Gaetano Pedo Studio (Italian, 1880–1890), The Roman Forum, Rome (Roma, Foro Romano), 19th century. Albumen print. Museum Purchase Fund, 1973.63.2
Invented and refined in the 1830s and 1840s, photography was initially hailed as an apolitical medium, a pure marriage of science and art. The French critic Francis Wey celebrated its ability to represent what he called “exquisite reality” — to depict the world exactly as it was.
But while many championed photography as modern and objective, the medium quickly became a powerful political tool. In nineteenth-century France, photographers were dispatched from Paris to document the nation’s historical patrimony. In Italy, under King Vittorio Emanuele II, they were commissioned to depict the monuments of once-warring kingdoms as the shared heritage of a newly unified nation. British photographers took to the countryside, fueled by the popular Gothic Revival movement, to document the monuments of the Middle Ages. The images they made recast these buildings as the source of modern British power and an antidote to the ills of the Industrial Revolution. Ottoman sultans sent photographers to document the empire’s vast holdings, stretching across the Eastern Mediterranean, with the specific directive to depict the diverse subjects as a unified nation.
While photographers documenting their own nations stoked nationalistic pride and patriotism, those working abroad generally served explicitly colonial purposes. As European governments seized territory across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, their photographers documented sites they perceived as exotic and mysterious for audiences back home. The images popularized racist and orientalist notions of distant lands rich in history, peoples, and resources ripe for exploitation.
Photography not only reproduces the world the that a photographer sees; it also reveals how they see it. The pictures featured in this exhibition document the ideologies, biases, and aspirations of artists, patrons, and audiences in the nineteenth century. Exquisite Reality brings together landscape photographs made over nearly fifty years, from the first French missions to photo-document architecture in 1851 to surveys of Italian infrastructure made in the beginning of the twentieth century. Collectively they demonstrate both how photography was shaped by prevalent ideologies, and how it became a political force in its own right, illustrating as fact what was very often a selective political fiction.
This album was prepared for Jane Stanford and subsequently gifted to a friend. Within its pages, photochrom images — hand-tinted photographs approximating color photography — depict Jerusalem and its environs. The images range from men gathered around the mouth of a small cave to olive trees overlooking stunning vistas, affording viewers a sense of both the Jerusalem of religious lore and the city as it really is. Such souvenirs belong to an ancient history of returning from religious pilgrimages with found objects or purchased trinkets; medieval European pilgrims to Jerusalem once filled flasks with holy oil and even returned with boxes of Jerusalemite soil as proof of their pilgrimages.
For medieval pilgrims, such relics were sacred because the stones upon which Christ might have walked or soil from beside the Dome of the Rock represented tangible points of contact with the Divine. Photography, with its ability to capture a scene precisely, became another kind of relic for many nineteenth-century travelers: the photographs they brought home captured the landscape exactly as their eyes had witnessed it.
The Cantor Arts Center is located at the intersection of Museum Way and Lomita Drive in the heart of the arts district on the Stanford campus. The Cantor faces the Bing Concert Hall across Palm Drive, northwest of The Oval and the Main Quad.
Parking is limited. Visitor parking is available on Lomita Drive and in a nearby parking structure at Roth Way and Campus Drive. On weekdays until 4PM visitors may use marked, metered spots. On weekdays after 4PM and all day on weekends, visitor parking is free and visitors may also use A and C permit spaces.