Philobiblon: Is the medium the message?

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Is the medium the message?

Went today to the exhibition at the Courtauld on 19th-century photography of "The Near East", Photographic Recollections: Ancient and Islamic Monuments in the Near East 1850-1880 (which finishes on September 26).

There was something very odd about looking at many of the places that I've seen in person through the lenses of 150 years ago. It took me a while to work out what it was; not just the sepia, or the effect of early photographic techniques, but the fact that the spaces are all so empty. There are often a few figures arranged artistically, but otherwise these are photos of vast open spaces that today would always be packed with people: a reminder that population growth doesn't just consist of bare statistics.

But what I found most interesting was the changing technical nature of photography over the period. Two views of the Qani-Bay Al-Mohamadi Mosque in Cairo brought this out.

The first, taken by Robertson and Beano in 1857, has a soft, almost water-colour-like quality, influenced, the caption said, by the early salt-paper negatives, but also by the tradition of Romantic drawings, with that said small group of figures arranged to give scale and local colour. One taken about a decade later, by Hammerschmidt, was done with a wet colloid negative, producing a sharp image almost like an architectural drawing, and in this there were no people and what the caption described as an "almost archaeological focus" on the monument itself.

No doubt times were changing, but the possibilities of technology were also affecting the way in which viewers of the photos could look at them: something of Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message". (Not that I'm a great fan of his; in my mass comm studies days I was severely disappointed when I got to read him at length; he was great at soundbites but lousy at sustained argument.)

These wet colloidal negatives had to be prepared on site, so Francis Frith, so the label said, had a special wicker-work dark-room wagon made for his expeditions. He wrote the locals decided it must be his harem, "full of moon-faced beauties, my wives all! - and great was the respect and consideration which this procured for me."

I was rather taken with two pics of Palmyra, possibly taken by Joseph Bonomi, later curator of the Soane Museum. In the technique he used, the photographer had to cover the sky on the negative with black paint, to make it appear light, but this was done clumsily, and in one place the sky behind an entire row of appears dark; rather like me trying to publish a website or blog, I felt!


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