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In the decades after its invention in 1839, photography was inextricably linked to the Middle East. Introduced as a crucial tool for Egyptologists and Orientalists who needed to document their archaeological findings, the photograph was easier and faster to produce in intense Middle Eastern light—making the region one of the original sites for the practice of photography. A pioneering study of this intertwined history, Camera Orientalis traces the Middle East’s influences on photography’s evolution, as well as photography’s effect on Europe’s view of “the Orient.”
Considering a range of Western and Middle Eastern archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ali Behdad offers a rich account of how photography transformed Europe’s distinctly Orientalist vision into what seemed objective fact, a transformation that proved central to the project of European colonialism. At the same time, Orientalism was useful for photographers from both regions, as it gave them a set of conventions by which to frame exotic Middle Eastern cultures for Western audiences. Behdad also shows how Middle Eastern audiences embraced photography as a way to foreground status and patriarchal values while also exoticizing other social classes.
An important examination of previously overlooked European and Middle Eastern photographers and studios, Camera Orientalis demonstrates that, far from being a one-sided European development, Orientalist photography was the product of rich cultural contact between the East and the West.
About the Author
Ali Behdad is the John Charles Hillis Professor of Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution and A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States.
"Reading the book in the contemporary political moment, when (digital) technologies and visualizations continue to be deployed to stake 'truth'-claims about 'others,' Camera Orientalis, and its author’s insistence that every iota of power be accounted for in unearthing the architectonics of visual knowledge, makes for an important benchmark of understanding." — Trans Asia Photography Review
"Behdad’s original achievement in Camera Orientalis is his assessment of Iranian Orientalist imagery. . . .Camera Orientalis is a stimulating text that follows networks of Orientalist photographs—how they traveled across borders and through time, shaping popular consciousness." — CAA Reviews
“Behdad maps an important position in debates about the political efficacy of photographs. Rightly insisting on the centrality of ‘the Orient’ to early practitioners, he redirects our vision to the formative role of the camera in the uneasy careers of Europe’s empires. The contact zones created by the embrace of photography by local elites provide a rich counterpoint, revealing not ‘resistance’ but the vivid realization that the camera’s ‘image repertoires’ were a conduit to power. This is a salutary contribution to the study of photography as a global practice, one that has always exceeded Europe and the narrow confines of nation states.” — Christopher Pinney, University College London
“Finding that the Middle East served as an important site for the development of photography, Behdad traces the unequal gazes through which photography enabled Orientalist ways of seeing. But, surprisingly and powerfully, Camera Orientalis goes on to show that photographic encounters engender more than struggles for control of the visual field. They also yield multidirectional gazes and hybrid practices that borrow from and inspire one other, in sometimes troubling ways.” — Marianne Hirsch, author of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust
“I warmly welcome Behdad’s book on the historical techniques and political protocols of photography in the realization of Orientalist visual culture. Can we make any argument about the impact of colonization on modernity—post-, contra-, or plural—without exploring the profound influence of the techne of the photograph on the affective and ethical networks that have made the Middle East a crucial hub of global knowledge? This excellent contribution provides us with a crucial resource for understanding the regional conditions and cosmopolitical implications of an art that reveals what is hidden and submerged while mirroring the social and psychic salience of surface and frame.” — Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University