Rediscovering a Forgotten Pioneer of Photography

Girault de Prangey, “Dome, Khayrbak Mosque, Cairo” (1843), daguerreotype 4-13/16 x 7-9/16 inches.

 
Girault de Prangey, “Dome, Khayrbak Mosque, Cairo” (1843), daguerreotype 4-13/16 x 7-9/16 inches.
Despite the importance and innovation of this work, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s legacy has long been obscure.

Despite the importance and innovation of this work, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s legacy has long been obscure.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Girault de Prangey, “Palm Tree near the Church of Saints Theodore, Athens” (1842), daguerreotype, 9-3/8 x 7-3/8 inches

“He was, as far as I have been able to determine, the first photographer who used the medium for the purpose of a scientific, scholarly mission,”

Stephen C. Pinson

Between 1842 and 1845, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey lugged his cumbersome camera equipment from his home in Langres, France, to the Eastern Mediterranean. The wealthy Frenchman had studied fine art in Paris before discovering photography after Louis Daguerre’s 1839 introduction of the daguerreotype. Girault had his own take on the new medium: fitting multiple exposures on a single oversized plate. In this way he took vertical panoramas of columns and minarets in Italy and Egypt, and horizontal vistas of Greece and Jerusalem. He later cut the plates apart into individual photographs. In Rome, for instance, he photographed a vertical shot of all 98 feet of Trajan's Column, then scaled the interior spiral staircase to capture from the top a sprawling panorama of the city with the Colosseum at its center.

He created hundreds of photographic images on silvered copper plates, many the first such documentation of these sites. Today, they offer glimpses of places now altered, like the Acropolis before the Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman structures were torn down after Greek independence, and Pompey’s Column in Alexandria marred with graffiti that was later removed. Others are now destroyed, such as portions of the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria. Despite the importance and innovation of this work, Girault’s legacy has long been obscure.

“Die hard photo historians, and a handful of curators, knew about him, but in terms of widespread exposure, he just wasn’t on the radar until the end of the 20th century,” said Stephen C. Pinson, curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs.

Pinson curated Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey, on view through May 12. Organized in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris, it features loans from that institution and other collections, as well as recent acquisitions by the Met. Girault died in 1892 with no direct heirs. His photographs were forgotten. Then a distant relative, Charles de Simony, purchased his decaying villa in 1920, and found a heap of wooden boxes, filled with plates, in the attic. Some were later donated to the BnF, yet it wasn’t until almost a century later that they received widespread attention, spurred by a 2003 sale at Christie's.

Monumental Journey transports visitors on Girault’s travels through around 120 of his daguerreotypes. The exhibition opens with several of the wooden boxes in which Girault stored his plates, all meticulously ordered by location, date, and year. “He was, as far as I have been able to determine, the first photographer who used the medium for the purpose of a scientific, scholarly mission,” Pinson stated. That mission was to examine the architecture and archaeology of these regions.

Girault had trained in landscape painting, and employed some of his photographs for art references — examples of his watercolors, paintings, and lithographs are in Monumental Journey — but over the course of his experimentation, he became fascinated with the visual properties of the daguerreotype in its own right.

Girault de Prangey, “Ramesseum, Thebes” (1844)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girault de Prangey, “Ramesseum, Thebes” (1844), daguerreotype, 7-7/16 x 9-7/16 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Olympieion, Athens, Viewed from the East” (1842)
National Collection of Qatar

Girault de Prangey, “Olympieion, Athens, Viewed from the East” (1842), daguerreotype, 7-1/16 x 9-7/16 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Desert near Alexandria” (1842), daguerreotype.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girault de Prangey, “Desert near Alexandria” (1842), daguerreotype.

Girault de Prangey, “Rocks, Philae” (1844), daguerreotype.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Girault de Prangey, “Rocks, Philae” (1844), daguerreotype, 3-1/8 x 3-3/4 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Temple of Artemis, Sardis” (1843), daguerreotype.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girault de Prangey, “Temple of Artemis, Sardis” (1843), daguerreotype, 7-3/8 x 9-1/2 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Great Mosque of Damascus” (1843), daguerreotype.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Girault de Prangey, “Great Mosque of Damascus” (1843), daguerreotype, 3-3/4 x 9-7/16 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Portal, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem” (1844), daguerreotype.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Girault de Prangey, “Portal, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem” (1844), daguerreotype, 7-7/16 x 9-5/8 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Aleppo, Viewed from the Antioch Gate” (1844), daguerreotype, 7-7/16 x 9-1/2 inches.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girault de Prangey, “Aleppo, Viewed from the Antioch Gate” (1844), daguerreotype, 7-7/16 x 9-1/2 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Window and Bell Tower, Corneto” (1842), daguerreotype.
National Collection of Qatar

Girault de Prangey, “Window and Bell Tower, Corneto” (1842), daguerreotype, 7-5/16 x 9-1/2 inches.

Girault de Prangey, “Temple of Vesta, Rome” (1842), daguerreotype.
Courtesy W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Collection

Girault de Prangey, “Temple of Vesta, Rome” (1842), daguerreotype, 3-3/4 x 9-1/2 x 5/16 inches.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girault de Prangey, “Mosque of Sultan al-Hakim, Cairo” (1842-43), daguerreotype, 9-7/16 x 3-11/16 inches.

"I think that along the way of that three-year journey, he fell in love with the medium of photography,” Pinson said. “You can see that, especially in the very unusual views, like the top of a palm tree. It would have been unheard of for anybody at the time to look up at the top of a palm tree and think, ‘well, that would make a good picture.’ Now, it seems so obvious to us, because we take pictures of everything. But I think that he was one of the first to realize that these photographs existed outside of our normal, everyday reality, and that you could look at the world photographically.”

He was drawn to the enigmatic sunken shape of a rock-cut tomb in Syria, and the intersecting trunks of Cedars of Lebanon. In a 2018 video produced by the Met, Grant B. Romer, founding director of the Academy of Archaic Imaging in Rochester, New York, demonstrates how Girault used his custom camera to expose a part of a plate with a dark slide. (“We estimate that if he traveled with 500 whole plates, that he made anywhere between 1,500 to 3,000 exposures,” Romer says.) People rarely appear in these images, and mostly seem posed to show scale, including a man seated on a boulder formation along the Nile in Philae. A few were caught by hazard, like the blur of robed bodies leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The portraits that Girault made exoticize their subjects, and identify them vaguely as “Bedouin” or “horse driver,” and never by name. An exception is a woman called Ayoucha, who gazes with self-assurance no matter the costume in which she is garbed, whether veiled in modesty or smoking a hookah. “Although Girault was not directly linked to any official state projects and remained something of an outsider to the orientalist academic world, his connections and writings reflect the larger colonial experience and the beliefs then motivating the French intellectual elite,” writes Martina Rugiadi, associate curator in the Met’s Department of Islamic Art, in the accompanying catalogue.

The heart of the exhibition concentrates on Girault’s photographs taken farthest from home. In Baalbek, part of today’s Lebanon, he made an extensive study of the Roman Imperial ruins in 1843. Then there are the 1844 images of Aleppo, Syria. Visible is the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque, which fell in 2013 during the Syrian Civil War. While all of Girault’s photographs are a portal to the 1840s, they also recall recent heritage loss in regions that remain volatile.

Girault returned to France in 1845. In the following decades, he shifted his focus from photography to horticulture, although he kept his photographic archive in meticulous order. Monumental Journey argues for his long absent place in the history of photography. Girault did not simply record architecture and archaeology, he was engaging with the possibilities of the medium, from the thoughtful framing and balance of his compositions, to the inventive use of the large plates.

"It's not often today that you can take somebody who nobody has ever heard of that is actually so important to the medium, and introduce them,” Pinson said. “For us, it's not just the documentation of these ancient sites, and the fact that for the majority of them, these are the earliest surviving photographs. This is an amazing artist, and we hope people can see things in a new way because of these photographs.”

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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