Back in what we like to refer to as the Dark Ages, people would speak in awe of the race of giants that had preceded them. They would look up from their huddle of wattle-and-daub huts at the cyclopean ruins that towered above them – pillars a hundred feet tall; vast and trunkless legs of stone – and swap superstitious tales of the behemoths that had once lived there. In the more enlightened 19th century, united under the iron rule of science, people saw things differently. They knew that the titans were ordinary men – Romans, Greeks and Egyptians – and set out to document their crumbling structures using the very latest technological development: photography.

But for all their great scientific advances, their latter-day empires which circled the globe, the Victorians who appear in this book are still dwarfed by the remnants of these ancient civilisations. The photographs are for the most part archaeological in spirit, not gawping tourist shots, but even so they often include a chap with a sola topee or a man in Greek national costume, if for no other reason than to give a sense of scale. And, like modern-day coach parties, these early photographers were careful to crop out of shot anything that they thought might jar with their preconceived idea of antiquity. In many instances, the image of the Classical ruin standing in desolate solitude – which had been inherited from the Romantics – was far from the truth. People still lived in and around these antiquities, as Londoners did with bombsites in the days before urban renewal. The Parthenon, for example, was used continuously as a temple, then church, then mosque; it only attained its familiar decaying aspect after a bout of shelling by the Venetian artillery in 1687. But since it suited the popular imagination to think of the building as crumbling away, unused, through the millennia, that was how the early photographers represented it. In a sense, our modern idea of the landscape in which such monuments stand was shaped during and by the 19th-century boom in archaeology – even the buildings that had grown up on the Acropolis were demolished, to make the site “more accurate”. Those troublesome dwellings were, to the archaeologists’ eyes, no different to the sands that enveloped the Sphinx from the neck down; the view was tidied up to suit the photographic image.

The antique quality of early photography lends itself well to depicting the sun-bleached desert of Karnak, or the mouldering remains of Rome. Nothing evokes immense age better than a sepia-toned print, after all. Well… nothing, that is, except a daguerreotype. In this book, it is the work of the succinctly monikered French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey that, more than any other, conjures up a sense of vanished civilisations. His silvery-blue plates, covered with flecks and imperfections that resemble floating detritus, have a submarine otherworldliness about them – you feel as if you are in a diving bell, peering through the murky depths at the ruins of sunken Atlantis.

First published in World of Interiors issue 278. Reproduced with permission.

Antiquity and Photography: Early Views of Ancient Mediterranean Sites

by Claire L Lyons et al  (Thames & Hudson)

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