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It is very likely that the few portraits made by Girault de Prangey while travelling through the Near East were the first photographic portraits ever to be made there. They are certainly the earliest to survive. He always included figures in his drawings and paintings and may have intended to use some photographs as studies for these. He made three very different kinds of portraits: European consular representative who were stationed in the Near or Middle East pursuant to the Settlements agreements, and members of their families and friends; Near and Middle East officials, see Christie's auction, London, May 2000, lots 7 and 8; and local individuals in their traditional dress, see May 2003 auction, lots 34 and 49. His European sitters may already have known how to pose for the camera. The local people he encountered and photographed would have no similar experience. Did he explain his request by showing them other daguerreotypes already made? Did he present the sitter with a portrait or pay money for keeping their likeness? How many refused permission before one agreed? These questions only hint at a few of the dilemmas confronting someone making photographs of strangers who are unlikely to have seen a camera before.
Throughout the history of photography, seemingly beginning with Girault de Prangey, there has been a curiosity on the part of European photographers to show the appearance of people from foreign lands and different cultures. Under various guises from anthropology to tourism, thousands of individuals have been scrutinised by the camera. Some have been placed next to measuring devices and photographed from front, back and side to present a pseudo-scientific record of themselves for western eyes, others removed from their usual surroundings to pose in unlikely settings wearing costumes the photographer felt were more exotic than their own, or no costume at all. The images from the second half of the 19th century alone, when photography first grew from an amateur to a professional pursuit, range across a spectrum embracing both the sensitive and the crude. By the early 20th century one gets the impression that in some locations such as Egypt, every aspect of the commercial "exotic portrait" had been refined to a point of sometimes sterile perfection.
Girault de Prangey's portraits are not like this. Technically flawed, the figures are often blurred or the exposures a little off. It doesn't matter. The people patiently reveal themselves for the first time despite these imperfections, first to him and now after many generations to us.