In October 1849, twenty-seven-year-old Maxime Du Camp—an aspiring journalist with big ambitions—left Paris to photograph sites across the eastern Mediterranean. Officially encouraged to exploit photography’s “uncontestable exactitude,” he returned to France a year and a half later with more than 200 paper negatives, from which 125 were selected to illustrate Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie (1852). This work, the first photographically illustrated book published in France, arguably established an aesthetic standard for documentary photography: its salted paper prints are rendered in cool, gradated tones that one contemporary critic described as “vaporous gray.”
The published photographs stand in stark contrast to several sets (each unique) that Du Camp privately printed before planning his book. These “proof prints” are noteworthy for their surprising range of warm colors, handwork, and a luminescence that recalls their Mediterranean origin. Unlike the book’s focus on monuments and ancient ruins, they also provide evidence of modern civilization in unfamiliar, arid landscapes. Proof is the first exhibition to focus on The Met’s collection of these earlier prints, including previously unseen and unpublished views from a portfolio and a small, handbound album. Offering an exceptional opportunity to compare these photographs to those published in 1852, the exhibition reveals that Du Camp’s ultimate project did not present objective proof of its Mediterranean subject, but rather a complicated view shaped by personal ambition, emergent technology, and the taste and temperament of its nineteenth-century European audience.
The exhibition is made possible by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.