Exploring Gender and Portraiture in Photographs from the 19th-early 20th Century: A Visit to the AUB Archives

By Helena Kieß (Visiting Student, Heidelberg University/AUB)

On March 13, 2018, the American University of Beirut’s Archives and Special Collections (ASC) generously hosted a group of students, scholars and photographers, which included a number of international scholars specialised in Middle Eastern art history and material culture (Fig. 1).


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Figure 1. Some of the participants at the event held in the ASC at AUB. Photo by the author.

A space that enhances and informs AUB’s cultural DNA through photographs and archival documents, the ASC allow students and researchers to examine the layers of history, social dynamics and wider cultural change of the institution and the region in particular, and Middle Eastern art history in general. It is here, specifically through examples of portraiture and other photographic genres that evidence internal and external impulses, where political agendas, visions of modernity, and notions of beauty and fashion, materialize, interface, and evolve.

It is here where the backbone of AUB’s global family lies.

The discussion, which was hosted by Hala Auji (Assistant Professor of Art History at AUB), focused on Middle Eastern Photography in 19th and early-20th century, many of which included diverse examples of portraits. For this purpose the ASC team made available an array of historic photographs from the AUB Moore Collection and E. W. Blatchford Collection, WWI photo albums, and various 19th to 20th century postcards, many of which are rarely revealed to the public.

The photographs, including contemporary reproductions, albums, books, albumen prints and stereo-pair images, the former of which were accompanied by a 19th century stereoscope, incited fruitful discussions and novel perspectives on issues like Ottoman modernity, Orientalist stereotypes, and gender representation in portraiture (Fig. 2).


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Figure 2. Photographs from the ASC’s E. W. Blatchford Collection on display. Photo by the author.

For example, a nineteenth-century photo from the Blatchford collection portrays (according to its caption) a female Egyptian singer (Fig. 3). With her face veiled and her head lowered, she is shown wearing a long black dress and heavy metallic ornaments both on her hands, head and neck. In this posed photograph, she is playing the Tarabucca, a traditional Middle Eastern and North African goblet drum. Looking at the background of the picture, one can see that she is sitting on a rock in front of a dusty backdrop, making it obvious that the picture was taken in a studio. The site of the studio, as a structured photographic space, parallels the composed aspect of the overall image. The fact that the woman avoids direct eye contact and seemingly focuses all her attention on her musical practice, in what comes off as a devout fashion, creates an ambiance of a constructed femininity, mysticism, and even eroticism through triggering the imagination.


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Figure 3. Photograph of an Arab woman singer with a Tarabucca by L. Fiorillo. The E. W. Blatchford Collection, Archives and Special Collections, AUB. http://ddc.aub.edu.lb/projects/jafet/blatchford/html/733.html

In attendance at this event, Nancy Micklewright, Ottoman art historian and head of public and scholarly engagement at the Freer Sackler Galleries (Washington, D.C.), explained that this genre of Orientalist portrait photography was mostly produced for the local tourist market. She suggested that these kinds of photographs, which may have even included erotic examples, were much more common in North Africa than the Middle East.

Interestingly, these photographs, often theatrically stylized, started off as individual exploratory photographs by both local and European photographers, and only later became articulated as trends. According to Micklewright, Orientalist stereotypes were eclipsed by other forms of gender representation in photography during the period of industrial in the 20th century, as could be seen in group snapshots that were commissioned by wealthy families.

One of these examples was also on display at the event: a photo from the ASC’s ‘Isa Iskandar Ma‘luf Photograph Collection (1880-1925) portraying two women, identified as sisters, in an intimate pose (Fig. 4). The taller woman in the picture puts her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders with her determined gaze turned in the direction of the smaller woman. Through this, an almost angular angle is created which reveals a lot about the fact that this picture is as constructed as the one portraying the Egyptian singer – both are posed and, thus, one is not more “authentic” than the other. This reminds us of the fact that photography, although intended as a documentary medium, is in fact not very different from painting practices in the construction and framing of the subject.


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Figure 4. Image of the two sisters (bottom left) and other photographs on display from the ‘Isa Iskandar Ma’luf Collection at the ASC. Photo by the author.

Another participant, Mary Roberts, the John Schaeffer Professor of Art History at the University of Sydney and whose seminal work on nineteenth century British and Ottoman art includes photography, commented on these women’s sartorial choices: “European fashions were popular among women of the elite in the late Ottoman period. This can be understood in the context of processes of modernization initiated by the Ottoman state.” These modernizing projects, such as the Tanzimat (reorderings) of the Ottoman Empire, while modelled on European educational, administrative, cultural, and industrial practices should not be misconceived of as unilateral, one-way streets. Rather, these encounters and interactions must be read in the complex network of cross-cultural engagement.

Remarking on the copious number of images on display and in the collections, Auji explained that examining several portrait photographs from the same period, rather than focusing on singular images, helps us get a better sense of local practices. Specifically, this gives us clues about what the most prevalent genres and trends were across regions. For instance, she states that:

“In the numerous photos that we see here from AUB’s ASC department, images from Egypt, Ottoman Syria, and nearby European metropoles give us a sense that certain sartorial and aesthetic choices, which are frequently repeated in these portraits, were ways in which local photographers negotiated notions of modernity. Although the basic concepts of what ‘modernity’ meant were inspired by European ideas, many Ottoman photographers often understood these as universal concepts.”

One could therefore get a sense of how diverse gender representation and portraiture have been experimented with throughout the history of Middle Eastern photography.


Helena Kieß (helenakiess@gmx.de) is a visiting student from Heidelberg University, where she is completing a degree in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies. She is currently enrolled in Dr. Auji’s “AHIS 207-Early Islamic Art and Architecture” course.

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