Treating copper sheets with silver halides and mercury fumes is messy, cumbersome work. That’s why the proliferation of daguerreotype technology in the years after its announcement, in 1839, mostly took place in the new ranks of professional studios. Nonetheless, it was from 1842-45, in the infancy of the medium, that J.P. Girault de Prangey set out on a journey that took him through the storied paces of the ‘grand tour’ and beyond, to the shores of the Ottoman Empire, with some 100 pounds of equipment and 500 plates in tow. The result was upwards of 1,000 images, the pioneering of the multiple exposure technique and a chronicle of Mediterranean life at the cusp of modernity.
Girault was a draftsman and painter, but sought primarily to document architectural detail at home and abroad for the sake of fellow artists and historians who might benefit from the rich detail the new technology could provide. Illustrated guides and mass-produced prints such as his formed the bedrock of orientalist visual culture. Certainly, there is a typological quality to Girault’s documents of nameless Bedouins, sailors and horse-drivers, familiar from the canvases of Delacroix and his ilk. But then there are images like Ayoucha, Cairo (1842-43): striking both for the nonchalance of its namesake, as she puffs a hookah and stares back through the frame, and for the materiality of the daguerreotype itself. Abraded and ethereal, awash in cyan and ochre, these were meant to be studies, but in the end are the main event.
It’s easy enough to be taken in by the strange beauty of these minute pictures, to swoon at seeing familiar sites in a psychedelic haze. Travelers in their own right, the photographs were stored away for the rest of Girault’s life and only later discovered by a relative. Their beauty is unsettled by the recognition that they are also documents of empire. Girault was a child of privilege who enjoyed the cultural nostalgia of the aristocracy and was an essentialist and primitivist in the mold of Auguste Comte. He also enjoyed the freedom to move about contested colonial territory – not yet under British or French control, but subject to their interference. One marvels that the four men in Desert near Alexandria (1842) would submit to the lens of an emissary from a defeated rival, or why the Cairene would allow him access to the Mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As to make the picture of the same name.
Such matters were likely lost on Girault, who returned to France and set about converting his studies into his lithographic account of the ‘Orient’, released in 1851. He lived out his days as an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, building exotic gardens in hothouses and plots modeled on the Bosporus and the Alhambra. He died, by all accounts, as the town misanthrope of Langres, France. Against all odds, his unintentional magnum opus has reemerged from the dust.
‘Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey’ is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York through 12 May.
Main Image: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Desert Near Alexandria, 1842, daguerreotype. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York