A just-opened exhibition at The Met, Monumental Journey explores the work of photography pioneer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804–1892). Born into an aristocratic family in northestern France, Girault de Prangey was fascinated by the past from an early age, devoting himself to studying traces of history in and around his native Langres. The young artist took sojourns to Italy and Spain, further refining his appreciation for the visual and architectural motifs that informed the art of the Mediterranean world.
Following his passion for history and the vogue for all things “oriental,” Girault in 1842 set out for what would be a three-year journey through Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, using his state-of-the-art daguerreotype equipment to document some of the most storied sites in the region. From Athens to Jerusalem to Baalbek, Girault photographed minarets, city views, ruins, and people, homing in on eye-catching architectural details in compositions that filled his small frame.
Girault’s project lay at the intersection of several cultural trends in 19th-century Europe. The field of archaeology was in its early years when he set out East, and had to that point emphasized the study of texts rather than objects or monuments. Girault’s project reflected—and perhaps even helped spur further—a new appreciation for the process of excavation and visual study that would become core to this discipline. A of-the-moment preoccupation with the “decline” of the Ottoman Empire also infuses his work. This reflected a desire to classify “Arab” architecture as having reached its zenith in medieval times, its glories giving way to the inexorable rise of European powers.
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892) Daguerreotype, 7-3/8 x 9-7/16 in., 1844. National Collection of Qatar (IM.314)
Girault’s daguerreotypes prove worthy of admiration on several levels. It’s hard not to be amazed by Girault’s technological achievement, by his tenacity and precision in having set up cumbersome equipment at dusty sites and crowded cities to capture these shots. As documents of sites long since transformed by development and monuments overrun by mass tourism, Girault’s images are of major importance to the historical record. And the formal achievements of his compositions—silhouetted columns, closely cropped Quranic inscriptions, palm fronds showing lush fullness—bespeak their worthiness for exhibition as works of art.
Likely with posterity in mind, Girault took steps to carefully store his set of plates, which were subsequently preserved by a distant relative; this care has left them in extraordinary condition some 170 years after their creation. Featuring loans from collections all over the world, this exhibition offers the priceless opportunity to examine some of the earliest photographic impressions of the ancient world, in the format that contemporaneous viewers would have seen them.
The exhibition catalogue accompanying Monumental Journey—which contains beautiful reproductions of 127 of Girault’s daguerreotypes as well as groundbreaking scholarly essays on his life and work—is newly available for purchase at store.metmuseum.org.