Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 6, 2018
Ali Behdad Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 224 pp.; 4 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Paperback $30.00 (9780226356402)
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In his new book, Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East, Ali Behdad connects Orientalist theory, photographic history, and the politics of the Middle East. This disciplinary confluence positions photographs in a cross-cultural dynamic where they “play a performative function in producing certain cultural and political meanings” (13). Camera Orientalis arrives on the heels of critical contributions from the fields of history, the history of art and science, as well as anthropology. Authors such as Ahmet Ersoy, Nancy Micklewright, Mary Roberts, Staci Scheiwiller, Edhem Eldem, Elizabeth Edwards, Christopher Morton, Christopher Pinney, Deborah Poole, Patricia Hayes, and Deborah Willis have, in recent years, presented substantial positions on non-Western histories of photography through issues of race, religion, subjectivity, and national identity formation. Behdad adds to these bodies of work by combining semiotic theory and anthropological practice. In so doing, he works to reaffirm the Orientalist paradigm, avowing its relevance through a selection of photographic examples that serve to dissolve the limits (and limiting aspects) of Eurocentric categorizations in photography. By reevaluating established narratives of cultural hegemony, Behdad suggests that Orientalism and its historiography have not only shaped what it meant to be from Ottoman, Iranian, or Arab lands, but also what it meant to be human in the nineteenth century. This treatment of material from the Middle East is necessary, urgent, and refreshing. It moves the conversation about these exotic, scientific, and official images beyond the boundaries of canonical discourse, making both the photographic and Orientalist experience central to a history of the Middle East.

In all five of the book’s chapters, Orientalism provides the theoretical framework for a relationship between photography and the Middle East. Each chapter acts as a case study for the visualization, performance, and manifestation of an Orientalist imaginary. Although Behdad remains a champion of the Saidian approach, his text transcends theories of ideological power, making Orientalism a “network of aesthetic, economic, and political relationships that cross national and historical boundaries” (19). The first chapter provides a self-conscious and clarifying introduction to his methodologies, the inspiration for them, and how they differ from earlier studies. The second chapter demonstrates how the international circulation of photographs fueled fantastical ideas about the Orient. Moving beyond biographical studies on photographers or patrons, Behdad examines photographs as descriptive and imaginative devices by drawing connections between written travelogues and tourist albums. This erudite comparison is particularly successful in his analysis of landscape photography. Panoramic images of Istanbul, Behdad writes, “like the promontory descriptions of the Middle Eastern landscapes produced by Victorian travelers, such as Richard Burton and Charles Doughty . . . [created] a hierarchical relation between the viewer and what was being viewed by positioning the European onlooker as one looking down on the aestheticized landscape below” (54). Indeed, these photographs made so often from the Galata or Beyazıt tower privilege the viewer. What Behdad fails to note is that the panorama as a form, object, and performance was inextricably linked to photography and photographic vision from the medium’s inception in 1839 (Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, started his career painting panoramas). Which invites the question: Is photographic vision inherently European?

Later, in chapters 3 and 4, Behdad effectively argues that this is indeed the case for photography in Iran. The practitioners who introduced the medium to the Qajar court and Iranian public were “in one way or another associated with Western colonial powers” (106). Furthermore, he suggests that images of Iranian women that did not comply directly with Orientalist tropes are nonetheless in “dialogue with European aesthetic conventions” because “what enabled their very production and existence is a European medium” (112–13). In order to agree with Behdad’s argument, one must accept European ownership of photography (something about which I still remain uncertain). Photographs were invented simultaneously in France and England in 1839, but the undeniable qualities of repetition and reproduction that lie at the very heart of photography expand the origins to other sites and cities across the globe. It is this capacity for the uncontainable, for the unwieldy multiplication of images and their many meanings, that suggests the opposite—that photography is never only one thing or from one place. Photographic circulation and the related chains of image translation reveal the very fragmentations, reinterpretations, and agency that Behdad overlooks in chapter 2 when considering a collection of Ottoman albums at the Getty Research Institute. He argues that photographic books, such as tourist albums by Abdullah Frères or Pascal Sébah from the 1870s and 1880s, present “a fixed and stable view of their subject” (44). His overemphasis on the sameness of these albums posits them as one-dimensional objects. Yet, by its very nature the photographic album is a book about relationships, relationships made fluid through the serial and sequential mediations and remediations of images (even the same images), thus activating courses of power and control, eroticism, and otherness in the larger visual economy.

Behdad’s original achievement in Camera Orientalis is his assessment of Iranian Orientalist imagery. Chapters 4 and 5 are masterfully researched and weave complex theoretical notions about Orientalism and power dynamics together with an analysis of institutional frameworks and visual data. For example, Behdad’s description of Nasir al-Din Shah’s introduction, education, and implementation of photographic practice historicizes the medium in the Iranian context. Furthermore, Behdad’s readings of royal portraiture and incorporation of the shah’s handwritten captions in his personal albums are wonderfully fruitful. Here (unlike in his discussion of the Ottoman material), Behdad uses objects to create and construct meaning. At times this analysis can read as insular, especially when he omits important parallels between photographic patterns in a global milieu. The employment of survey photography in Qajar Iran reflects a strikingly similar political practice in the Ottoman, Dutch, and American worlds. This privileging of the local (which is necessary at least in part to reorient the dominant Eurocentric narrative in the history of photography) tends to homogenize the medium, and can obscure relevant transnational connections between different global histories of photography.

Most memorable is the brief afterword, which not only refers to nineteenth-century histories of photography but makes the historical a vibrant part of the present moment. Behdad juxtaposes marginalized histories of Middle Eastern photography with what he calls “a voracious desire for photographs and other works of art by contemporary Middle Eastern artists evident among curators, collectors, and countless audiences in the United States and Europe” (153). Artists such as Lalla Essaydi, Bahman Jalali, and Shadi Ghadirian challenge Orientalist stereotypes of women and reveal themselves as powerful agents who participate actively in contemporary politics. The inclusion of artists, especially female ones, and their ability to draw historical connections enlivens Behdad’s discussion. Ghadirian, for example, reinterprets Qajar-era studio portraits by inserting herself into these formulaic settings along with twentieth-century objects like a Pepsi can or sunglasses. Through her self-portraits, she intermingles different photographic narratives, allowing the viewer to see contemporary Iranian images within a historical context.

The book’s principal weakness lies in the way that Behdad uses photographs themselves. Despite his rather acerbic critiques of art historians and disciplinary approaches to Middle Eastern photographs, by detailing a lineage of image production from painting to photography, he too follows a linear aesthetic model that remains rooted in formalism and lacking in technological complexity (135–37). Behdad does not utilize techniques of visual analysis to search for clues about what these images do (or what they are). Moreover, he mischaracterizes details in the history of photography, such as linking the work of the preeminent calotypists Maxime Du Camp, Auguste Salzmann, and Felix Teynard to glass-plate collodion techniques. In the first chapter, which outlines the nature of Orientalist photography, Behdad discusses the erasure of indigenous people from the Middle Eastern landscape by nineteenth-century European photographers: “The Orientalist photograph often depopulates the Orient of its inhabitants, for their presences rob the image of its quest for a romantic monumentalism and circumvent the possibility of visual appropriation” (33–34). The absence of humanity in these images effectively expunges any local presence or cultural specificity from the environment, thus priming it for colonial and/or Orientalist intervention. Yet, to illustrate this point, Behdad selected a Henri Béchard albumen print depicting the Temple of Ramaseum in Thebes. Sitting in the middle ground of the photograph, just in front of the “crumbling remains of a glorious past,” are three figures whom Behdad ignores in his analysis (at least two of the sitters are black Egyptians). This oversight might even be interpreted as Orientalist in its failure to acknowledge or “see” the local population. I remain perplexed by such a pairing, and cannot help but ask, which comes first: the image or the idea?

Despite this confusion, Camera Orientalis is a stimulating text that follows networks of Orientalist photographs—how they traveled across borders and through time, shaping popular consciousness. Yet, the nuances in such systems of interchange are not well articulated. A forensic examination of agents, institutions, and social systems is missing. The productive discussion inspired by Camera Orientalis might be enhanced further through an object-driven approach, expressly as it relates to the social biographies and use-value of photographs. Ultimately, questions remain: Are photographs both of and from the Middle East always Orientalist? How are such materializations of Orientalism complicated by the medium’s ubiquity and capacity for multiplication? Does this multiplicity demonstrate a photographic logic or technology of vision that relies on a global code of optics (ways of seeing and being seen)? If so, how are Orientalist photographs conversant with similar images across the globe? In many ways, these dilemmas are present in Camera Orientalis, leaving this reader hungry for more research, scholarship, and discussion on this very timely and worthy topic of study.

Erin Hyde Nolan
Visiting Assistant Professor, Art History, Maine College of Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.