14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Books Features Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Tea and sepia
By Nigel Ryan
There is a great deal of posturing in L'Orient: The Photographs of Lehnert and Landrock, an exhibition occuPying both the Sony and EUart galleries, and it is largely choreographed, one mUst assume, by Rudolf Lehnert (1878-1948), the half of this increasingly celebrated duo who actually stood behind the camera.
That many of the images on show would siT happily in that by now notorious series of turn of the century postcards, Arab Types, is a reflection of earlier taxonomic imperatives, as discredited as photography's contemporary invention, the spurious science of phrenology. Though it need not lead to instant dismissal, it must be borne in mind. The anthropological veneer claimed by later apologists should, too, be taken with a large pinch of salt: even when accompanied by apparently precise labelling these photographs need neither so crude a justification, nor should they be mired in such an Enlightenment conceit.
Most of these photographs are no more, or less, than tourist trade spin-offs and any documentary claims made on their behalf must be conditioned by the knowledge that they portray neither a specific place nor people, but represent a place to be visited, or a souvenir of somewhere already left. (Tourists, especially the pre-package variety, are, after all, the ultimate have-beens.)
There is no reason to assume that these images make any greater claim to veracity than the reconstructed Nubian village in the garden of a five-star hotel. Indeed, in several important ways the impulse behind both is the same, it is just that photography retains, even if by now subliminally, some claim to truth-telling.
One cannot object, then, to the obvious posing of so many of the subjects, nor to the retouching that is, in the Ewart exhibition of original prints, at times ham-fisted: such complaints reflect nothing more than a worrying desire to cling on to the desperate belief that the camera does not lie. It does, of course, and consummately.
Lehnert and Landrock's desert is a place of solitude, an impossible geometry of dunes, criss-crossed by footprints and occupied by Bedouins who kneel on the crest of the dunes, alone except for a camel, praying in the direction of Mecca. Only in the foreground, of course, stands Rudolf, with tripod, and camera, and the entire paraphernalia of the mini-caravan necessary to record this solitude.
Several of the images hanging in the Sony Gallery were taken in the courtyard of Lehnert's house in Tunis. A young girl flirts with the camera while clinging to a twisted, barley-sugar column. Others prepare food, the same column in the background, only they are not preparing food but pretending to do so. It is not their house but Rudolf's, not their courtyard but Rudolf's: this whole tableaux has been set up by him for his customers. They are silent, social, inscrutable, these subjects. They are seen in profile, and in three quarters view, the better to see headdress and earrings. They are isometric drawings dressed in black.
Sometimes, though, the iconography goes a little astray. Two women from the Ouled Nial sit on the floor and drink tea from implausibly dainty, fluted china tea cups. The imported chintziness must certainly have been provided by the photographer. The effect is comically surreal.
Lehnert arrived in Egypt in 1923. The Ewart Gallery shows vintage prints all, apparently, pre-1926, of various Egyptian scenes. Striking is the clarity of detail, particularly architectural -- here, at least, the documentary potential of photography becomes objectively, if accidentally, useful. Yet what is really being created is atmosphere: it may not quite be ineffable -- the arcs of the felucca sails, the outlines of figures, human and animal, are sometimes so doctored that they resemble nothing more than crudely executed lithographs -- indeed, it is sometimes a little too sludgily palpable, but it did, presumably, fill a market niche.
Tellingly, the photograph used for the cover of the catalogue, and much reproduced elsewhere, is a head and shoulders portrait of an Ouled Nial girl. It is without background, and thus any temptation for the photographer to meddle by setting the scene. And because no scene is set, the feeling of the dressing up box that lurks in so many other photographs is diminished.
A dramatically lit scene of a street in Khan Al-Khalili looks like a film still, with the significant action taking place elsewhere, slightly out of frame. And a group of women washing clothes in the Nile, dark silhouettes against less dark, muddy water, has the -- in this exhibition at least -- rare virtue of appearing spontaneous. The photographer, apparently, met with a lucky accident -- and captured something happening that fitted an image of what should happen.
More often, though, this self-conscious aestheticising sounds a discordant note, foregrounding the tricks of the trade as much as it foregrounds the archway through which Ibn Tulun is viewed, or the madly out of place tea-cups, or foot-prints on the dunes. These tricks are hardly innocent. But then neither are they wicked. Views of a place that in all likelihood would be unrecognisable were the spectator capable of replicating Alice's looking glass trick. Yet there is little doubt it is the place a great many visited, or remembered visiting. For few are the travellers who do not wield their own mirrors. And fewer still the successful travel entrepreneurs who fail to recognise this fact.
The exhibition catalogue contains an interesting essay on the technical aspects of the photographs by Chris Langtvet. The Sony Gallery should be congratulated that this is provided free of charge.
L'Orient: The Photographs of Lehnert and Landrock continues until 28 October. For full details see Listings