Our very clear and precise French spirit demands above all to be shown things that are comprehensible at first glance…and quickly tires of vast scenes which seem like those rebuses where one doesn’t want to bother to figure out the word. – Du Camp 1867 (Salon of 1863)

Returning to Paris from Egypt and the Near East in 1851, the writer Maxime Du Camp brought back over 200 photographs, most of which he had taken during his sojourn in Egypt. There is a dark-skinned man in many of his pictures, placed there, Du Camp wrote, in order to establish a measure of scale for the architecture (Du Camp 1855, p.327). This common device is never merely utilitarian; it always has its implications according to who is serving as a gauge of proportions and how that figure is situated in relation to the monuments and to the person who has placed it there.

Du Camp’s model, often a mere corpuscular speck in his photographs but a major character in several of his literary works related to this Egyptian trip, becomes a locus for many interwoven issues. Among the most central are those of race, sexuality, the uses and abuses of colonial power, the relation of author to authored, and the relation of the figure living in the present to the architectural ruins of the past among which he has been placed. This essay examines primarily one strand of this web of issues: the ways a photographic visualisation of this figure comes to objectify a problematic relation of the past to the present for the French at mid-nineteenth century and for Du Camp as a subject within such a problematic.

The large, elegant album containing 125 of Du Camp’s photographs was the most noted result of his journey, then and now, it being the first major travel album to be illustrated with photographs. Published in 1852 in an edition of approximately 200 under the title Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie: dessins photographiques récueillis pendant les années 1849, 1850 et 1851, accompagnés d’un text éxplicatif, it earned the ambitious, young Du Camp the medal of the French Légion d’honneur.

The reputation of the album has rested almost entirely on its status as a pioneering accomplishment in the history of photography, and not on its inventiveness or originality. Du Camp’s long introduction, the texte éxplicatif, is in actuality a suite of quotations, many of several pages without interruption, from the two most eminent archaeologists of his era, Champollion the Younger and Richard Lepsius. These lengthy passages provide an historical context for the monuments as well as detailed descriptions of them – front, back, sides, interior, exterior – often accompanied by lists of measurements and maps of the major sites, indicating the positions of the monuments. The photographs are commonplace, clearly legible views of major sites, the monuments centred and evenly lit by the noonday sun. In general, they are well within the conventions of travel book illustrations in other media

As a whole, the album is a testimony to the characterisations of Du Camp as an obsessive chronicler: driven, ambitious, anxious and unimaginative. Gustave Flaubert, who accompanied Du Camp on this trip, thought it ‘smelled a little too much like a commissioned book, a patchwork book’ (Carré, 1956, vol. II, p.125). The album is also a testimony to a nineteenth-century empiricist belief in what Johannes Fabian has termed ‘visuality’, a formulation of knowledge whereby the ability to visualise almost becomes synonymous with understanding. The album, as well as Du Camp’s more informal travel book Le Nil (published at the same time but without illustrations), can be understood within Fabian’s terms as symptomatic of ‘a cultural ideological bias toward vision as the “noblest sense” and toward geometry qua graphic-spatial conceptualization as the most “exact” way of communicating knowledge’ (Fabian 1983, p. 106).

Photography, its images dependent on the presence of its referent and its vision organised according to the laws of perspectival geometry, appeared as the ideal aid for such a visual and spatial formulation of knowledge. Du Camp, like most of his contemporaries, was a strong believer in the mechanical, objective authority of the new medium. He wrote that he took along a camera because he ‘drew slowly and incorrectly’ and, he added, because his travel notes were often confused. ‘I understood that I needed an instrument of precision in order to bring back images which would allow me exact reconstructions’ (Du Camp 1882-3, pp.422-3). Within such a system of visual, graphic cognition photography appeared to provide a certainty no writing could give. As Roland Barthes has written, photography ‘ratifies’ what it represents, and ‘the misfortune of language [is] not to be able to authenticate itself’ (Barthes 1981, p.85).

Du Camp’s apprehension over the possible ‘confusion’ of his travel notes and his desire for ‘exact [photographic] reconstructions’ was typical of his generation and of his particular subjectivity within that generation. He departed just after the French revolution of 1848, one in which he had participated. The revolution marked yet another change among the many that had transformed Western society during the first half of the nineteenth century. Du Camp was twenty-seven years old, an orphan since childhood, especially vulnerable to the threats of a loss of continuity of the past into the present and the present into the future. Unnerved by the radical upheavals taking place around him, he was prey to the pervasive anxiety over what seemed an inability to control and order not only the present but also the past. The many changes in the social, political and productive structures of modern life appeared so extreme as to preclude the formation of a continuous chain of logical development from the past to the present. The gradually disfranchised upper bourgeoisie, of which the parentless Du Camp was a member, were most strongly affected by such a concern to recuperate a threatened historical continuity.

Figure 33. Maxime Du Camp. Propylées du Thoutmoséum, à Médinet-habou (Thèbes), 1849–50, salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.376.80)

Egypt, known as the ‘land of the origins of Western civilisation’, as well as its ‘mother’, was a major site for the French to play out such anxieties. To Western eyes, Egypt seemed a past on the edge of total rupture from the present, a pending breach made visible by the deteriorating monuments which Du Camp so assiduously photographed. Visible traces of an originating past civilisation were literally vanishing from sight owing to natural deterioration and, not the least, the vandalism of Europeans and Egyptians alike. These vanishing monuments and their statuary, reliefs and inscriptions threatened the reconstruction of a past and consequently its connection to the present.

Du Camp’s need to establish a logical order of things, both temporal and spatial, manifested itself in a reliance on the quantitative and the quotable. Like many nineteenth-century travellers, he made extensive bookish preparations for this journey, one he had planned for many years. He read from a range of literature on Egypt and the Near East, much of it illustrated. He copied verbatim long extracts from the travel accounts of the Greeks and Romans as well as passages from eighteenth and early nineteenth-century orientalist writings of all kinds, from the scholarly to the travelogue.  He also kept abreast of the most recent archaeological discoveries of his day, while at the same time steeping himself in the Romantic writings of Chateaubriand, Lamartine and Hugo.

Du Camp is a typical example of a nineteenth-century traveller caught in the paradoxical institutionalisation of an ‘unknown’ Orient, an Orient that had become ‘impregnated by a textual network so dense that the writing threatened to exhaust its own referent completely’ (Terdiman 1985, p.31). To Terdiman’s definition can be added an equally dense visual network that also threatened to deplete any direct visual experience of its referent. Du Camp’s photographic album and the other books resulting from his trip all have the characteristics of a dutiful, plodding recording of sites already visited many times before in texts and images. Although it was Flaubert who wrote that ‘everything I discover here I re-discover’ (Terdiman 1985, p.31), it is Du Camp’s writing that most insistently recycles quotations, paraphrases and clichés. Rarely is there a hint of discovery, surprise or astonishment. The photographs, at first glance, contain little of the unexpected and appear to most viewers ‘as silent, almost unfeeling studies analogous to the text that accompanies them’ (McCauley 1982, p.26).

Yet, despite all his transcribed measurements, his borrowings from authorities past and present, and ‘safe’ points of view (both textual and photographic), Du Camp’s sense of disorder and disjunction did leave its traces. One such trail appears intermittently throughout the photographs, a cypher that appears, disappears and reappears again in unexpected places. It is in the form of a dark-skinned man, usually clothed in only a white loin cloth and head-wrap, who inhabits many of the images of Egypt. At times he is clearly visible, standing kouros-style in front of a monument. In other pictures he is posed within the wall of a monument, an adjunct to the ancient friezes and inscriptions, as at Philae (Plate 34). In some photographs he seems to have strayed from the walls onto the summit of a temple, as at Karnak (Plate 35). Often he is framed by the architecture, as at Medinet Habou where he has also been placed on a pedestal in a classic Greek contrapposto stance (Plate 33). In other photographs he is so nestled among the nooks and crannies of the ruins as to be almost invisible, as at Kom Ombo.

Salt print of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics
Figure 34. Maxime Du Camp. Second Pylone du Temple d’Isis, à Philae, April 13, 1850, salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.376.114)

In his book Le Nil Du Camp situates this figure within a general system of visual measurement and order. ‘Every time I visited a monument, I had my photographic equipment carried along and took with me one of my sailors, Hadji-Ishmael. He was a very handsome Nubian; I sent him climbing up onto the ruins which I wanted to photograph and in this way I was always able to include a uniform scale of proportions’ (Du Camp 1855, p.327).

The human figure was a frequent and common indicator of architectural scale throughout nineteenth-century European travel illustration. Populating almost all the architectural prints and lithographs of both Western and non-Western sites are scattered little people to give the viewer a sense of the size of the monuments, although often an erroneous one. Within this tradition they also serve another function. They provide an instant, visible commentary on the scene. They become a visualisation of the attitudes and beliefs of their producers and, within a system of visual knowledge, they transform opinion into fact. Most of the illustrations of monuments in the famous twenty-four volume Description de l’Egypte contain figures. The Description, which published the findings of Napoleon’s army of scholars and artists between 1809 and 1828, became a model for orientalist studies of all kinds. The monuments are usually shown swarming with human activity: Frenchmen energetically studying the monuments, and the indigenous inhabitants for the most part lounging in the shade, smoking narghiles.

Modifications are made as the tradition continues. In 1839, a year crucial to Franco-Egyptian diplomacy, the economist, functionary and military man Baron Taylor published La Syrie, l’Egypte, la Palestine et la Judée, in which the lounging ‘natives’ have been diplomatically banished from the illustrations (which were copied directly from the Napoleonic Description). Two years later, from the other side of the channel, the English painter David Roberts had few such compunctions. In his version of the same scenes the autochthonous inhabitants of Egypt reappear in all their picturesque languor, a rendition that can be construed, and was, as a commentary on their neglectful, lazy nature.

Salt print of man standing on ancient Egyptian temple
Figure 35. Maxime Du Camp. Vue générale du Temple de Khons, à Karnac, Thèbes, 1849–50, salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.376.52)

However the Egyptian characters may become visible or invisible according to the revised Western script of the times, and however critical or laudatory the implications of their presences, the prints and paintings of Egypt clearly indicate them as separate from the monuments. A grouping or pairing of figures is the norm, rather than the exception, in this nineteenth-century illustrative tradition. The result of such groupings and pairings is to make the figures more visible and legible as figures separate from the architecture. They cannot be overlooked or misread for a bit of archaeological debris, as can Du Camp’s model. However tiny, they are clearly delineated from their architectural background by their doublings and groupings.

Aside from their visibility, the pairing or grouping of figures inevitably relates the people in the scene to one another and in so doing provides a psychological distance to their relationship to the architecture and to the draughtsman or cameraman who has depicted them. Within the narrative of the picture they are coupled or grouped with someone else. In the rare instances when such a figure is alone, it is shown as briefly pausing, a water-carrier perhaps, leaning a jug on a ledge for a short rest. The monuments act as a massive, overwhelming backdrop, against which are played out the daily lives of the surrounding inhabitants. In visual terms, each is a separate spatial foil to the other, graphically contiguous, but otherwise unintegrated. The consequent implication is of a separation between the present life of the Egyptians and the architecture of their past.

With the first photographs of Egyptian monuments there was an attempt to continue the tradition of man as an indicator of scale despite the long exposure times. Although some photographers chose to omit the human figure entirely, others continued to include paired and grouped figures, and only occasionally a single figure, even when the exposure times were as long as fifteen minutes. Some of the thirty-six daguerreotypes made in Egypt in 1845-6 by the customs officer Jules Itier contain legible figures. In examples by other photographers the figures result as half-consumed in blurs of emulsion, as in the 1859 photographs by Louis de Clercq, taken almost a decade after Du Camp. Others tended to pose highly visible figures in receding spatial positions, obedient to the rules of perspective, to indicate a three-dimensional as well as two-dimensional scale. This is a strategy typical of Francis Frith, photographing in the mid-1850s.

Du Camp was familiar with many of the illustrative prints and photographs that preceded him. Yet, despite his tendency to rely on established modes of representation, Du Camp did make several unusual choices. Primary is his consistent choice of a solitary figure. Unlike the occasional loner in other series of travel illustrations, the figure in Du Camp’s photographs is always alone, with one exception. Also, according to Du Camp, it is always the same figure. In Le Nil and in his unpublished travel notes he writes of only one person as his model: the sailor and member of his crew, Ishmael, although, in fact, Ishmael was not the only one to pose for Du Camp. In a few instances, at the beginning and end of his trip, Du Camp’s unmentioned models were Gustave Flaubert and probably his European manservant Louis Sassetti, but Ishmael is the only one Du Camp indicates as having posed.

For Du Camp, Ishmael is not an extra on the set, but the only character in his photographic scenario. Ishmael’s poses and positions are very different from that of Flaubert, photographed by Du Camp in the garden of a hotel in Cairo. Flaubert is apparently strolling across the space of the view-finder, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the camera (which was, of course, impossible, given the length of time necessary to take the photograph). In this view by Du Camp Flaubert is present, literally, as a ‘passing character’.

Ishmael was not merely ‘passing by’, he was sent scrambling up and around the monuments. Du Camp writes in Le Nil of ordering him to climb up to certain locations, but even without Du Camp’s words, Ishmael’s highly unusual locations suggest some purpose, however enigmatic. Ishmael did not just ‘happen’ to be seated eight feet high in the crevice of a sheer wall in the course of his daily activities (Plate 34), or on top of a mammoth column (Plate 36). It was not happenstance that placed him on a makeshift pedestal, centrally framed by a doorway (Plate 33). Unlike the poses of other human ‘measures of scale’, Ishmael’s locations tell of a picturing eye/I. In assuming his unusual framings and juxtapositions, Ishmael was already a picture before the photograph was taken.

Salt print of ancient Egyptian ruins
Figure 36. Maxime Du Camp. Ruines du Temple de Koum-Ombou (Ombos), 1849–50, salted paper print from paper negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.376.95)

Ishmael’s mode of undress is also unusual. He is wearing only a loincloth which was neither his indigenous costume, nor that of his occupation, nor was it the way any other sketched, painted or photographed staffage figures were pictured.

Du Camp’s official purpose in travelling to Egypt was not to photograph its inhabitants, not even primarily its monuments, many of which had already been photographed. Du Camp went to Egypt on assignment from the Academy of Inscriptions under the aegis of the Ministries of Education and Fine Arts and his main directive was to photograph as many inscriptions as possible.

The preservation, transcription and decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs as they were at the time, often still indecipherable and partially obliterated, was a major concern of the West. In fact, the accurate transcription of hieroglyphs was one of the first uses proposed for photography when the daguerreotype was introduced to the public in 1839. The desire to have a record of all possible inscriptions was so strong that they Academy indicated even those on the rocks of the cataracts as subjects for Du Camp’s camera. Although well aware of the unwieldiness of the cameras of the day and of the landscape of the cataracts, the academicians’ eager expectations were such that they could ignore the difficulties of placing a bulky camera on a tripod among a tumble of slippery rocks and flowing waters and photographing slanted, uneven inscribed surfaces.

Du Camp’s photographic activity was prodigious and intense; Flaubert wrote home referring to ‘Max’s photographic rages’, wondering why he hadn’t ‘cracked up with this mania for photography’ (Flaubert 1971, p.32). But even with all his maniacal effort, Du Camp was unable to return with more than general views of the cataracts. In fact, he brought back very few photographs of inscriptions at any site. Like many travellers of his time, he found that ‘squeezes’ (impressions made with damp papier mâché) were more effective. And it seems, from his and Flaubert’s accounts, that he was squeezing just as much as he was photographing.

Often he was squeezing and photographing traces of what had already been lost, preserving inscriptions that had been rendered illegible by the erosion of time, or legible inscriptions that had been rendered indecipherable by the erosion of collective memory. Moreover, the hieroglyphs that were clearly legible and decipherable presented yet other dilemmas to Du Camp and his contemporaries. The different ancient writings – early hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic and Greek, layered with the graffiti of the just-yesterday in English, French, Turkish and Arabic – presented an historical development quandary. There was an agreed assumption that the figurative and symbolic signs represented an earlier, more primitive state of writing and the phonetic signs a later, more complex state. But among the many issues at stake was the value of simplicity (by implication a build-up of a storehouse of information constituting progress) (Irwin 1983, p.173). This debate over the various forms of ancient languages was part of a more general conflicted attitude towards the about-to-be-lost Egyptian past, a debate that implicated the developing disciplines of anthropology, both biological and cultural, and related researches in physiology and phrenology.

Within this network of discourses the indigenous inhabitants of non-Western countries were, like the languages of their ancestors, another location for a Western questioning of the present as related to the past. It was the Europeans who, because of their technological advancement, journeyed to far-off lands and made their occupants objects of study and expropriated their artifacts to display in European museums. It was the Europeans who built scholarly reputations on studies of ‘native’ cultures, past and present. In so doing they considered themselves inherently superior to those who were being studied and who, moreover, were ignorant of their own history. But such a gesture was not without its discomforting ambiguities. From a progressive point of view there is the illogic upon which the superiority of Western man in based. The discontinuity in knowledge between the earlier and the later inhabitants of the same region undermines the concept of a progressive human development based on the gradual accumulation of knowledge throughout the course of history. The notion that the ancient Egyptians had achieved a high level of cultural and scientific development and that the contemporary native was naïve and ignorant implies that at some point there was a radical break in the continuity of historical memory, a collective act of forgetting (Irwin 1983, p.174). From a regressive point of view, a return to ‘native purity’ implied a return from a state of knowledge, and thus a purity that was not and could never be originary or original, a purity whose innocence was tainted by forgetfulness.

These ambiguities can be read in Du Camp’s verbal accounts of Ishmael. In Le Nil he is described as ‘a very beautiful Nubian’ but Du Camp’s unpublished notes qualify, and even contradict, this image of native beauty: ‘Hadj-Ishmael: of all the sailors he was the one I liked best. He was sweet natured, with an ugly face, one eyed, superb muscles. He posed perfectly: I always used him as a model, to establish the scale in my pictures. He jabbered a kind of gibberish that he had learned [from] a French businessman…he was rather slack and easily discouraged. He was Nubian’ (Steegmuller 1972, p.225). As described by Du Camp, Ishamel – inarticulate, obedient and superbly muscular – is both the ideal, innocent, pure native and the failure of that purity and innocence in terms of Western progress and, Du Camp implies here and elsewhere, perhaps because of Western progress. It is from a Frenchman that he has learned a garbled language.

The novel and short stories by Du Camp that are set in Egypt also locate ‘the native’ at the crux of an ambivalence between the regressive and the progressive. In every tale by Du Camp the pure and noble native son undergoes some form of cultural humiliation and failure. The most extreme example is the story The Black Eunuch (L’eunuque noir) in which the brave young Nubian man ends up castrated, obese and grotesque. The last scene shows him as an obscene entertainer in a public square in Cairo as he parodies sexual acts his body no longer permits him.

Especially when viewed in the light of such texts by Du Camp, Ishmael’s positions within the photographs can be seen as a visual statement of such an ambivalence between progression and regression, past and present. In a photograph such as Plate 34, for example Ishmael is seated in the cavity of a relief of Osiris, his legs dangling down between those of the ancient god. The placement of his body suggests a re-placement of the missing generative organs of Osiris. Ishmael becomes an ambivalent em-bodiment of the potence – or impotence – of a past in relation to the present. This equivocal visual metaphor becomes more suggestive when this photograph is seen in its context in Du Camp’s album. It is in the centre of a sequence of fourteen photographs of Philae and it introduces six images of reliefs and inscriptions from the temple of Isis. Following this image of Ishmael as a bas-relief are three photographs of demotic writings – among the very few taken by Du Camp – and after these an image of Toth, the god of letters. The last of the pictures at Philae is a general view of the temple from a distance. It shows, as Du Camp notes, the ruins of raw-brick native huts which were often attached, barnacle-like, to the temples. Ishmael again marks the site, but here he is a mere scratch of emulsion, invisible among the foreground rubble to all but the searching eye.

In the two images of Ishmael that bracket the photographs of inscriptions and of the god Toth, Ishmael moves from a state of visibility to near-invisibility as Du Camp approaches and distances his camera to and from the monuments. The repeated sequencing of general views, details and a final general view, moving from the whole to its component parts and back to the whole is a conventional one, intended as an efficient, unbiased description of a site and its monuments. But when coupled with Du Camp’s use of a solitary dark figure which, from a distance, tends to blend with its background like a camouflaged insect, a descriptive instability is brought into play, that of the human body as a visual measure.

Ishmael’s flickering presence describes the many levels of ambivalence and instabilities of meaning that characterise the project of recuperating the vanishing and often illegible inscriptions of Egypt. It also finds its verbal parallel in Du Camp’s own texts as, for example, when he refers to Plate 79 of the series, that of the god of letters, Toth: ‘He [Toth] has a serious, sad expression as if he were thinking of the question of the propriety (propriété) of writing’ (Du Camp 1855, p.199). The question of propriety becomes doubly unsettled through Du Camp’s choice of a typically ambivalent word – propriété – signifying propriety/suitability and/or property/ownership. This shifting instability of language finds its visual echo in the shifting visual unreliability of Ishmael as a suitable measure of scale and proprietor of language.

In another photograph (Egypt . . ., Plate 47, this volume, Plate 33), Ishmael’s pose raises a different issue. He is positioned in a classical Greek contrapposto stance in the portal of what Du Camp identifies as the gynecium of Ramses XI at Medinet Habou. His is a pose Du Camp knew well and on that was very much a part of the conservative aesthetics of the Paris Salons. The imitation or translation of classical models was still considered an indispensable part of an artist’s academic education. The values of classical Greek paradigm are apparent in Du Camp’s own Salon reviews of the 1850s and 1860s where he repeatedly insists that the human figure, specifically the male figure, be the main subject for artists. He complains that ‘man seems to have become just any old boring accessory’ (Du Camp, 1867 (Salon of 1864) p.104). The importance of the male body for Du Camp was twofold: first as a compositional device to provide a point of focus in a picture and, secondly, as a kind of ideal abstraction in itself. The male body was, in Du Camp’s words, ‘a type of perfect balance’ (un type de pondération parfait) (Du Camp 1867 (Salon of 1863), p.39). Pondération  is another of Du Camp’s characteristic word choices in its duplicitous reference to both physiological and psychological balance, to both literal weight and abstract thought.

In the balance of such an aesthetic was also poised a question of a progressive versus a regressive account of origins. By the middle of the eighteenth century the emerging paradigm of ‘progress’, with its presupposition that later is better, was being used to promote Greece as the site of the origins of Western civilisation at the expense of Egypt (Bernal 1987, p.27). For eighteenth and nineteenth-century Romantics and racists (and Du Camp was both) it was intolerable that Greece be the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonising Africans. This resulted in the turn-of-the-century formulation of what Martin Bernal has called the Aryan theory of Greek origins (as opposed to the multi-racial Ancient model). As the Aryan paradigm rose, particularly from 1830 to 1860, ancient Egypt was ‘flung into prehistory to serve as a solid and inert basis for the dynamic development of the superior races, the Aryans and the Semites’ (Bernal 1987, p.29). Nonetheless the concept of Egypt as ‘the cradle of Western civilisation’ still persisted in all its contradictions, contradictions made visible as the dark body of the Nubian Ishmael assumes a classical Greek pose on the threshold of the ruins of a gynecium, embodying neither and both sources of origins.

In his writings, Du Camp takes credit for Ishmael’s presence in the photographs, and Ishmael’s positions and poses themselves speak of an authoring eye/I. With one exception (where he is posed sideways, a rigid bas-relief at the base of a column), Ishmael is always facing the camera. He never ignores the camera by facing the architecture, his back to the viewer, as do many solitary figures, especially if they are Western. The solitary human presence of Ishmael does not participate in any narrative within the picture, unlike the coupled or group figures dictated by tradition. In its lone, frontal state Ishmael’s presence can be said to refract back to the camera and its cameraman Du Camp. Yet, because the camera is never close enough to represent his face clearly, Ishmael is never looking out from the photographs. If his photographic presence can be said to relate to that of the invisible Du Camp, it is by means of his body, not his one-eyed gaze. It is Ishmael’s body that is coupled with Du Camp’s gaze.

Such a linking of the seeing photographer to his model would have been invisible (and it was) to a nineteenth-century viewer for whom photography’s authority as a mechanical witness depended on a foregranted absence of the photographer. It was Du Camp’s very common denial of the possibility of creativity or authorship of a photograph that was the very source of its credibility. Photography was supremely convincing in positing the impossible presence and absence of the eye witness demanded of travel narrative. In their written form, such narratives both assert and efface the presence of their authors by a use of the first person singular (I was there, I saw) along with apologies for distracted, hastily scribbled notes as a sign of the unmediated directness of their ‘impressions’. Du Camp makes full use of this common strategy in his writings, and his photographic impressions allowed him an even greater invisibility. In this sense, Du Camp’s unusual choices were made possible by photography as it was thought of in 1850.

Du Camp’s declared absence as the author of his photographs has temporal as well as physical implications. During the four months of photographing, Ishmael was a living subject in Du Camp’s present as well as a measure of the monuments of the past in his photographs. Throughout these months, Ishmael flickered from the immediacy of a present to the past tense of the pose, of the already a picture. He and Du Camp (Abu Muknef, ‘The Father of Thinness’, as Du Camp was called by his crew: Du Camp 1855, p.328), were constantly together. Du Camp: tall, skinny, intense, workaholic, no sense of humour, ambitious, cautious, snob, anxious, meticulous, manipulative, making full use of his colonial networks and privileges, ordering Ishmael to scramble here and there, continually looking at him through the camera lens and ordering his immobility by telling him that the camera is a canon that will kill him if he makes the slightest move. Ishmael (as we know him through Du Camp and Flaubert): obedient, muscular, speaking a composite language almost unintelligible to Du Camp. The two swim across the Nile together. In Du Camp’s autobiographical novel, The Posthumous Book: Memoirs of a Suicide (Le Livre posthume: mémoirs d’un suicidé), set in Egypt and published at the same time as his photographic album, Ishmael, as the protagonist’s brutish, one-eyed servant, is given his discarded native mistress.

Ishmael was a disturbing carnal subject in Du Camp’s physical, immediate present, one that lures and repulses at the same time. Photography provided Du Camp with the ideal means to consign the immediacy of Ishmael’s presence to an ordered visual scheme alongside his textual re-placements of Ishmael. Situated as an object within a visual tradition of a measure of scale, Ishmael could be moved out from Du Camp’s present into an ambivalent temporality that oscillated between past and present. Ishmael’s body could be place by Du Camp in an intermediary position between himself and his surroundings, and between himself and his own past, present and future. As a photographed body in representation, Ishmael could secure uncertainties as Du Camp attempted to ground his anxiety, like a bolt of lightning, in this Nubian body.

As he is posed within the eclectic but conservative context of Du Camp’s photographs, travel writings, diaries, stories and novel, Ishmael’s photographed and textualised body (textualised both by Du Camp’s writing present and by his juxtapositions to the inscriptions of his Egyptian past) becomes a balancing pinpoint of the historiographical as it is located in a particular subjectivity. Ishmael comes to embody the irreconcilable drives towards progression and regression, rupture and continuity, towards past and future, signification and its collapse. He becomes a living, muscular cipher balanced on the threat of both the invisibility and illegibility of the past and of its legibility and decipherment. As he marks both the collapse and the development of a language, he marks a connection to and a rupture from a threatened past. As such Ishmael’s viewed body situates and grounds historical and subjective paradoxes. In so doing, it is also momentarily constituted and grounded by such paradoxes.

This essay by Julia Ballerini was originally published in The Body Imaged: The Human Form and Visual Culture Since the Renaissance, edited by Kathleen Adler and Marcia R. Pointon, published by Cambridge University Press in 1993.