peering into the past

30 Apr 2019 | 03:03

    Ever since Heroditus traveled the eastern Mediterranean coastline in about 400 BC and wrote about wonders he encountered in Egypt, travel diaries have captured the attention and imagination of audiences, allowing armchair adventurers to trek vicariously. Visitors to the Met’s “Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey” have an extraordinary chance to journey back in time, in an exhibition that is a fascinating travelogue, an engaging visual novelty, and a deeply poetic rumination on time.

    A Man on a Mission Artists have always embraced new technologies. In 1842, only three years after Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey a French artist, architectural historian, and pioneer of photography, embarked on a three-year journey to places few of his countrymen and women had ever seen. Carrying large, heavy, custom-made equipment, chemicals, and fragile glass plates, Girault set out to document the wonders of the ancient world. He captured some of the first photographic images of sites in Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel.

    A palpable sense of his journey comes through in the exhibition, thanks to the presence of his oversized wooden camera, the boxes in which he carried the fragile plates (both before and after exposure), and his innovative plate holder that could be used either horizontally or vertically.

    Time TravelThe more compelling journey, though, is the one the exhibition offers to times and places as they existed in earlier centuries.

    Most of the approximately 120 daguerreotypes on view have rarely been seen before. Though small in comparison to what we think of as photographs, such as snapshots, school portraits or wedding pictures, they’re huge (at about 8 x 10 inches) compared to typical daguerreotypes, which are closer to business card size. It makes Girault’s oeuvre all the more exceptional.

    Along with a selection of Girault’s watercolors, paintings, and illustrations, they’re part of a trove found in the 1920s by his descendants in his crumbling villa. (He died in 1892.) Crates in the attic held over 1,000 carefully stored and labeled pristine daguerreotypes, many depicting places that no longer exist.

    Perhaps the most poignant, given recent events, is one of the earliest extant photographic images of the rose window of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. It was taken in 1841, when the medium was only two years old. Four of the thirteen images Girault made of the Notre-Dame are on view. Because the daguerreotype is not a print, but the equivalent of a negative that we view, the details, though tiny, are extraordinary. Architectural lines and embellishments are crisp, even as the overall image is glazed by a kind of otherworldly opalescence. And, due to a quirk of the chemicals, the sky stands out clear and blue. They’re remarkably moving to see at this moment.

    Also astonishing are the first photographs ever taken of the Acropolis in Athens, the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the Ramesseum in Thebes, and Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

    A Treasure PreservedThe exhibition, organized by Stephen C. Pinson, is arranged by geographic location. Glass cases present and protect the magical images, carefully and perfectly lit, and we peer into boxes of the past. Images of Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo under Ottoman rule, picturesque views of Jaffa, streets in Cairo topped by minarets long since fallen, the Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are all there to see, as they existed over 175 years ago. As we look, time seems both incomprehensibly vast and touchingly near.

    “Girault returned to France in early 1845 bearing more than one thousand daguerreotypes,” the curatorial statement points out. “No other photographer of the period embarked on such a long excursion or successfully made a quantity of plates anywhere near this amount,”

    Both as documentary evidence and beautifully composed works of art, Girault’s daguerreotypes are treasures. They present us with our own rich past, even as they lead us to wonder which of these rock-built sites will become no more than lost histories to our descendants.