Photographing the Arab city in the 19th century


Photographing the Arab city in the 19th Century: General view of the Tombs of the Caliphs, Cairo, by Émile Béchard; plate 14 from the portfolio L’Égypte et la Nubie: Grand Album Monumental, Historique, Architectural, 1887.

Exhibition, Octagonal gallery CCA, Montréal, Canada, until 25 May 2014.
In the 19th century, the East represented the realm of exoticism, fantasy and mystery. Literature and painting in particular used the lands beyond Europe as canvases for fertile explorations of the unknown and unlimited boundaries for imagination. By the latter half of the century, however, several pioneer photographers travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, bringing back to Europe and North America images that captured the idea of the exotic. Whether in search of Nile temples, the Holy Land or Berber costumes; whether amateurs or pilgrims; whether part of scientific missions or commercial ventures, these photographers all sailed to harbours such as Algiers, and journeyed through central cities like Cairo or Damascus. At a time when western political and military involvement in the near east was at a high, the photographs taken helped to convey an idea of chaos and disorder; of insalubrity and a lack of self-governance in the region.