In 1929, only a few years after the end of the British protectorate, King Fuad I of Egypt commissioned a book of photographs of his new kingdom. He wanted to show the country in its best light and remind people that British rule was merely a blip in thousands of years of civilisation. Fifty leather-bound, gold-embossed copies of “L’Egypte” were to be produced, some of which would be given as gifts to foreign dignitaries.
The king felt that only one man was up to the task. Fred Boissonnas, a Swiss photographer, was in his 70s, had only been to Egypt twice, and owned a publishing house which had recently gone bankrupt. But he had produced a book of photography called “Greece By Mountain and By Valley”, which the king admired. After two years of negotiations, Boissonnas was given 18 months to accomplish his mission. A selection of the photographs he took for the book, and those from his subsequent trip to the Sinai desert, are displayed in an exhibition, “Boissonnas in Egypt”, at the Royal Geographic Society in London.
“L’Egypte”, which was published in 1932, is a fascinating example of the art of nation-branding. Royal patronage gave Boissonnas free rein to go where he wanted (only Tutankhamun’s mummy remained out of bounds due to stipulations from Howard Carter’s editors). He photographed ancient temples, mosques, churches, street scenes, rural villages, oases, mountains, greenery, as well as factories, roads and bridges.
The book featured essays on the glory days of the pharaohs, on the Greeks, Romans and Copts, and the medieval period when Islamic culture flourished. The Ottoman Empire got a brief mention (King Fuad’s ancestor was a renegade commander who seized power from the Sultan at the beginning of the 19th century) but the British protectorate was conspicuously absent. This was soft power at its most sophisticated.
The tower at Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which lies at the entrance of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai, was founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 565AD. Its library holds the largest collection of liturgical texts outside the Vatican. This is one of the first times it was captured in colour. Until the introduction of Kodachrome film in 1936, colour photography was complicated: in bright daylight, it needed an exposure time of at least a second. This meant that the best subjects were landscapes and buildings. After shooting, the negatives were delivered to Geneva where they were developed by Boissonnas’s brother Paul, then the proofs were sent to Egypt for approval. Boissonnas had developed a detailed coding system recording the exact conditions in which photographs were taken, so if the royal entourage was dissatisfied with the image in any way, he could amend the shooting process.
Boissonnas was adept at photographing landscapes. His photographs of Mont Blanc had won him a gold medal at the Paris World Fair of 1900. Here, he makes Mount Sinai’s lunar landcape look truly otherworldly. In a lecture he delivered about Sinai, which is the voiceover to the documentary screened in the exhibition, he recalled that taking this photograph meant dealing with “howling wind and getting down on all fours to keep the camera steady”. Boissonnas saw photography as an art form which needed both creativity and prowess. The king’s generosity allowed him to lug his heavy equipment to remote places in difficult conditions.
Female mourners at the cemetery in Assuit
This photograph borders on surrealism: it takes a few moments to realise that the ghostly shapes in the bottom right are people – female mourners in the Assuit region of northern Egypt. The hooded figures echo the domes, rounded buttresses and archways, while the darkness of their costumes is picked up in the foliage behind. Boissonnas was an ethnographer as well as an artist: he documented the traditions of the various races and tribes of Egypt – even the women.
Caravan around a campfire by night, Sinai
Bedouins resting with their camels is a familiar scene, but Boissonnas imbues it with magic. He lit up the darkness by chucking magnesium powder into the fire. The illumination of the rock face, the startled look on the faces of the men and the blur of the camel as it nods during the long exposure give the composition originality and life.
The temple of Abou Simbel in moonlight
This looks as though it were taken in broad daylight, but the rays falling on the statues are those of the moon. The temple of Abou Simbel, discovered by a Swiss Orientalist in 1813 and named after his guide, was carved out of the mountainside on the western bank of Lake Nasser, in Upper Egypt near the border with Sudan. The monument was built by Rameses II in the 13th century BC. The lone figure at the top of the stairs puts the colossal size of the statues into context but also forges a link between Egyptians, past and present.
The charnel house at Saint Catherine’s monastery
Boissonnas’s fondness for clean lines, evident in his photographs of Saint Catherine’s monastery, shows how influenced he was by modernism. Indeed, his fellow Swiss, Le Corbusier, used Boissonnas’s photograph of the Parthenon in a book to illustrate the classical roots of modernism.
Here, the clean lines are interrupted by a jumble of skulls – this was taken in the ossuary. In his lecture, Boissonnas explained that priests were exhumed three years after they were buried and their bones neatly organised in separate piles. He recalled that the young novice who showed him the room, regarded “the lovely arrangement with the satisfaction of a museum curator.”
Boissonnas was fascinated by the presence of death within life and vice versa. Just as he photographed cypresses standing tall in the sterility of rocky terrain, he saw the monastery and its inhabitants as “living witnesses to life going on without respite, a triumph over death.”
Boissonnas in Egypt Royal Geographical Society until November 30th