Issue #138  12/16/2007
Photo Book: Odalisques & Arabesques

By Matt Damsker


By Ken Jacobson. 2007, Quaritch Ltd., London; 308 pages, approximately 500 illustrations, 85 full-page tritones; hardback. ISBN No. 978-0-909550852-5-3. Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London, W1F 9AU; phone: +44 (0)20 7734 2983; fax: +44 (0)20 7437 0967. Email information: a.payne@quaritch.com ; http://www.quaritch.com .

Ken Jacobson's passion for 19th-century photography long ago trumped his original career path in scientific research (with degrees in chemistry and biophysics from Princeton University and King's College, respectively). Now, after decades as a photography collector and historian, Jacobson has produced an important work with this study of Orientalist photography from North Africa and the Middle East.

As Jacobson notes: "The chosen title for this book incorporates two powerful symbols of the Orient, both of which had an allure for Westerners in the 19th century merely because of the degree of exoticism they embodied." Indeed, the odalisque, or female slave, had provoked the Western imagination ever since Ingres' great painting, "La Grande Odalisque," was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1819. As for the arabesque--an intricate geometric pattern, based on flowing lines, which adorns Eastern art and architecture in response to the Islamic prohibition against figurative imagery--it represents something of a countervailing motif to the odalisque.

The fascination with these uniquely Orientalist symbols, and the Mysterious East in general, resulted in many of early photography's most evocative images. Jacobson chronicles how, a mere 80 days after the daguerreotype process was announced to the world in 1839 in Paris, the painter Horace Vernet presented the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, a photograph taken of the exterior of Ali's harem compound. Astonished, Ali at first condemned the photo as the devil's work, but soon allowed the Europeans access to the harem to take more pictures. The floodgates opened quickly, and Oriental motifs defined much of photography's early efforts, while Oriental style and the powerful swirls of the arabesque made their way into the homes of bourgeois Europe.

Jacobson's points out, though, that "only a small body of successful studies of the Orient remains from photography's first ten years," but he has marshaled his research to provide a great deal of excellent information, not least of which is a table of the photographers working in the Middle East and North Africa prior to 1860. Many important names are here, of course: Felice Beato, Alphonse Durand, Roger Fenton, Francis Frith, James Robertson, and so on, although most of the photographers listed were studio artists or else stuck to photographing monuments (which stood still, after all, during the necessarily long exposure times).

As Jacobson notes, Eastern photography did not begin to flourish until 1840, when William Henry Fox Talbot's positive/negative paper process and other practical modes had taken hold. Jacobson details the intricacies of process and how they influenced subject matter--for example, the chiaroscuro quality inherent in paper negatives imparted an abstract element that foretold photographic modernism in, for example, the Jerusalem images of Auguste Salzmann, who emphasized structure, mass and line in his studies of Eastern ruins. By the time Francis Frith was photographing in Egypt in 1856--and largely because of his work--an aesthetic richness had taken hold in Orientalist photography that would bring it closer to the reality of the street and indigenous populations.

Jacobson's narrative is a compelling one, as he chronicles the increasing skill with which photographers would portray local people as the 1870s wore on, especially the photographs of the mysterious H. Bechard, or the superb odalisques of Claude-Joseph Portier. By the time of what Jacobson calls "High Orientalism," beginning in the 1900s, "a few practitioners pushed the Eastern fantasy to its limits. They produced visions that were a hybrid-cross of the most implausible Orientalist paintings and the exuberant spirit of the new medium of cinema."

Mannered as it may have been, this era, on the eve of modernism, brought heightened drama and a new glamour to things, especially in the studio work of Rudolf Lehnert and Heinrich Landrock.

As a purely informational work, Jacobson's study offers a great deal--detailed biographies of more than 90 key photographers, an extensive bibliography, and depictions of the stamps, logos, numbering style and signatures of many artists, which is a boon to the attribution of anonymous or mistakenly identified works. Just as important, though, is Jacobson's willingness to take on the conventional wisdom of the postcolonialist condemnation of Orientalism by the likes of Edward Said and others, who dismiss 19th-century photography of the Middle East as steeped in an implicit agenda of Western superiority and exploitation. Jacobson has done his homework, and cites the ambiguity of photographic images, especially over time. Steeped in scholarship and a collector's fervor, Jacobson's book adds not only to what we know, but also to what we must debate.

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 in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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