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Paradox of Vision: Historical Photographs in the Middle East
Stereo card view of Luxor, early 20th century

Paradox of Vision: Historical Photographs in the Middle East

Colloquium brings together several distinguished scholars who approach the study of historic photographs from a variety of perspectives.

...these photographs are often utilized without an understanding of their complexity as images and as evidence... They have yet to be mined for the extensive information they contain.

There are more photographs of the nineteenth-century Middle East hidden away in various collections than one researcher could ever hope to see. Assembled by travelers, missionaries, diplomats and military men and now stored around the world in museums, libraries, archives and probably family attics as well, these collections often lack basic information about their collectors, dates and provenances. In many cases they remain unsorted in the boxes in which they were first rediscovered.

As this body of material has gradually become better known over the past three decades, scholars have begun to incorporate historical images into their work, and tourism officials and others have used them as visual evidence in reconstructing the past. Yet these photographs are often utilized without an understanding of their complexity as images and as evidence. They are complex documents whose interpretation is shifting and contingent, providing new perspectives on the nature of discourse around issues of empire, imperialism, colonialism, class and gender. This is what makes them such a valuable resource in the study of history. They have yet to be mined for the extensive information they contain.

Southern California boasts a number of extensive collections of Middle East photographs. UCLA has a significant collection, the California Museum of Photography in Riverside has over 8,500 images from the Keystone-Mast Collection, and the Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute (GRI) each have substantial holdings.

An April 27 colloquium organized by Irene Bierman, Chair of the Art History Department, and Nancy Mickelwright, Ottomanist and Getty Foundation Program Officer, brought together several distinguished scholars who approach the study of historic photographs from a variety of perspectives.

In the morning session, the presenters and other invited participants viewed materials in the GRI’s Gigord Collection of Ottoman photographs which are mostly unpublished and rarely exhibited. In the afternoon session, four experts presented their papers at UCLA.

In Photographic Images, Geographical Imaginings and the Lands of Antiquity, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada) suggested that, although the origins of photography are usually traced, on the one hand, to the aspirations of a professional diorama painter, and, on the other hand, to the frustrations of an amateur artist, in fact, travel in pursuit of geographical knowledge, particularly in the Lands of Antiquity, was central to the applications first envisaged for the new technology. Using a stereoscopic daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet as a point of departure, and the travels, images and writings of Pierre Gustave Gaspard Joly de Lotbinière as a foil, Schwartz focused on some of the intellectual space where the histories of geography and photography converge and examined emerging ideas about photography as a means by which people come to know the world and situate themselves therein.


Ottoman family portrait, c.1895-1910. Courtesy Special Collections, Getty Research Institute.

In Challenges of the Bourgeois Imago: Photography, Desire and the Lebanese System, Stephen Sheehi (American University of Beirut) maintained that while the study of photography in the West documented the rise of the modern bourgeoisie, both are phenomena of modernity, the former efficiently representing the aspirations and values of the latter. Noting that since its integration into the world capitalist nexus, Beirut has posited itself as a regional center of commerce, consumerism, and indeed modernity, Sheehi compared the expressed confessionalism of power-sharing in Lebanon with the secular self-image of its bourgeoisie. He observed that the prominence of confessionalism in organizing access to political power and opportunities for capital accumulation is contradicted by a set of motifs common to photographic representations of members of the Muslim and the Christian bourgeoisies as secular citizens and class subjects.

In Contact Visions: On the History of Photography in the Middle East, Ali Behdad (Chair of the UCLA Comparative Literature Department) focused on two photographers whose lives and works were the product of contacts between cultures, nations and people: Antoine Sevruguin, a European of Georgian origin resident in Iran during the late nineteenth century, and Nasir al-Din Shah, the Qajar monarch who almost single-handedly developed the art and technology of photography in Iran soon after its emergence in Europe. Both were the product of contact zones, said Behdad, and their photographic vision was marked by the effects of colonial contact between East and West. Not surprisingly, the photographic archives they produced came into contact with each other, creating what Behdad described as a contact vision of Iran during the second half of the nineteenth century.


Survey team entering Sinai at the Wells of Moses, from the Ordnance Survey of the Sinai Peninsula, 1868.

In Geo-piety, Geopolitics and Photography: British Surveys in Nineteenth-Century Palestine, Kathleen Stewart Howe (Director of the Pomona College Museum of Art) explored photographs, maps and models made by the British Royal Engineers in the course of surveys in Jerusalem (1864) and the Sinai Peninsula (1868). In both cases, the photographic record of geographic space defined by historically significant events endorsed national claims to territorial prerogatives. Where the landscape was understood as a place dense with historical associations central to national identity, present space and past events—geography and history—were collapsed in the cultural imperative of possession, and survey photographs advanced the case of geographical possession via pietistic attachment or geo-piety founded on Victorian evangelical expansion.

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