There really is something new under the sun. It’s on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12 in “Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey.” Why is a show of 120 daguerreotypes made from 1842 to 1845 new? Because this first US exhibition of Girault’s “sun paintings” rewrites the history of early photography. The masterful installation by curator Stephen Pinson brings to light an artist no one’s ever heard of, a gifted practitioner of this vintage photographic medium.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-92) was a wealthy aristocrat who lived in Langres, France. An artist and antiquities scholar, he undertook a three-year voyage to document the monuments of ancient Mediterranean architecture using the newly invented technique of photography, unveiled by Louis Daguerre in 1839. Daguerreotypes immediately became enormously popular for portraits in France, even though the process was cumbersome and complex.
Imagine how much more difficult it was for Girault to haul 100 pounds of camera equipment, chemicals and metal plates through Middle Eastern deserts. Exposure time varied from one to 20 minutes, depending on the amount of sunshine. Working with noxious chemicals like mercury and iodine vapors added to the cameraman’s peril. At one point, Girault, exposed to the plague, was quarantined in Egypt for a month.
When he embarked on his odyssey, Girault became one of the first architectural historians. Traveling by boat, horse and camel, he meticulously photographed more than 1,000 monuments in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem. His focus varied from entire buildings to intricate details, rarely including people. His daguerreotypes are among the earliest known photographic images of these storied places.
So why is Girault omitted from the history of photography? Because he only published two folios with 24 illustrations of his daguerreotypes. (Each daguerreotype, a unique image on a silver-coated copper plate, could not be reproduced — unlike photographs from paper negatives.) He died without an heir. Not until 1920 did a distant relation purchase Girault’s abandoned, ramshackle villa and discover in a loft the trove of daguerreotypes, carefully labeled and stored in wooden boxes. Not until 2003 were the first images sold, awakening scholars’ and collectors’ interest.
The Met exhibition is installed chronologically, tracing Girault’s journey from Italy to Greece to the Middle East. In darkened rooms (so the daguerreotypes’ silver surface does not reflect light) you follow the photographer’s footsteps and see with his eyes. (Before photography was invented, people relied on travelers’ written descriptions or artists’ sketches to visualize the great buildings of antiquity). With a daguerreotype, you can see on a molecular level the textures and details of our cultural heritage.
In Rome in 1842, Girault used a vertical, panoramic format (the first in the history of photography) to capture Trajan’s intricately carved column, erected in 113 CE. The intrepid photographer even climbed the column’s 185 spiral steps, toting his tripod-mounted view camera, to snap a panoramic vista of Rome from the top, showing the Colosseum at center. An image of Rome’s circular Temple of Vesta shows the cleanly incised flutes of its columns and sharply cut fringes of its Corinthian capitals.
The Athenian Acropolis entranced Girault. Although strewn with rubble due to a 17th-century gunpowder explosion, with many sculptures looted by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, the ruins of the Parthenon, Erechtheion and Propylaia maintain their ghostly grandeur. In his 1842 image of a marble maiden known as a caryatid, she gracefully supports on her head the roof of the Erechtheion (420-406 BCE). Her peplos clings with sharp folds; her hair is intricately braided.
Girault’s horizontal view of the Parthenon façade and north colonnade is striking in its composition, with diagonally receding columns and broken entablature. The Olympieion, a once colossal temple dedicated to Zeus (132 CE), originally had 104 Corinthian columns. Girault shows their fluting still sharp as a knife blade, although the barrels are nicked by time, broken but unbowed. Girault described his six weeks photographing in Athens as an antiquarian’s triumph: “Nothing in the world is as marvelous or perfect as all that is contained by the Athenian Acropolis! As you might guess, the strongest battle occurred there, and, God knows how I exerted myself to take my share of the spoils.”
He next traveled to Egypt, where he photographed Islamic mosques, domes and minarets. France had been in a fever of Egyptomania since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the deciphering of hieroglyphics in the 1820s. Most nascent archaeologists (the field was new) preferred to scoop up artifacts and souvenirs rather than preserve ancient sites, but Girault took a professional approach. He documented historic landmarks in precise detail, considering his recorded images fieldwork. A closeup view of the 16th-century Khayrbak Mosque in Cairo shows ornately carved arabesques on its dome and geometric motifs on a minaret.
Girault used his photograph of the 13-century BCE Ramesseum of Thebes as a basis for a watercolor of the funerary complex after he returned to France. In the 1844 daguerreotype, four granite pillar-sculptures show a standing Pharaoh Ramses II as mummified incarnations of the underworld god Osiris, arms crossed, holding the crook and flail symbols of power. In their headless state of decay, the statues radiate both dignity and impotence against the ravages of time.
Since he considered camera images tools for memory rather than objets d’art, most of Girault’s photographs have documentary value rather than aesthetic power. He took pains to show detailed traits of Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture. Occasionally he framed his images’ compositions to make a point. His view of the 1450 BCE. Egyptian obelisk (brought to the hippodrome in Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 397 CE) clusters the geometric simplicity of the obelisk with three minarets of the Blue Mosque (c.1616). The quartet of shafts — old and new — rise like asparagus stalks gathered from different cultural gardens.
Another 1843 image from Anatolia, Girault’s Spiral Column, Aphrodisias, emphasizes the ruined state of the Greek city sacred to Aphrodite, a bustling center in the eighth century BCE. Girault showed all that remained of the once imposing, monumental, four-part, 16-column gateway: two columns with a stork’s nest atop the entablature.
Many images of antiquity reveal impermanence; Girault’s 1844 shots of Jerusalem show some things don’t change. He captured images of Jewish and Christian symbols like the Wailing Wall, Lion Gate to the Old City and Church of the Holy Sepulchre along with a view of the oldest extant Islamic monument, the Dome of the Rock mosque (late seventh century CE). In that contested land, the juxtaposition of different faiths, conflicts and inability to forge peace still exists.
Most tragic is Girault’s witness to the monuments of Syria, many of which have been obliterated by the ongoing war in the 21st century. The once-thriving trading port of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is almost reduced to broken rocks today. Girault’s 1844 image of the renowned square minaret (1090) of Umayyad Mosque is all that is left of the soaring tower. In 2013, it was destroyed by shelling.
After his arduous photographic expedition, Girault returned to his 22-acre estate in Langres. He continued to experiment with photography, mostly to make images of his beloved exotic plants. He seems to have heeded Voltaire’s advice in Candide, to cultivate his own garden, for he created an elaborate haven with umbrella pines like he’d photographed at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. He renovated his villa in an eccentric “oriental” style, making it a five-story extravaganza with a dome topping his studio.
A daguerreotype Girault made in 1842 at the outset of his voyage, Palm Tree near Church of Saints Theodore, perhaps foreshadowed his retreat into a horticultural Xanadu. The image, blue-tinged because of the long exposure necessary to reproduce its spiky, green fronds, looks like fallout from an exploded rocket. After 1850, Girault became a grumpy recluse, devoted only to botany. On a snowy December day he died alone at age 88. Only fragments of fountains and walls remain today from the refuge he renovated to remind him of his glorious adventure.
Girault seemed to prize — more than words — the fixed images on his “silver mirrors” (as daguerreotypes were called). In 1844 he said, “Though at the time I do not dare speak of these places, I am taking a precious imprint of them with me, unquestionably faithful, that neither time nor distance shall impair.”
The exhibition of this unknown pioneer’s work establishes Girault as first to use daguerreotypes as a tool for a scientific purpose: to document and analyze historical monuments. Is that a monumental achievement? The evidence of our eyes shows it’s an “unquestionably faithful [achievement], that neither time nor distance shall impair.”