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Kaleidoscopic Archive Crosses Genres and Geographies

September 9, 2008

LOS ANGELES—The Getty Research Institute (GRI) has announced the acquisition of the Orientalist Photography Collection.  Dating between 1843 and 1920, the Orientalist Photography Collection comprises approximately 4,500 photographic images of the Middle East and North Africa.  Created by 164 different photographers and studios, the photographs present the diverse cultures of Islam and the Holy Land, western responses to them, and their impact on 19th-century European arts and society.

“We are delighted to acquire this unparalleled visual resource, which complements the core strengths of the Research Library and the Getty Museum,” says GRI Director Thomas Gaehtgens. “Acquiring this comprehensive archive of images will expand the Getty’s potential for innovative exhibitions, publications, programs, and original cross-disciplinary research.”

From the earliest daguerreotypes of the Middle East made by Girault de Prangey in 1843-44, to amateur travel snapshots from the early-20th century, these photographs record a period when the Orient held a special allure for Western viewers and was increasingly open to travelers, commerce and ideas.  Views of Egypt, the Maghreb, and the Levant predominate, from Morocco in the west to Arabia and Syria in the east.

The significance of the Orientalist Collection lies in its scope and depth.  Formed privately and virtually untapped by scholars, the collection includes photographically-illustrated books, photo-albums, stereo views, printed ephemera, and a variety of photo-reproductive technologies.  In addition to the human subject, which predominates, the collection documents a variety of architectural and topographical sites including views of iconic Egyptian, Islamic, Roman 
and Jewish monuments.  A key segment of the collection chronicles customs and costumes, vendors and bazaars, and working-class life.

Photographs by Maison Prod’hom, Béchard, Fiorillo, and Dumas record social conditions and historical events.  Through their lenses, we encounter street beggars in Biskra (Algeria), Islamic scholars in Cairo, Jerusalem’s leper colony, the 1882 bombardment of Alexandria, and the inauguration of the Place des Canons in Beirut.  At the crossroads of the major world faiths, the Middle East piqued Western curiosity. Photography—both professional and amateur—provided a ready means to capture religious fêtes and festivals and the sites of their performance which have since undergone rapid development.  

The Orientalist Collection expands on the existing collections at the Getty.  The Research Library built a considerable center of gravity with the acquisition of the Pierre de Gigord collection, which established the largest holding of 19th-century photographs of the Ottoman Empire (6,000 images) outside of Istanbul.  Among North American institutions, the Research Library owns the most significant body of 19th-century photographs of Algeria (over 1,300 prints), and has contextualized them with a diversity of illustrated books, posters, and postcards of North Africa.

With this acquisition, the GRI is planning to enhance its future exhibitions and publications through the sheer wealth of images and their multi-faceted research potential.   It will also stand as an important resource during the 2008-2009 scholar year “Networks and Boundaries,” providing fresh visual materials for scholars pursuing such questions as how freely have artists, art objects, and artistic concepts and practices moved across socio-politico and cultural boundaries, or to what extent are western responses to Middle Eastern issues rooted in historical images?

“The Orientalist Collection represents an extraordinary visual archive,” explains Frances Terpak, the Research Institute’s curator of photographs. “Crossing genres and geographies, the kaleidoscopic potential of the archive facilitates a reappraisal of the diverse cultures of Islam and the Holy Land.  Contemporary Middle Eastern issues are colored by complex histories that collections like this one can elucidate.”

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Beth Brett
Getty Communications

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