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THE EARLIEST SURVIVING PHOTOGRAPHS OF EGYPT
In 1842, after spending a few highly productive weeks in Athens, Girault de Prangey headed towards Egypt. He spent the next three winter months in Cairo1, but found this was not nearly long enough to complete the work he intended. He was quite overwhelmed by the magnificent architecture of the city, which he had previously known only from books. He decided to proceed to Asia Minor, probably at the beginning of 1843, and to return to Cairo and Upper Egypt when the climate was more favourable. Thus, his Egyptian photographs span the years 1842 to 1844 taken during two sojourns, one seemingly spent mostly in Cairo and the Nile Delta, the other in Cairo and travelling through Upper Egypt. From the photographs that are dated it seems likely that he visited the cities of Alexandria, Fuwa and Rashid (Rosetta) when he arrived in Egypt in the autumn of 1842. Some Cairo photographs are dated 1843 and his views of Upper Egypt also date from the second visit in 1843. A few examples, from Dendera and Beni Hasan are dated 1844, suggesting that his second stay was of some length.
In the mid-19th century Egypt was a magnet for French travellers. The extravagantly illustrated Déscription de l'Egypte (1809-1828), published under the patronage of the Emperor Napoléon, had described the major sites and monuments located along the Nile. Together, the hot dry climate and the sand could hardly have provided a worse environment for photography and yet this ancient civilization, with its architectural splendours and alien terrain acted as a lure to those practising the new art, as it had previously to artists, writers and scholars. Girault de Prangey was not the first to manipulate the camera in Egypt. This honour fell to his countrymen, Horace Vernet and Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, who were making daguerreotypes there from November 1839 within only a few months of the official announcement of the invention of photography. Much to their surprise, they found the Swiss-Canadian Pierre Gaspard Gustave Joly de Lotbinière already there. He was also succeeding in making daguerreotypes. It is recorded that this group often travelled together and photographed together at the same sites. Lerebours published several of their photographs as lithographs in Excursions Daguerriennes in 1842.
Although not the first to master the daguerreotype process in Egypt, Girault de Prangey was certainly the earliest to produce such a comprehensive body of work. His output from Egypt, around 250 photographs in total, exceeds the number he produced in any other country. None of the original daguerreotype plates by Goupil-Fesquet or Joly de Lotbinère have ever been found and the earliest known paper negatives of Egypt were those made between 1849 and 1850 by Maxime du Camp, on his well-documented travels with Gustave Flaubert. This body of work by Girault de Prangey therefore constitutes the earliest surviving photographs of Egypt.
1 In a letter written in 1844 to the diplomat and writer, Alexis-François Artaud de Montor (1772-1849), he refers to previous correspondence dated Cairo 30 October 1843. See Quettier, P. et al., p.
LOWER EGYPT AND CAIRO