Daguerreotypes provided preview of Mediterranean grand tour

Girault de Prangey (French, 1804–1892), ‘Palm Tree near the Church of Saints Theodore, Athens’ (89. Athènes. 1842. Palmier près S Théodore.), 1842. 9 3/8 × 7 3/8 inches. (23.9 × 18.7 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (EG7-750)

NEW YORK – Opening Jan. 30 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey” will present masterpieces of early 19th century photography by one of its unsung pioneers, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.

A trailblazer of the newly invented daguerreotype process, Girault (1804–1892) traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean from 1842 to 1845, producing more than 1,000 daguerreotypes – the largest known extant group from this period and the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jerusalem, and among the first depicting Italy.

Featuring approximately 120 of his daguerreotypes, supplemented by examples of his graphic work – watercolors, paintings and his lithographically illustrated publications – the exhibition will be the first in the United States devoted to Girault, and the first to focus on his Mediterranean journey. Many of the sites depicted have been permanently altered by urban planning, climate change, or conflict.

The exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Daguerreotypists in the early 1840s faced enormous technical challenges, especially in the desert, so daguerreotypes from these years are exceedingly rare. No other photographer of the period embarked on such a long excursion and successfully made a quantity of plates anywhere near Girault’s production of more than 1,000 daguerreotypes. The resulting photographic campaign remains an unparalleled feat in its appearance, scope, scale and ambition. Using an oversize, custom-made camera, he exposed more than one image on a single plate to create at least six different formats, including unexpected horizontal panoramas and narrow vertical compositions.

The fact that a collection of this size survived at all is extraordinary and attests to the achievement of an unheralded innovator working with unprecedented technology. The survival of this monumental and exemplary collection is also a result of Girault’s meticulous archival process—precocious at the time, even if today it seems commonplace. The artist stored his daguerreotypes in custom-built wood boxes; in addition, he carefully sorted, labeled, and dated the images so that he could retrieve them for future use, occasionally recording when he utilized them, for example, as the basis for a painting or published print. He also had them inventoried several times during his lifetime. In essence, he created the world’s oldest photographic archive.

“The exhibition reveals Girault as the originator of a thoroughly modern conception of photography, by which visual memories can be stored, retrieved, reassembled, and displayed,” stated Stephen C. Pinson, Curator, Department of Photographs. “At the same time, it is perhaps more important than ever to recognize that Girault was himself the product of a complex network of political, social and historical forces that had a far-reaching impact on the West’s relationship with the world he photographed.”

The exhibition presents a unique opportunity to experience these rarely seen works, as Girault never exhibited his daguerreotypes and died without direct heirs in 1892. In 1920, a distant relative, Charles de Simony, purchased Girault’s estate outside Langres, France, and discovered the photographs—labeled and carefully stored in their original wood boxes—in a storeroom of his dilapidated villa. A handful of intrepid collectors and curators were henceforth aware of the collection, but its dramatic content and scope remained little-known to the world until 2003 when the first of several auctions of material drawn from the original archive was held.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.