Published: January 16, 2001
Photography of the Middle East and Its Audiences, 1840-1940, at the Fogg Art Museum
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – The Fogg Art Museum features more than 80 works in its latest exhibition, made by well-known amateur and commercial photographers during photography’s first century. “: Photography of the Middle East and Its Audiences, 1840-1940,” open through April 22, explores the ways in which photography was enlisted to negotiate Western viewers’ real and imaginary encounters with the Middle East during the medium’s first century.
The exhibition is organized into three interrelated thematic sections: The first explores the function of early photographs of this region as surrogates and souvenirs of travel experiences; the second looks at the ideologies these images convey and the various Western audiences for which they were produced; and the third deals with the actual construction of photographic representation-how photographs of the Middle East communicate their meaning visually.
“This fascinating exhibition explores Western impressions of the Middle East in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries through the lens of practitioners of the new medium of photography,” said James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “Allowing graduate students the opportunity to curate a show like provides an occasion for all of us to share in the rewards of new and exciting scholarship. We are fortunate to have such talented students exploring the richness of Harvard’s collections anew.”
Western viewers considered early photographs as the first authentic glimpses of the people, sites, and monuments of the Middle East. Until the 1870s, audiences in the West depended upon these images for their understanding of the region. In fact, most were being marketed to armchair travelers who viewed these pictures as representing the real thing. Yet many of these images were used – covertly and overtly – to advance colonial impulses in the region and Western ways of thinking about the Middle Eastern culture. For example, most of these early photographs recorded the inhabitants of the region as backward people, thereby perpetuating Western prejudices.
Western audience’s assumption that photography was objective put these images beyond question, as is the case with the staged studio portrait of an old man praying (currently in the exhibition). The photograph belongs to a popular genre of Muslims at prayer. Everything that was deemed perverse about Islam was distilled in Western reactions to Islamic prayer, which was seen as too ridiculous and grotesque to qualify as proper worship. The photograph positions the viewer directly before the old man in the very place of the God to whom he would be turning in worship. Evident in the image is not only the lack of respect for indigenous people that was typical of this work, but also the presumption of the photographers and Western viewers in their relationship to Eastern peoples. The old man’s apparent compliance in the staging of the photograph only reinforced this presumption.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 created the most efficient water route between Europe and Asia, making the Middle East a major consideration for Western economic and political interests. Tourist travel to the region increased as Western nations competed to establish political footholds in the area. In the process, photography was recruited as a documentary and propagandistic tool.
Photographs produced by the British Royal Engineers’ survey of Jerusalem in 1864, and the Sinai Peninsula in 1868, were available for purchase by the British public and served as visual propaganda for colonialist interventions in the Middle East. Later, this survey would be used to facilitate British military action in the region during World War I.
“The intent of the exhibition is to explore the different strategies used to present photographic images of the Middle East to Western audiences through a wide variety of formats from panoramas to postcards,” said Jülide Aker, the exhibition’s curator.
The exhibition draws upon Harvard’s many collections of photographs. It includes unusual salt prints, commercial albumen silver prints, rare luxury edition books illustrated with early photographs, and travel albums from the Harvard Semitic Museum Photographic Archive, as well as other Harvard collections, the Boston Public Library, and private collections. Also presented are mammoth-size photographs, stereo views, panoramas, and a lantern slide projection – image formats that were intended to visually transport the viewer to the Middle East from the comfort of home.
has been organized by Jülide Aker, Andew W. Mellon Intern at the Department of Photographs, Fogg Art Museum. Aker is also a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Programs
The three art museums at Harvard are the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Fogg Art Museum. The Fogg also houses the Straus Center for Conservation, long a leader in the research and development of scientific and technology-based analysis of art, as well as the U. S. headquarters for the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, an ongoing excavation project in western Turkey. The 150,000 objects in the art museums’ collections range in date from ancient times to the present and come from Europe, North America, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Each museum also has an active program of special exhibitions that promotes new scholarship in its areas of focus.
All three art museums are open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 1-5 p.m., and are closed on national holidays. Admission is $5.00; $4.00 for senior citizens; $3.00 for students; free under 18 and for all individuals on Saturdays until noon and all day on Wednesdays. For general information, 617-495-9400.
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