Skip to main content
Stanford University
Exquisite Reality: Photography and the Invention of Nationhood, 1851–1900
Temporary Exhibition

Exquisite Reality: Photography and the Invention of Nationhood, 1851–1900

March 29, 2021–

A Mellon Curatorial Research Assistantship Project

The Roman Forum by Gaetano Pedo Studio circa 19th century
This exhibition and accompanying publication and webpage are organized by Danny Smith, Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Curatorial Research Assistant, Cantor Arts Center, 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 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 

This online exhibition is forthcoming.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Exquisite Reality: Photography and the Invention of Nationhood, 1851–1900

March 29, 2021 -
A Mellon Curatorial Research Assistantship Project
 


The Roman Forum by Gaetano Pedo Studio circa 19th century

Gaetano Pedo Studio (Italian, 1880–1890), The Roman Forum, Rome (Roma, Foro Romano), 19th century. Albumen print. Museum Purchase Fund, 1973.63.2

 

This exhibition and accompanying publication and webpage are organized by Danny Smith, Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Curatorial Research Assistant, Cantor Arts Center, 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 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 


Introduction Video Title

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.


A Scene in York cf. Kneeling Pilgrims in front of a Church (Notre Dame?)

A Scene in York, 1845 by William Henry Fox Talbot

One of the oldest examples of an architectural photograph, William Henry Fox Talbot’s A Scene in York depicts York Minster cathedral scarcely visible in the background of a streetscape. Taken in the early 1840s, this image was one of the twenty-four that Fox Talbot included in his The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially published book of photographs. Alongside images of china cabinets, manuscripts, and his own family, Fox Talbot included a notice to readers: “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.”

But while Fox Talbot’s pictures reproduced a scene without the aid of the artist’s hand, what scenes he chose to render and how he chose to render them were entirely the artist’s decisions. His framing here carefully shows the street’s details, while the cathedral behind dissolves into light. The photograph contrasts the modern city with a Gothic cathedral: one sharp and clear, the other hazy and mysterious.

Fox Talbot’s exactly rendered photograph echoes David Cox Jr.’s impressionistic watercolor of a cathedral, made roughly contemporaneously. Both depict a church through a Romantic gaze, framing Gothic architecture as sublime, mystical, historical. Fox Talbot’s early architectural image presaged decades of similar images: photographs promoted as exact reproductions that actually depicted the many choices and influences of the photographer.

See other photographs of Gothic Architecture. [Link to Embark Portfolio “Gothic Architecture”]


Caliphs' Tomb cf. Tomb of the Caliphs

Caliph’s Tomb, 19th century

On the first image the French photographer Félix Bonfils captured a scene of the cemetery in Cairo known as al-Qarafa (القرافة), The City of the Dead. By placing camels and Bedouins in the foreground and capturing the scene from a distance, his photograph would have you believe the domes and minarets of the al-Qarafa are part of the regular lives of these figures. In reality the cemetary belonged to the fourteenth-century Abbasid Caliphate, an empire that had not ruled in Cairo for hundreds of years. Likely sold to French tourists, the image appealed the colonialist European imagination of Egypt and the Middle East as an uncivilized land of fairy-tales and medieval legends. Bonfils's photograph carefully depicts a scene that suited the taste and, importantly, the assumptions of its audiences.

The second image, by contrast, is a depiction of the same scene by the Ottoman photographer Pascal Sébah. A citizen of the empire that controlled Cairo for much of the nineteenth century, Sébah depicted Cairo as a distinctly modernizing city. In his image the camels and Bedouins are gone and in their place are pylons and the foundations of new construction next to the City of the Dead. Both depictions are overtly poltical: Sébah's casts Cairo as the Ottoman government wanted it to be seen and Bonfils's renders Cairo as the French imagined it to be.

See other images by Félix Bonfils [Link to Embark Portfolio “Félix Bonfils”] or by Pascal Sébah and his studio [Link to Embark Portfolio “Pascal Sébah”].

Tombs of the Caliphs, Cairo, 19th century

On the left the French photographer Félix Bonfils captured a scene of the cemetery in Cairo known as al-Qarafa (القرافة), The City of the Dead. By placing camels and Bedouins in the foreground and capturing the scene from a distance, his photograph would have you believe the domes and minarets of the al-Qarafa are part of the regular lives of these figures. In reality the cemetary belonged to the fourteenth-century Abbasid Caliphate, an empire that had not ruled in Cairo for hundreds of years. Likely sold to French tourists, the image appealed the colonialist European imagination of Egypt and the Middle East as an uncivilized land of fairy-tales and medieval legends. Bonfils's photograph carefully depicts a scene that suited the taste and, importantly, the assumptions of its audiences.

The image on the right, by contrast, is a depiction of the same scene by the Ottoman photographer Pascal Sébah. A citizen of the empire that controlled Cairo for much of the nineteenth century, Sébah depicted Cairo as a distinctly modernizing city. In his image the camels and Bedouins are gone and in their place are pylons and the foundations of new construction next to the City of the Dead. Both depictions are overtly poltical: Sébah's casts Cairo as the Ottoman government wanted it to be seen and Bonfils's renders Cairo as the French imagined it to be.

See other images by Félix Bonfils [Link to Embark Portfolio “Félix Bonfils”] or by Pascal Sébah and his studio [Link to Embark Portfolio “Pascal Sébah”].


Notre-Dame de Paris cf. Caserne d’Infanterie, Blois

Notre-Dame de Paris, c. 1860 by Charles Soulier

In the mid-nineteenth century, many in France saw Gothic architecture as nothing more than the relics of a feudal and oppressive past. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, however, drastically changed how the French perceived architectural heritage. Such buildings, Hugo claimed, represented the collective work of generations, a living testament to France’s history.

Following the immense success of his novel, which tells the story of the noble bell ringer of Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, Hugo called for the establishment of a law to protect medieval architecture in France. Though many buildings survived, decades of revolution, secularization, and bureaucratization, he argued, had stripped them of their once-noble roles in society: “Our poor churches can now but attempt to save themselves by taking up absurd disguises. Not a single Notre-Dame in France, no matter how colossal, how venerable, how magnificent, how impartial, how historical, how magisterial, does not today have a little tricouleur flag dangling from her ear. Often one can save an admirable church by writing above its entrance: ‘Town Hall.’”

Twenty years later, the National Commission on Historical Monuments, established on Hugo’s urging, sent photographers like Charles Soulier around the nation to catalogue examples of ancient and medieval architecture. Their efforts not only captured scenes of immense beauty and splendor, as in Soulier’s majestic Notre-Dame, but exposed the odd recycling of medieval architecture that Hugo had half-jokingly described. In the 1890s, the Bisson brothers’ studio took this picture of a former religious building converted into a military one. Niches that likely once held sculpted saints are empty, and a sign above the door reads: “Infantry Barracks.”

 

Caserne d'Infanterie, Blois, 1890–1891 by Bisson Frères

In the mid-nineteenth century, many in France saw Gothic architecture as nothing more than the relics of a feudal and oppressive past. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, however, drastically changed how the French perceived architectural heritage. Such buildings, Hugo claimed, represented the collective work of generations, a living testament to France’s history.

Following the immense success of his novel, which tells the story of the noble bell ringer of Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, Hugo called for the establishment of a law to protect medieval architecture in France. Though many buildings survived, decades of revolution, secularization, and bureaucratization, he argued, had stripped them of their once-noble roles in society: “Our poor churches can now but attempt to save themselves by taking up absurd disguises. Not a single Notre-Dame in France, no matter how colossal, how venerable, how magnificent, how impartial, how historical, how magisterial, does not today have a little tricouleur flag dangling from her ear. Often one can save an admirable church by writing above its entrance: ‘Town Hall.’”

Twenty years later, the National Commission on Historical Monuments, established on Hugo’s urging, sent photographers like Charles Soulier around the nation to catalogue examples of ancient and medieval architecture. Their efforts not only captured scenes of immense beauty and splendor, as in Soulier’s majestic Notre-Dame, but exposed the odd recycling of medieval architecture that Hugo had half-jokingly described. In the 1890s, the Bisson brothers’ studio took this picture of a former religious building converted into a military one. Niches that likely once held sculpted saints are empty, and a sign above the door reads: “Infantry Barracks.”


The Maison Carrée, Nîmes

The Maison Carrée, Nîmes by Edouard Denis Baldus

Édouard Baldus's photograph of the Maison Carée a first-century CE Roman Temple in the southern French city of Nîmes was taken as part of the Mission Héliographique, France's state-sponsored program to photo-document the architectural patrimony of its nation. What began as a preservationist project of documentation quickly became one of nationalist identity formation. Using the work of photographers like Baldus, the Republic of France sought to define itself as a nation, one with a rich and storied history. Baldus's photograph not only depicts an ancient marvel but places it next to a distinctly modern one to nineteenth century eyes: the glowing gas lamp adjacent to the building's entrance. The image at once stresses France's Roman history and the civic role of the state that preserves and illuminates this history.

See other photographs of the architectural patrimony of France. [Link to Embark Portfolio “Architectural Patrimony in France”]


Rouen Cathedral, Interior

Rouen Cathedral, Interior, c. 1860 by Bisson Frères

Like Édouard Baldus’s photograph of the Maison Carrée, this image of the interior of Rouen Cathedral was made as part of the Mission Héliographique. But while Baldus pairs a historical monument with a modern oil lamp, the Bisson brothers highlight the age and mystique of their subject. The work is a salt print, a slow and deliberate photographic process that requires a particularly long exposure time. By exposing the photographic negative to light for a longer period, the process captures a sense of light changing over time. As a result of this technical process, the apse and altar of Rouen Cathedral seem ghostly, washed in a hazy, celestial, almost divine light.

See other Salt Print photographs. [Link to Embark Portfolio “Salt Prints”]


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.

Cover for the Album of Photographs of the Holy Land

Click on the button below to explore the album. To return to the exhibition page, click the back button of your browser.

Explore Album

Album with Photographs of England, Scotland, and India

Album cover 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.

Explore Album

Museum Hours

Although the museum is temporarily closed, our digital doors are always open.

Visit Museums From Home to enjoy Stanford art museums from home.

Visit
Welcome to Museums From Home

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.

328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5060

Google Map

Parking

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.

Parking Rates and Map