New York

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Ayoucha, Cairo, 1842–43, daguerreotype, 3 3⁄4 × 4 3⁄4".

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Ayoucha, Cairo, 1842–43, daguerreotype,
3 3⁄4 × 4 3⁄4".

“Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey”

In many ways, this was a stunning show of firsts. It was the US debut of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s iridescent daguerreotypes, gathering 120 of the earliest images of the Eastern Mediterranean, shot between 1842 and 1845. (Louis Daguerre introduced his groundbreaking photographic process only a few years before these pictures were taken, in 1839.) The images tracked the Frenchman’s voyage and his desire to document Islamic architecture, while also capturing the effects of all types of upheaval—for instance in his pictures of the Parthenon in Athens with its destroyed mosque and its (never-ending) renovations. After Italy and Greece, Girault traveled to present-day Syria and places then called Syria, which included Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. Throughout, he gained rare access to ancient sites, though how he did so, among many other specifics, is largely unknown. What’s clear is that he was the scion of two aristocratic families, the sole heir to a fortune, and that he broke from pedigree and decided to pursue art and travel, no matter the cost. 

The softly lit show—whose dim illumination gave the images a holographic quality—and its elegant catalogue provided an excellent introduction to an oeuvre of indeterminate size; Girault may have produced anywhere between one and three thousand silvered copper plates on this journey alone. The exhibition also had a stranger-than-fiction backstory. The daguerreotypes were tucked away in custom-built linden-wood boxes and remained unseen for most of the twentieth century. In 1998, Girault’s family decided to sell the collection. A majority went to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris; the rest landed in museums and private collections.

While the spectral yields of Girault’s trek are remarkably bespoke—from his unusually sized plates to his toxic, nearly alchemical processes—what struck me most was how the curator of the exhibition, Stephen C. Pinson, negotiated the tricky politics underpinning the idea of getting somewhere first. Some might argue that these daguerreotypes present yet another example of post-Enlightenment French expansionism—the country’s assumed mission civilisatrice—and that’s true. Others might say that they usefully record demolished or deeply endangered artifacts—such as the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque that was smashed in 2013 during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the cedars of Lebanon now being destroyed by climate change, or Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, seen covered in then-recent graffiti—and that’s true, too. (At the time, Gustave Flaubert called these defacements “the embodiment of stupidity”—no argument there.) Such tensions were palpable throughout the show, and are of a piece with numerous contemporary debates at other museums regarding the colonialist plunder of indigenous artifacts.

Holding his exposures for anywhere from one to fifteen or more minutes—depending on the conditions of sun, humidity, dust, and dirt—Girault focused on architecture. In a few nascent artistic flourishes, he sometimes shot a tree or two. But what he mainly captured were eerily cloudless, midnight-blue skies and a sense of timelessness, of non-place. The few plates showing figures—such as an astounding image of an unveiled woman smoking a hookah in Cairo—conjure an odd atmosphere of eternity. Was that an intended effect? It’s hard to know. But what seems certain is Girault’s privilege, his obviously Orientalist eye, and his vision of these lands as fantasy worlds. To be sure, this incredible show will elevate the artist, but how will the fluctuating canon reckon, ultimately, with the views of otherness here—and, in turn, what it means to be first?