Antiquity & Photography: Early Views of Ancient Modern Sites By Claire L Lyons et al.
Thames & Hudson, 2005.226pp. £35
Strikingly demonstrated by the photographs of architectural fragments this book seductively reproduces, parts of buildings can often prove more revealing than the whole. A similar judgement could be made of Antiquity & Photography, published to accompany an exhibition at the Getty Museum's recently renovated villa in Malibu, itself a homage to the Classical world.
Here the 'whole' is a highly selective survey of how early photographers such as Maxime du Camp, Robert MacPherson and Dimitrios Constantin portrayed antiquity's remains before 1880. The choice of photographers reflects a tension that afflicts so much writing on 19 th -century photography, between a desire to regard photographs primarily as aesthetic objects sanctified by their rarity and the reality that most were commercial or functional artefacts made for particular audiences or purposes, by people anxious to overcome technical limitations and see their images distributed as widely as possible.
Thus, in a sensitive essay by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, the book deals at length with the American photographer, William James Stillman, whose The Acropolis of Athens (1870), containing 25 superbly composed carbon prints, had a very limited distribution, but entirely ignores James Anderson of Rome and only briefly mentions Félix Bonfils, both of whom created commercial firms whose images of antiquity's monuments survive in large numbers.
The book's virtues lie principally in its bold interdisciplinary approach, with contributions from Classical and archaeological scholars as well as photographic experts, and in its 'parts', which, though linked by scene-setting texts that merely skim the surface of terrain more thoroughly excavated elsewhere, comprise four uniformly excellent essays.
Claire Lyons' analysis of the use made of photography by archaeologists provides an intriguing corollary to the way photographs of antiquity influenced architectural practice in a period dominated by the quest for historical precedents, and when archaeology and architecture were close bedfellows.
Though his work features in the standard histories of photography, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey has remained a somewhat shadowy fi gure. Here he is given substance by Lindsey Stewart's groundbreaking account that reproduces several of his recently rediscovered daguerreotypes taken on his Mediterranean tour between 1842 and 1845. These seem certain to elevate Girault de Prangey to his rightful place as one of the finest early topographical photographers.
Finally, John Papadopoulos charts how, far from presenting 'eternal verities' frozen in time by the camera's lens, photographic interpretations of Athenian remains responded to changing cultural expectations, especially the need to buttress nascent Greek nationalism. Pace Benedetto Croce, 'all photography is contemporary photography'.
Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection