The Pyramids: 150 Years of Photographic Fascination
Aaron Van Dyke
This photography show is anchored around a Francis Frith photograph, a beautiful, quite large albumen print from 1857-58. The show includes nearly fifty works by thirty-two artists and takes a broad chronological view, as well as playing loose with its presumed subject, the Egyptian pyramids. At first this comes off as casual and sometimes humorous. However, with a little more consideration the show’s multiple and mind-bendingly complex themes start to emerge. It is an incredibly sad coincidence that almost exactly one month before the show opened one of postcolonialism’s most important scholars, Edward Said, passed away. After all, Frith was in part motivated by colonial impulses. He wanted to convince Britain of the Orient’s potential importance, as well as thwart France’s advances in the region.
An important element of our so-called “postcolonial” situation is tourism. Some of the earliest works in the show, such as the aforementioned Frith photo and Félix Bonfils’ Caire, Pyramides de Giseh (1867–70), were intended to be sold to armchair tourists back home. Today tourists take their own snapshots and several of the works in the show shared a genealogy with the snapshot. If Frith’s photo was the anchor, the inspiration for the show seemed to be a picture of gallery owner Martin Weinstein’s wife taken by his daughter, Molly Weinstein (Portrait of Laura, 2000). It is typical of tourist photography, a person standing in front of a famous landmark. In Egypt (1989), Ferdinando Scianna replaces this person with his own shadow.
One of the most tourist-like photographs is not a picture of the Egyptian pyramids, but the Las Vegas pyramid, the Luxor hotel. In terms of content, the most striking photographs in the show is Frédéric Brenner’s The Hebrew Academy, The Luxor, Las Vegas, Nevada (1992). On the right stands the Luxor, a dark, glass pyramid; on the left, also in the form of a pyramid, are students dressed in neat uniforms. When you think of this image in terms of historical relations, it in a real mind-blower. It is impossible to consider the subject of the Pyramids without pondering the relationship between the West and the Middle East, especially in these charged times. But to have Jewish children form the preeminent symbol of Egypt, the land from which the Jews escaped, in a country that touts itself as the land of freedom, in a city that equates decadence with freedom, at a time that perpetual war has been declared (whether coincidentally or not) predominantly on groups practicing the Islamic faith… This image contains within it a hint of the complexity inherent in this show, a complexity that will not be contained within gallery walls and who’s problems stubbornly refuse to be resolved.
The curatorial armature the show hangs on causes many works to be read in ways independent of the artists’ intent (and this is not a bad thing). For example, Alex Webb’s Hot Rod Show, Atlanta, GA (1996) is dominated by the slick red shapes of open car hoods, but in the background is a mural of an “Egyptian scene” that includes a pyramid. This show’s theme foregrounds the almost unconscious pervasiveness of the Middle East in the Western imagination.
There are a number of standouts in this show (unfortunately, too many to mention here). In addition to the Frith and Bonfils’ photographs, Lee Friedlander’s Egypt (1983) shows several stray dogs milling about a barren area to one side of the sphinx and pyramids—a decidedly unromantic view. There seems to be quite a diversity of settings around this locale. In contrast to Friedlander’s photograph, Pyramid at Giza, Egypt #67 (1985) by Kenro Izu, shows a beautiful and somewhat rugged desert landscape with a pyramid in the middle distance.
There is also great variety in the way the pyramids are shown. Richard Barnes focuses on a glass sphere that inverts the image of the pyramid that stands behind it, slightly out of focus, in Glass Orb, Giza, Egypt (1992). This works as an analogy for the distortion through which one culture sees another, but one must not believe that an undeformed view is possible. Even the sharpest image is made possible through the distortion of light through a lens (or, indeed, the eyes).
Overall this show is quite strong. The curating has the right touch, light, almost approaching its subject tangentially. There is no overt political slant, but political circumstances lay heavily upon the situations these photographs come out of and the questions that are asked in response. The works raise questions, especially in this context, and the complexity of these questions is not hidden. It allows the viewer to contemplate this complexity in a way that might allow answers to emerge in these perpetually desperate times.