BMCR 2006.02.20

Photography. Early Views of Ancient Mediterranean Sites

, , Antiquity & photography : early views of ancient Mediterranean sites. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. xii, 226 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 27 x 29 cm. ISBN 0892368055 $65.00.

Antiquity and Photography, is a handsomely produced book reflecting the exhibit of the same name at the Getty Villa during the winter and spring of 2006. (Note the reviewer has not seen the exhibit.) The book consists of an introduction, five essays and two portfolios with eight plates in each. The core of the book is the publication of the nineteenth century photographs. There are also some earlier drawing and some modern illustrative material. Egyptian material accounts for about 15%, Greek 55%, Roman 22% and 8% other. The essays are designed to elucidate the photographs both as photographs and as tools for archaeological study.

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, who has published regularly on early photography of antiquity, starts the text with a general introduction to the exhibit and the essays. We are introduced to the photographers and the circumstances of their work in Egypt, Greece and Italy following the invention of the daguerreotype and calotype processes in 1839. Then Claire Lyons discusses the art and science of nineteenth century photography in which she explores the increasing use of photography by archaeologists brought on in part by the accuracy and immediacy of photographs. The photographs in the essays and portfolios that follow are arranged roughly in chronological order of the photographer’s work.

Lindsey Stewart present a study of Philibert Girault de Prangey’s work in Rome, Greece and Baalbek between 1841 and 1845. The treatment is biographical, with a discussion of his photographic technique and composition. The first portfolio presents the work of French photographers of the 1850’s and 1860’s (including the American John Beazley Greene who lived in France). Here the text is very limited.

Then John K Papadopoulos’ essay “Antiquity Depicted” discusses the value of early photography for the modern archaeologist and historian. The examples are all drawn from Athens and Attica with the exception of the Lion Gate from Mycenae and the Temple of Apollo from Corinth. Most of the discussion naturally centers on the buildings of the Acropolis and the “Theseion”. Szegedy-Maszak discusses the career of William James Stillman (1828-1901) with emphasis on his work on the buildings and sculpture of the Acropolis. Like Stewart’s essay the treatment is primarily biographical, with comments on the photographic technique and composition. The second portfolio of later nineteenth century photographs of Egypt, Greece and Rome concludes the work. All of the essays are well written and well documented.

As can be seen from the quick review of the contents, most of the written material is primarily of antiquarian interest and of interest for the history of nineteenth century photography. Only Papadopoulos’ work is of direct use for archaeologists and classical scholars. Even here one must admit that the material is generally available in recent studies.1

Thus the true value of this book is in the photographs themselves, which are reproduced under the care of Weston Naef, Curator of Photographs for the Getty. Iindividuals who examine these photographs will find their own interesting revelations, and I note a few observations of my own.

Page 15 (fig. 6) shows the Caryatid Porch before the roof and modern iron supports were put in place. Page 81 (fig. 11) has a most atmospheric view of Pompeii’s street of the tombs before modern replanting and natural plant growth changed the view. Page 87 (fig. 16), a view of the walls of Rome near Porta S. Paolo, is especially useful for the pre-modern open landscape. There are many other photographs that vividly bring to view the degree of urban buildup that has occurred in the last century. To what degree this is a revelation or distortion of what would have been seen in antiquity is of course a matter of some debate and personal interpretation, but these views certainly stimulate our thinking about such questions. For a similar type of view see page 128 (fig.15) of the Athenian Acropolis viewed from Hadrian’s gate.

Pages 146-147 (fig. 27) gives us a composite photographic panoramic view of Athens ca, 1875. This shows the “Theseion” and the Acropolis and the densely inhabited area of Athens where the Agora excavations are as well as the current center of Athens. It also shows open areas where modern building and landscaping have radically changed the view. Page 186 (fig. 16) shows the top of the Acropolis before the construction of the Acropolis Museum. Page 198 (plate X) shows just how much better our view of the Arch of Septimius Severus is after cleaning. Page 202 (Plate XIII) shows the Roman Forum in 1875 with partial excavation but with a tree-lined park covering the center of the Forum and the Basilica Aemelia. Exploring these photographs is not only valuable but fascinating.

A large number of the earlier photographs of de Prangey are “laterally reversed” i.e. left is right. While this is given in the text for only one photograph and not at all in the captions, it is true for a number of the earliest works most noticeably in pp 77-78 (figs. 6 and 7).

On page 18 and note 25 the circular temple in the Forum Boarium is called the Temple of Vesta, in accordance with nineteenth century practice; however, for most of the twentieth century this building has been called the Temple of Hercules (Platner and Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, 1929, 256-8) and this should be noted to avoid needless confusion for readers.

One should note that the advertised number of illustrations (124 + 6) does not tally with my count. There are 99 separate photographs, 20 of which have enlarged details printed separately and the rest is contain engravings, paintings and other non-photographic illustrations. These are minor quibbles in a book that is sure to fascinate professionals and amateurs alike.


1. Most of all see John K. Papadopoulos, Ceramicus Redivivus, Hesperia Supplement 31, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2003 (see the review by Patrick M. Thomas BMCR 2005.03.21); Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis, Cambridge, 1999 and Ione M. Shear, “The Western Approaches to the Acropolis”, JHS 119 (1999) 86-127.