Twice the young Egyptologist John Beasley Greene left France in the mid-1850s to take photographic images of the ancient Egyptian monuments being unearthed by archaeologists then, and twice he returned home with works that wholly transcended that aim. Instead of a record, he made pictures that captured the echo of time and place, visual emanations that subtly presaged the coming of modern art. Yes, the photos could and would be studied by his fellow Egypt experts, but these mirage-like calotypes of the Nile and the desert, and the history both were disgorging at that moment, survive as the fruits of his imagination more than his book-learning. “Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene,” elegantly hung at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (on through January 5, 2020), is the first major survey of the photographer’s work. It makes at least one thing clear: as far as the documentation of Egypt is concerned, Greene the artist, and how he was affected by the terrain, subsumed Greene the scientist.
In the 1854 picture titled Bords du Nil à Thebes (Banks of the Nile at Thebes), an enormous smudged sky and the murky waters of the Nile are bisected horizontally by a clump of palms on the opposite riverbank and the cloudy silhouette of a mountain in the distance. The landscape suggests a similar synthesis of melancholy and calm, in grainy grays and hints of sepia, as a Rothko from a century later. This image, a memory burned into Greene’s waxed-paper negative by the North African sun and revealed later in the printing of the picture, stands among the great masterpieces of the early days of the medium. (Calotypes are the oldest form of paper photography.) Greene was just twenty-two years old when he created it.
Greene now ranks among the handful of early and mid-nineteenth-century photographers given prominent contemporary exposure: Anna Atkins, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Linnaeus Tripe, Gustave Le Gray, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Charles Marville are some of the others. Perhaps because he died of a mysterious illness contracted in Algeria less than two years after making Nile at Thebes and left behind only a concentrated body of work from those few years of productivity, it’s taken some time for Greene to be recognized as what he and his colleagues were: pioneers in the visual arts.
We know only snippets about Greene (1832–56): that he was the son of a rich American banker living in France; that he grew up during the height of that country’s obsession with Egypt; that he was learned enough to be appointed a member of the distinguished Société Asiatique; and that he studied photography with Le Gray, the medium’s first guru. This retrospective of his work—spanning from exquisite practice pictures made in the forest at Fontainebleau in 1852–53 to an 1856 triptych of the Algerian city of Constantine, its buildings tumbling down the hillside like a cascade—shows his intention to project the facts of what he saw alongside his personal experience of having been there. It’s the latter that separates him from Felix Teynard, a civil engineer, or Maxime du Camp, the writer, who both photographed in Egypt just before Greene did. Greene seems to have intuited that, despite the popular canard that a camera captures the truth, a photograph instead functions to reconstrue reality. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
Although reminiscent of the publication Description de l’Egypte—the grand compilation created by hundreds of draftsmen and scholars following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and printed between 1809 and 1829, its illustrations dripping in European superiority—Greene’s shots are shorn of such blatant editorializing. For instance, his photograph of the partially unearthed Sphinx at Giza, with a pyramid looming behind it, is entirely about these two magnificent otherworldly monuments and the masses of soil and sand surrounding them, no more and no less. This is where the scientist in him informed the artist, and perhaps where, as an American, he stood apart from the Frenchmen who photographed many of the same sites. The images don’t at all lack humanity, though. It’s Greene’s own humanity that we notice—in this case his awe, not an Orientalist view of the Egyptians.
He did his intended job as an archaeologist during his first trip to Egypt in 1853–54, to be sure, documenting hieroglyph-pocked steles, the front, back, and sides of the colossi at Thebes and Abu Simbel, the pink granite portals at El-Assasif, the walls and columns at Karnak. (His photo of the Roman triumphal column known as Pompey’s Pillar, erected ca. 300 A.D., isolated on a rise in the city of Alexandria, makes it look almost dainty and delicate in comparison to ancient Egypt’s indestructible architecture.) But Greene surpassed the copyists and artifact hunters by wandering far afield, pulling back his camera for compositions of earth, water, and sky striped with delicate horizontal ribbons of palms, adobe structures, and even the distant columns at Luxor, sylph-like at such a remove. Side by side at sfmoma hang two of his most beautiful works, Etude de gommiers (Study of gum trees) and Etude de sycomore, Korosko (Study of sycamores, Korosko), each from 1854. There he was, in the midst of antiquity’s most conspicuous, grandiose monuments, but he took the time to turn his camera toward these clumps of everyday greenery growing from the parched silt left by the Nile.
It might seem that Greene’s work was constricted by the primitive capabilities of the calotype process—its lack of sharp detail, the waxed-paper’s graininess—but he took full advantage of the limitations in creating the effects he wanted. He knew well his camera and its photochemical possibilities, just as Ansel Adams did with his Arca-Swiss 4” x 5” in the next century. Because of the calotype process and the artist’s own sensibility, Greene’s landscapes are more closely related to the ethereal abstractions of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting than an Adams photograph with its detailed specificity. His studies of the Nile’s Second Cataracts from 1854 show the rocks and pooling water nearly in abstract, with a pencil-thin thread of shoreline separating the foreground from the huge blank sky. The long exposures required by the earliest photo technology stilled moving water and bleached out clouds or any subtle hues in the atmosphere.
On Greene’s second trip, his pictures became crisper as his skills in the medium increased. Yet these images lack some of the dreamy characteristics of his earlier work. A second triptych of Constantine, however, this one of the cliff side, and his studies of the waterfalls nearby, reveal subtle textures in the rock faces he might not have been able to capture just a year before. These pictures rely less on the impressionistic qualities the Photo Secessionists of the twentieth century would strive for, and more on compositions of solid forms. He was becoming more literal. But then Greene died suddenly of a cruelle maladie (perhaps tuberculosis) on November 29, 1856, in Cairo. It’s tempting to wonder what might have lain ahead for this young, talented visionary. Some of his last photos were from inside the Cherchell Museum in Algeria, of headless torsos and torso-less heads from Roman sculptures, their hollow eyes staring blankly into space. These images, showing or referring to so many layers of shadow, narrative, and meaning, reflect mostly that Greene died a true artist.