Gaetano Pedo Studio (Italian, 1880–1890), The Roman Forum, Rome (Roma, Foro Romano), 19th century. Albumen print. Museum Purchase Fund, 1973.63.2
Exquisite Reality: Photography and the Invention of Nationhood, 1851–1900
March 29, 2021–March 31, 2022
A Cantor Arts Center Curatorial Fellow Online Exhibition
Our digital doors are always open. This is an online-only exhibition.
This exhibition and accompanying publication are organized by Danny Smith, Cantor Curatorial Fellow, and Cantor Arts Center staff. Danny is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. We gratefully acknowledge support from Sue and John Diekman, the Geballe Fund for Academic Initiatives, the Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson Fund.
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 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.
The works below are organized around four broad categories, each a quality evoked by the photographs: history, modernity, mystery, and travel. Such categories are hardly exclusive, however; you'll see a single image might use a historical building to frame a modern scene, or a distant landscape to depict an exotic scene. As you explore the exhibition, consider not only what these images depict but what senses they convey and how they shape what we as viewers consider what appears modern, or ancient, or exotic, or distant.
Explore "Exquisite Reality"
A Scene in York compared with Kneeling Pilgrims in front of a Church (Notre Dame?)
The Roman Forum, Rome (Roma, Foro Romano)
Tempel des Olympischen Jupiter, from Die Ruinen Athens
Notre-Dame de Paris compared with Caserne d’Infanterie, Blois
The Maison Carrée, Nîmes
Duomo di Milano compared with 3023. Florence. Arcade of the Uffizi Gallery (Firenze. Portici degli Uffizi...)
Album with Photographs of England, Scotland, and India
Not all photographic portfolios were tightly curated commercial affairs. Often compiled over years by a family, rather than by a single individual, an album could represent the sweep of life, as this strange example does. Made by an unknown hand in the late nineteenth century, the album combines images of family picnics in Scotland, holidays in the Cheddar Gorge in England, scenes of the British Raj in India, and no small number of dogs. Nevertheless, its photographs similarly betray a British imperial perspective: Indian soldiers in the British Army sit at attention; English children in smocks hold tennis rackets. Unlike official or state-sanctioned images of nationhood or patrimony, this album depicts the lived experience of imperialism. Family memories from home are interspersed with formal images of distant lands and their inhabitants, all subjects of the British Crown.
Panoramic View of Brousse
Gotthardbahn, Wassen compared with Via del Pò (Torino)
Caliphs' Tomb compared with Tomb of the Caliphs
Album of Photographs of the Holy Land
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.
Rouen Cathedral, Interior
Ascent of the Great Pyramid of Cheops
Views of France, Algeria, and Italy
The themes of nationalism and colonialism — building a nation at home and expanding it abroad — were not separate or distinct in nineteenth-century photography. Often a single image or a portfolio of photographs could encompass both, as exemplified by the portfolio by a number of French and Italian photographers entitled Views of France, Algeria, and Italy. The portfolio, which contains nineteen images taken between 1875 and 1890, collapses the experience of a tour of the Mediterranean into a volume small enough to display at a dinner party. Through its images a viewer visits the ruins of Pompeii, sees the artistic marvels of the Vatican (with reproductions of a scene of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by the painter Guido Reni and the famed classical sculpture of the Trojan Laocoön and his sons writhing beneath the bodies of sea serpents), and bounces between sun-drenched French cityscapes and romanticized ruins in Algeria.
Panoramic View of Gibraltar
Map and Directions
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.