Antiquity & Photography: Early Views Of Ancient Mediterranean Sites

by Matt Damsker

 

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By Claire L. Lyons, John K. Papadopoulos, Lindsey S. Stewart, and Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. 2005; 226 pages, 124 color and 6 black-and-white plates; ISB-13 No. 978-0-89236-805-1; ISBN-10 No. 0-89236-805-5. Published by Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 500, Los Angeles CA 90049-1682. http://www.getty.edu .

Issued in connection with an exhibition of the same title at the Getty Villa, Malibu, Calif., during the winter and spring of this year, this magisterial volume explores photography's influence on archaeology between 1840 and 1880, a time when both archaeology and photography were evolving rapidly as professions. Indeed, it's obvious that both pursuits depended on each other in that crucial period, with photography seeking exotic and distant locales for its development, and archaeology relying more and more on photographic documentation. Thus, these vintage, iconic images seem doubly valuable in the context of this study--early shots of the pyramids of Giza, the Roman Forum, and the Acropolis in Athens gave scholars worldwide a richness of detail to study, while enchanting a wider audience with the first great wave of photographic tourism.

The essays in this book look at the careers of such key early photographers as Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey and William James Stillman, along with portfolios by Maxime du Camp, John Beasley Greene, Francis Frith, Robert Macpherson and other luminaries of Mediterranean imagery. This first wave of photographers to visit the Mediterranean sites were eager to fill in the visual gaps that had been left by the draftsmen and painters of the pre-photographic era, and so their photos were geared toward maximizing the wide-angle potential, multiple views, and close-up detailing that only photography affords. For example, images of Egyptian ruins are carefully composed with human figures in the foreground, to provide a sense of realistic scale, while the long perspectives of Pompeii's ruined streets provide a sense of how day-to-day life must have felt in these ancient places.

Particularly impressive are the photographs of the buildings and heights of Athen's Acropolis, such as Dimitrios Constantin's 1865 view contrasted with Constantine's Athanassiou's 1880 view, both from the same encompassing vantage, detailing how much the landscape had been changed and unchanged in the intervening years. And the many views of the Parthenon and other iconic structures reveal the architectural splendor and atmosphere of these precious sites with tremendous immediacy and clarity.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.