Photography in Ottoman Empire
Second Half of the 19th Century – Beginning of the 20th Century
The first photographers in 19th century in the Ottoman Empire were European and Christian. On view in the exhibition are works by three photographers of Armenian descent Mihran Iranian, Pascal Sébah and his son Jean (Johannes) Sébah, and one of French descent – Polycarpe Joaillier.


Not long after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 and glass negative in 1851, the phenomenon of photography also arrived in the Middle East. The growing interest of Westerners in these exotic lands and the myths they created about life in, say, the Ottoman Empire, also encouraged the development of photo studios. Photographers gave travellers and those who stayed at home the opportunity to become acquainted with historically and nationally important places and the everyday life of local inhabitants. They were offered the chance to see the local inhabitants as they had imagined them. Most often this applied to women whose everyday life and customs were kept in secrecy. In the studio though, an oriental setting would be created with a foreign woman or one from a brothel dressed in traditional clothing and jewellery to produce a photograph with the title of Turkish or Arab woman. The great demand for exotic travel albums increased the number of photo studios and encouraged the spread of the so-called commercial photography genre in the late 19th and early 20th century.


In 1857 Pascal Sébah opened his first photo studio in Constantinople and his success allowed him to open another in Cairo in 1873. His clients in both cities were mainly tourists but he also took part in exhibitions in Paris as well as collaborating with the artist Osman Hamdi Bey. Pascal Sébah received many awards for his works including the Order of the Medici third class from Sultan Abdülaziz in 1873 that made his studio even more famous. After his death in 1886, Pascal’s brother Cosmi ran the studio for two years until it was taken over by Pascal’s son Jean (Johannes) Sébah. He began to work with the French photographer Polycarpe Joaillier and the studio was renamed Sébah & Joaillier. Alongside their work in the Constantinople studio, in 1893 the photographers were also commissioned to produce images for the photo albums of Sultan Abdul Hamid II portraying the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire. The albums were presented to the British Museum (deposited later with the British Library) and the US Library of Congress.


Mihran Iranian opened his studio in Constantinople in 1891 and it functioned until the end of the century. Little is known of his life and career but the few works that remain are characterised by individuality in contrast with the static photography that was widespread at the time. Iranian’s photographs depict the hustle and bustle of the streets and various characters engaging in everyday activities.


The exhibition is complemented by items from the collection of 19th century decorative applied art and precious metal objects of the Latvian National Museum of Art. Among the decorations on display, viewers are also able to see the Order of the Medici awarded to Pascal Sébah.


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