Exceptional curation at Frith photography exhibition
Not just a collection of old photos of Luxembourg and Egypt’s treasures, the thoughtfully-curated exhibition on Francis Frith and Victorian photography, entitled Views of Luxembourg and the Orient and on show at the National Library of Luxembourg, gives the viewer insight into the growth of photography as a popular and accurate medium, and the lengths to which Frith and his team of photographers were willing to go to capture these images.
Known mostly today for his photographic documentation of every city, town and village in Britain, Francis Frith sold his family grocery business and travelled to the Orient (the territories of Egypt and Palestine as they were then) to document the temples and monuments of the region.
Predicting the growth of tourism and the commercial value of photo prints (later postcards) as souvenirs for tourists, but also a window on the less seen marvels of the world, Frith sent photographers to the four corners of the globe, eventually setting up his own printing business and expanding his collection with the work of others, to amass some 3,000 photos.
Sharp clarity of scenes
Luxembourg first became a popular tourist destination in the 1860s with the advent of rail travel, and Frith sent the photographer Simpson to capture the old city, Grund and Clausen, in 27 photos, 21 of which are on display at this exhibition.
Little is known of Simpson, but the Luxemburger Wort said in an article in 1880 that he was a “great connoisseur of the beauty of nature…(and) he had the expertise to choose some of the most beautiful spots in the city”.
The extraordinary detail captured by Simpson allows the viewer to see the tiles on buildings and the bricks in the city’s fortified walls, despite the photographs being almost 150 years old. The viewer will also recognise what have become some of the most famous spots to take a snapshot, such as the view of the bridge over the Alzette in Grund and the Corniche.
It’s interesting to see the undeveloped Clausen quarter, where much of the land was used by smallholding farmers. Curator, Nadine Esslingen, explains that despite giving a truer depiction of the cityscape than a painter, Simpson did not show the poverty. The quarter was often the home of foreign photographers who set up workshops in the area for a few years.
Egyptomania and lost treasures
She also talks of the "Egyptomania" of the time, when the region surpassed Italy and Greece as the leading destination for the Grand Tour, a period of foreign travel traditionally taken by wealthy young men to finish off their education.
Frith gained fame in Britain thanks to the photos he brought back from his three trips to the Orient between 1856 and 1860.
He captured the Pyramids, Abu Simbel and the Luxor temples, and went further up the Nile than any photographer before him, as far as Soleb in Nubia. He travelled by camel through Ethiopia, and by horse across the Sinai Peninsula. He had a special boat set up with a dark room, and even a wicker carriage on wheels which he used as a dark room and occasional bedroom. The locals speculated it housed his hareem.
However Frith was a deeply spiritual and religious man, and a Quaker who had eight children. He often travelled with his sister and other family members. Despite leaving school at 16 years, he immersed himself in the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith, and poetry, travelogues and biographies.
His photos of the Orient’s temples and monuments capture the exact state and detail of their subjects. People only feature as a way to provide scale, and the only photo in the collection where people are his main subject is one he took of his cook outside the kitchen tent.
Many of these never-seen-before monuments were subsequently moved, such as the Temple of Philae, to make way for the Aswan Dam, when Egypt sold them off to raise capital for the work and they were transported to several countries around the world, where they still remain.
Like Simpson’s photos of Luxembourg, Frith’s ones of Egypt do not show the modernity of life (Egypt had a train line and significant conurbations). Frith aimed to portray Egypt as a timeless land of ancient monuments, and statues standing alone in the desert.
Many of the photographs in the Orient section appear in duplicate. They were meant to be viewed with a stereoscope - a device for allowing separate images to be viewed as a single 3D image - but the library has been unable to fulfil this clever idea due to Covid-19 regulations.
The stereoscope became the height of fashion when Queen Victoria purchased one at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and you can see a pair in one of the exhibition cases.
Wet cameras and chemicals
Perhaps the most striking features of the photographs on display are their sharpness, clarity and quality, given they date back to the period between 1856 and 1880.
It’s also fascinating to see the huge wet cameras on display, which used massive glass plates. Photographs could not be enlarged but had to be the size of the plates, so Frith used “mammoth” plates for his tour of Egypt and treated his audiences in the UK to photos of a size never seen before.
He used numerous chemicals in the process, including collodion. Photographers at the time often had to have mini dark rooms on wheels which they took with them and Frith sometimes used caves as dark rooms when he travelled through Egypt.
Photographers needed to be chemists in addition to having an artistic eye for composition, and in one quote Frith complains of the difficulty of working in Egypt’s hot temperatures where the collodion almost boiled, and the sand and dirt invaded the development process.
Curated with fascinating details
The exhibition, part of the European Month of Photography on the theme of Rethinking Nature/Rethinking Landscape, has been skilfully curated by the National Library’s Nadine Esslingen and Claude D. Conter, with a glass cabinet on Frith’s life, and another on the album of Tony Dutreux, an engineer and politician (responsible for the plans for the Fondation Pescatore and the great-nephew of Jean-Pierre Pescatore).
Dutreux also did the Grand Tour and the pages on display show his photographs and those of others such as Frank Mason Good. You can also see the huge wet cameras and plates, and an area devoted to artists depictions of cityscapes and Egyptian temples (many romanticising the true state of these).
In the first room, you’ll find the original books that held the photo collections on display, published by Pierre Brück, a Luxembourgish bookseller, under the name Souvenir de Luxembourg, despite not receiving consent from the then Minister for Justice (you can read the original letter of refusal).
Views of Luxembourg and the Orient not only documents the work of Frith & co, but it provides a window onto the advent of photography as an art form, as entertainment (in the stereoscope), a historical catalogue of treasures moved or lost, and the intrepid nature of photographers like Frith in pursuit of bringing the unseen to the masses.
Guided tours and visiting hours
Guided tours in English take place on the 15 May and 5 June from 11.00 to 12.00. You can visit the exhibition at the National Library of Luxembourg from now until 26 June on Tuesdays to Fridays from 10.00-20.00 and Saturdays 10.00-18.00. Groups can organise private tours by emailing email@example.com and a 3D digital visit will be available at the end of the month on bnl.lu.