By Mark Juszczak
Ayoucha’s hands aren’t holding the camera. Actually, it’s not really a camera. It’s almost a camera. She is reclining on a couch. Wearing striped loose pants. A Hookah pipe is resting on her lips. She is amused. Confident. At ease in her flat in Cairo. In gesture and gaze the expression is timeless. It could have been yesterday.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey is the “photographer.” But that is a term of our time. One that he would hardly recognize. And it is not yesterday. It is the year 1842. Just before the advent of the technology of photography the Daguerreotype had come into being. The Daguerreotype consisted of a sheet of silver-plated copper that was sensitive to light and that would render a latent image visible upon treatment with mercury fumes.
Compared to the photograph, which was developed as a technology very soon after, the Daguerreotype was primitive: the plate was very sensitive, processing required toxic chemicals, the surface of the sheet could easily be ruined, exposure time was fairly long.
But Prangey wasn’t just interested in taking studio shots. The Daguerreotype was also revolutionary. It was the equivalent of someone coming across an I-Phone in the 1980’s – in terms of sophistication for its day. Ever since the camera obscura with a lens (a box with a pinhole used to project an image) had been developed in the middle of the 16th century, artists and technicians had tried in vain to find a way to capture the elusive image that it formed. It would take almost 300 years for science to reveal its secret – a way to capture what we see and reproduce it perfectly.
And Pragney was a man in a hurry. He realized that, however clunky and difficult to use, the Daguerreotype would give him a chance to do something that had never been done before: to show the world to France: the actual real world. And so he set out on a grand tour to be the first human to ever capture the direct actual images of that world. And he did. He traveled throughout Greece, Turkey, modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt.
And he brought back home not just the first real images of the Parthenon and of Mosques in Cairo, he also brought back the first real images of the people who lived there. The exhibit of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/monumental-journey-girault-de-prangey-daguerreotypes ) reveals to its audience something truly extraordinary: the real eyes and faces of people in the Middle East, some of whom were born in the late 1700’s.
These are not the painted portraits of kings and queens. There is a horse drive from Constantinople; a sailor from Cairo. A young Bedouin woman from Giza. Nameless, but real. Their eyes stare back at us with that depth of time that reveals an inner world that we can only begin to grasp. And then there is Ayoucha. The only individual Pragney identifies by name.
Her daguerreotpye is contemporary in every way except the technology itself. Which makes it even more remarkable. In an age where we view the relentless pace of media technology as a given, it helps to step back and see how others reacted and felt when they first encountered a new media. It’s also humbling to remember that within less than 30 years, our expensive smart phones will be in dust bins and on museum shelves, examined by cultural anthropologists with that same hubris afforded only by the march of time.
Pragney’s daguerreotype of Ayoucha is arguably the world’s first selfie. I only wonder when the last will be taken….