The Orient of the early 20th century exhibited as photographs in Paris

Nadine Abdel-Hamid, Thursday 30 Dec 2021

The Roger-Viollet gallery in Paris is exhibiting a collection of black and white panoramic photos belonging to the Léon and Lévy studios, revealing the Maghreb and Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Held under the title “L’Orient en grand,” the photographic exhibition is a panoramic epic covering the gallery's two rooms. The photos present landscapes and people dressed in traditional costumes of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

The first week of January 2022 marks the last opportunity to visit the exhibition, since it closes on 8 January after first opening in October.

The display takes the viewer through some of the very first photographic explorations of the Orient. In 1864, Isaac Georges Lévy (1833-1913) and his son-in-law Moyse Léon (1812-?) set up a photographic printing studio, publishing photographic postcards under the brand LL. Their activity continued until 1917 and in 1922 their studio was sold to Emile Crété.

In 1867, the studio participated in the Universal Exhibition, where it won the "Great Gold Medal of the Emperor," and in 1869, during the inauguration of the Suez Canal, they printed 300 photographs from Auguste-Rosalie Bisson as part of her “Voyage Sur le Nil” (Journey on the Nile) project. In this endeavor, the studio employed 400-500 people, spanning the entire production chain, from manufacturing to distribution.

Their collection includes approximately 30,000 photographs from Europe, Asia, Africa and America, making up one of the richest collections of European iconography of the Maghreb region. In 1970, the Roger-Viollet agency bought the studio's riches, which numbered hundreds of thousands of glass plates; they are currently kept in the Historical Library of Paris.

The peculiarity of these shots is that the images were printed through 16x42cm glass plates, unusual dimensions which can no longer be used, but which allow unique horizontal and vertical shots, giving a panoramic effect. Photographers were forced to use unusually sized darkrooms to support the glass plates, which they had to carry with them.

These prints are therefore very rare, not only for their size, but also for their age. Indeed, because of the fragility of the negatives and this particular process, the photos are at risk of being unable to be reprinted.

Exploring the "exotic" colonies

The aim of the artists whose works are on display was to photograph landscapes or people and bring them back to France, so that they could then be developed and printed as postcards or photo albums.

Léon and Lévy sent their team of explorers and photographers on a mission to North Africa, to try to take photos that would fascinate the European public, so that they could discover the lifestyles of the North African colonies of the French Empire, and Egypt.

The photographs often underlined the "exoticism" of these countries and their cultures by highlighting unique landscapes of these regions, something that would make Europeans dream at a time when travel was not accessible to all and very few newspapers published illustrations on this subject. Some photos on display are also taken from the general catalog that the Léon et Lévy studio had developed, covering Egypt, Syria and present-day Turkey. 

The exhibition offers us a different perspective of the Orient at the dawn of the 20th century. This collection comprises rare and breathtaking pictures that show the dunes of the Algerian Sahara, the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, the roofs of Moroccan cities, the palm trees of Tunisian oases, the feluccas of the Nile, women covered with jewels, as well as Sudanese soldiers in Egypt. Several photos, like those from year 1900 form a single scene, in particular the works representing the oases of Tozeur in Tunisia and that of Oeufs, in the Algerian Sahara.

What remains impressive is also the sharpness and clarity of these images resulting from processes implemented through modern techniques. They display very vivid color contrasts, allowing the visitors to admire the details in each shot.

Photographic techniques of the time did not allow instantaneous photos to be taken, so people photographed had to pose for a few seconds. Nevertheless, these shots remain faithful to the nature of the subjects, showing them in their element, with their costumes in mundane or everyday poses.

The exhibition which opened earlier this year continues at the Roger-Viollet gallery (La Monnaie district, 6 rue de Seine, Paris) until 8 January, 2022.

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