A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

Pioneers of Travel Photography – Vaut le détour

The Teylers Museum in Haarlem has an exhibition of 19th century travel photography, bringing together photos from the national Rijksmuseum (still in a state of mess due to over-long reconstruction works) and its own collection. The collection of tremendous, detailed, purely registering, photos is worth going to Haarlem for if you happen to be in Holland—’vaut le détour‘ in terms of the Guides Michelin. You have time to make the detour until the turn of the year; the exhibition lasts until 4 January 2009. As I happen to live in that country, I went to see the exhibition.

‘Purely registering’ I said, thinking back to the comments from Frank Boots. These pictures had no pretension to make an impression as artistic images, but only to show those back home the exotic world beyond one’s own town and region. And we should remember that until the mid-20th century for most Europeans town and region made up the ambit of their geographical and cultural knowledge. Alright, the bourgeoisie, the intended audience of these photos, may have travelled a little further: I’m still impressed with the stories from late-19th century novelists who took up residence in Southern France or even Italy for the winter and coming home to northern Europe only when the weather was supportable there, in summer. Or who made their career in the colonies. Those people travelled, spoke their languages (at least French), and had a broad view on cultures and cultural differences. Those differences must have been much larger than now, with our globalised culture: whether they call it MacDo in French or MacDonald’s in English, you find the same fast-food counters everywhere, the same fashion shops, etc. Alright, there are some variations in the fast food assortment per country, and size schedules for fashion differ a little depending on the usually wider shoulders and hips in e.g. Germany compared to Southern Europe. But those are details, compared to the wide variety of local food, local dress, etc. of the 19th century.

But even then: to see photos from other continents must have been a stunning experience in itself to the 19th century audience. No need to do anything artistic; these pictures brought Das Andere suddenly close to many people. ‘Registering’ that was more than enough. Everyone knew about the hardships of the audacious men (and a few women) who made expeditions to wild places—they could read that from the pictures just by seeing the exotic buildings, landscapes, ruins and—a little later—the ‘types’ of the peoples from those world regions in their typical state of (un)dress. So ‘registering’, ‘documenting’ was what they did in tremendous detail. What a richness of grey tones (of all shades from cold to warm/sepia)—no graphic blacks and whites! What a cornucopia of details in every picture—no cropped buildings or portraits for them, but full shots!

Do the photos show European superiority as it was believed in during the 19th century? It was the time of establishment of vast colonial empires by European countries, after all. In a way, the pictures cannot but be a show of European superiority: Europeans took those pictures—they had the technology, they looked through the viewfinders (or how do you call it with those big glass plate cameras?), they released the shutters. And yes, there were some indications of Western supremacy in some photos. Not that there were any hunting scenes, with the white man standing proudly with a foot on the killed tiger, elephant or hippopotamus. But it was revealing enough to see “our camp” as the caption of a photo of tents among the ancient ruins. Or to see the new railway bridge, with a steam train running over it, above the old and decrepit rope bridge deeper in the valley of the Padanger highlands on Java. Yet for the most part, it was not superiority, but astonishment at the diversity, the other-ness that struck me in those pictures. They were an effort, according to me, to show those back home how strangely beautiful the world was.

Forced by the technique, no doubt, but fitting in that idea of showing in as few hard-to-come-by photos as much as possible, they not only show a number of details that we now would divide up across half a dozen of pictures at least, but they also were sharp from front to horizon, a depth-of-field that we almost find overwhelming.

In short: have a look if you can, also at the amazing stereoscopic pictures in the Kaiserpanorama.

By the way: the picture in this entry of Gizeh in the late 19th or early 20th century was googled from the Internet, and I believe it to be not copyrighted.

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