East, such as the Institut d'Égypte, with the new technology to further the project of Orientalism. It is not a coincidence that only eighty days after this meeting, a group of French painters and scholars led by Horace Vernet, an Orientalist genre painter who had traveled to Algeria with the French Army in 1833, and the daguerreotypist Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet went to Egypt to photograph Egyptian antiquity, or that as early as 1846, Daguerre's British counterpart, William Henry Fox Talbot, published a pamphlet titled "The Talbotype Applied to Hieroglyphics," which was distributed among archaeologists and Orientalists. Indeed, in subsequent decades, many early European traveling and expeditionary photographers followed Arago's suggestion and went to the Middle East to photograph various places and monuments, making the Middle East one of the original and most popular sites for the practice of photography.

Art historians and museum curators generally have treated early amateur and expeditionary images of the Middle East either as distinct artistic expressions of individual photographers or as documentary projects to provide European audiences, in particular archaeologists and Egyptologists, with verisimilar images of the Holy Land and Egyptian antiquity. What these approaches fail to acknowledge is the network of practices, institutions, and relations that made possible the production of these images in the first place, as well as the politico-cultural context that led them to be so rapaciously consumed as visual and exotic objects. That representations of "the Orient" figured so prominently in the early history of photography, specifically in England and France, speaks to the complex web of cultural, economic, and political relations between Western Europe and the Middle East, relations that provided the logistical means and conceptual paradigms for various photographic projects. Indeed, the photographic undertakings of du Camp, Teynard, or Salzmann would never have been realized were it not for the great interest in Middle Eastern antiquity generated by Napoleon's 1798 expedition to Egypt and the subsequent establishment of the Institut d'Égypte, the intellectual and discursive contributions of earlier Orientalist scholars, painters, and travelers, and the sponsorship of the French government and institutions. Du Camp, for instance, belonged to the Orientalist institution Société Orientale, had a government commission from the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce to photograph historic monuments in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, was trained prior to his journey by Gustave Le Gray and Alexis de Lagrange to produce good negatives, was accompanied by Gustave Flaubert, who fancifully documented their trip, and was finally able to publish his photographs in 1851 using the printing process developed by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Évrard — photographs that became immediately known because of the popular and scholarly interest in Orientalism. Far from being the result of a manic obsession with photography, as Flaubert claimed, du Camp's images are products of a network of individual and institutional relationships that not only determined the content of his photographs but also provided the technical knowledge and logistical support to execute them (figure 1.1). Du Camp's Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie thus contains an intricate interplay of textual and visual traces that inscribe it within the iconography of Orientalism. As in Frith's Egypt and Palestine (figure 1.2), his photographs in the book, which became an instant success in spite of its costliness, are accompanied by texts containing verbatim extracts from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Orientalist travel narratives in order to make these images meaningful and legible. These textual precursors not only function as explications for photographic representations of "the Orient" but also circumscribe what is considered worthy of photography in the Middle East. Put otherwise, the earlier travel narratives play a crucial role in the practice of Orientalist photography by providing it with the knowledge, the framework of classification, and the formal concerns of its representations.


That a photograph, technologically speaking, was understood as a "sun-picture" or "sun-drawing" offers a materialist explanation for why "the Orient" as the land of sunshine was one of the first sites for the practice of the new medium. Light was not only the basis of the invention but also a necessary element in the very process of photographic production, and so the abundance of sunlight in the Middle East made the region an ideal location for the execution of early photography. As Daguerre, the inventor of the first form of photography, acknowledged, "The imprint of nature would reproduce itself still more rapidly in the countries where the light is more intense than in Paris." This point was underscored by Arago, who specifically referenced Egypt as an ideal location for photography in his introduction of the medium to the Academy of Sciences on January 9, 1939:

Now how long a time does the light require to execute this operation? In our climate, and in ordinary weather, eight or ten minutes, but, under a pure sky, like that of Egypt, two, perhaps, one minute, might suffice to execute the most complex design.

The plentiful sunshine in the Middle East was not merely a technical necessity but also a crucial factor in giving the photographer an artistic edge over the Orientalist painter. If Orientalist genre painters such as William Henry Bartlett had difficulty "express[ing] the oriental light — which without the accidents of light and shade usual in the north — is sufficient to produce the most brilliant relief combined with a softness and harmony equally beautiful," the Orientalist photographer not only needed the bright light to take a photograph and to develop his negative plates but also was able to capture the remarkable contrasts produced by the brilliant sun to make his image compositionally more complex. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of the Orientalist photograph is its deployment and contrasting of light and shadow (figure 1.3). The manipulation of light and shadow allowed the photographer to synthesize photographic documentation and artistic symbolism. To make their images into what was considered photographie artistique at the time, photographers often produced shadows by retouching negative plates when there was no contrast in lighting. The contrast of light and shadow enhanced the quality of the image, for while the translucent blaze of sunshine conferred upon the subject of the photograph a preternatural aura of aliveness, the ever present shadows furnished it with a sense of mystery and sublime terror. The interplay of sunshine and shadow made the composition of the image at once beautiful, through brilliant and harmonious relief, and sublime, by infusing it with a sense of mysterious disorientation.


Excerpted from Camera Orientalis by Ali Behdad. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Camera Orientalis
1 The Orientalist Photograph
2 The Tourist, the Collector, and the Curator: On the Lives and Afterlives of Ottoman-Era Photography
3 The Politics of Resident Photography in the Middle East: Reflections on Antoin Sevruguin’s Photographs of Qajar-Era Iran
4 In My Grandfather’s Darkroom: On Photographic (Self-) Exoticism in the Middle East
5 Local Representations of Power: On Royal Portrait Photography in Iran
Afterword: On Photography and Neo-Orientalism Today

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